What this super-interesting sequel exemplifies is a basic tenet of drama: the
hero is only as good as his antagonist. The degree of challenge that must be
overcome defines the person, the power, the conviction, you name it. Further
to the good, a script that furnishes all the necessities of what seems a
superhuman challenger is brought to vivid life by a courageous and creative
actor making our old provocateur, the Joker (previously personified by Jack
Nicholson), brim with criminal skill and lip-licking spite.
The accomplishment, though, is more than about story function. It's a feel
for what's possible, both in the sociopathic coloration of the character and
the riches possible in the craft of acting. Heath Ledger ("Casanova") sets us back on our
heels on all counts and it fills us with deep sadness that his loss denies
us future roles that might have added up to one of the glories of the movie
And, Batman? Certainly Christian Bale, who resumes the role of Bruce
Wayne/caped crusader for a second go (and contracted for one more) is
solid--he's just a little upstaged by his flashier nemesis. As these two
"humans" grapple with each other, it becomes patently clear that the writers
have provided the bad guy with the upper hand. For all of Bruce Wayne's
toys and the riches to develop them beyond state-of-the-art, The Joker
pulls off the more astounding feats, which enables him to keep up the facade
of demonic humor based on phony modesty and his incredible foresight and
ability to engineer his enemy's movements and the reduction of buildings to
rubble. If we had a guy like this in Iraq the war would be over and the
troops on their way out of there. Relishing such power, he can afford to
make fun of his targets and forewarn them of their fate, so long as it means
headlines. Among other things, he's a total narcissist.
Part of his bag of tricks depends on his control over another set of crazies,
the mob guys, led more than stupidly and always blindsidedly by boss
Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) and his band of hoodlums. Where's the
Godfather when you need him? In any event, the impossibilities of planting
bombs that bring down whole complexes of buildings, over and over again,
requiring very swift handiwork in setting explosives without being
discovered, doesn't seem so incredible while it can always be explained by
the work of the thugs over whom The Joker's got the edge.
The man's so clever, he can, by a ruse, get himself arrested just to be in
close contact with someone he wants to reach or mark for death. His
stratagems always turn out flawless in plan and execution, despite Batman,
despite the odds, despite the crime-busting District Attorney Harvey Dent
(Aaron Eckhart), despite police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) bringing out
his swat teams like they were as expendable as so many Orcs.
Which keeps Batman/Wayne's sideman/enabler/provider Alfred Pennyworth
(Michael Caine) plenty busy updating the bat costume, escalating the
batmobile weaponry and other accoutrements in offensive/defensive advantage.
It is Pennyworth's efforts that make us think Batman is more than just a very
athletic, pumped up vigilante.
The emotional back story is provided by Wayne's ex-paramour, the sultry and
sexy Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has cut off her relationship with
him because of not wanting to compete for his attention with his ever-more
demanding commitments to rid the city of crime. Instead, she has hooked up
with Dent, the stiff-chinned DA, which makes him the poster boy in the fight
against crime and, to Wayne, a rival in love.
The resulting conflict for Batman is only one of his problems but it comes
down to a decision that screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (the
latter directing) cleverly devise as yet another demonic ploy by Joker, whose
purpose in life appears to be proving humanity's crass me-me-me nature, the
thing that purportedly moves him toward murder and destruction. After
proving his disregard for money and contempt for those who think of nothing
else, he again attempts to prove his thesis about man's selfish nature by
setting up a case of self-preservation between the riders on two
explosive-laced ferries in the harbor (Gotham always looks like New York).
"The Dark Knight" is a highly elevated action movie that draws its
distinction in the dedication and peculiarities of its chief opponents.
Getting to the core of the motivations that propel the first-rate dynamics of
high speed chases, singeing bomb spectaculars and three-dimensional combat
gymnastics are scenes that try to make it worthwhile on a larger plane of
seriousness, which is why it remains so dark. The Joker's jokey banter is
sardonic and cruel. Always brutally cruel. Only Caine squeezes out a moment
or two of lightening up the proceedings.
The Nolan brothers may have taken their cue for the Joker's self-sustaining
iniquity, oddly enough, from what jihadist terrorists have taught the western
world about reasons for terrorism. Just as they present an enemy that values
life in a whole other context than the one the western world assumes, making
possible the suicide bomber in such plenitude, the Nolans give us a villain
whose purpose isn't the accrual of vast sums of money. Lest the audience has
trouble with this concept, they furnish a scene that leaves no room for
As Al Qaida and Palestinian bombers who think they're making a place for
themselves in heaven by blasting their bodies apart in the company of their
enemies, the Joker becomes singular in the simplicity and purity of his aim,
to be as bad and destructive as he can be for its own sake and, by god, the
Nolans show us with explosive joy how far it can go.
Batman's drive is not much more optimistic, as he fates himself to continue
being a fall guy. Jesus lived for our sins. Batman lives to absorb blame in
order to save the worthy, and soldier (or speedbike) on. Batman is an
exemplary figure. The burden he takes on is heavy but isn't completely
hopeless and despairing. Thematically, though, it leaves hardly any room for
a little comic relief--even in a seat-grinding two and a half hours. Sorry
to say it, but by the last act even the Joker was getting a little repetitive
and tiresome. Hans Zimmer's music, however, kept me in my seat through the
On a side note, I suspect Ledger is a slam-dunk for Best Supporting Actor
this year, at the Oscars and other
award-granting venues. Even if other performance possibilities come up to
or exceed his, the loss factor will weigh heavily on the industry
professionals who vote for these things, often with historical sentiment as
part of the selection equation. I wouldn't even be surprised if competing
actors step aside for his recognition in this category, but maybe that's too
much fantasy for one ride. We'll see.
~~ Jules Brenner