After the modest critical and financial success with “The Prestige,” Nolan returned to the Batman franchise and released a movie that riskily omitted the name of the Caped Crusader – “The Dark Knight.”
Two years later, how do you review Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight?” What hasn’t been said? There’s no one left to convince to see the movie; if anyone hasn’t seen it, they aren’t worth the effort.
After watching and rewatching Nolan’s films prior to this, it only made me realize more that “The Dark Knight” is a perfect realization of all the themes he loves to explore. It’s about the extent of rules and limits, something he touched on in both “Following” and “The Prestige.” It’s about the blurriness of morality, a theme he examined in “Memento” and “Insomnia.” It’s about fear and what it can drive us to do and become, something that we saw a lot of in “Batman Begins.”
But there’s plenty unique to “The Dark Knight.” It’s a rumination on terrorism as the anarchistic Joker seeks to cause madness in the streets of Gotham. Batman, the only person with any hope of stopping him, has to consider how far he is willing to go to eliminate the Joker before he himself becomes the villain. As their fight escalates, Bruce Wayne becomes more and more uncertain that he is the hero in his own story. Some have read into this undertones of George W. Bush waging war on terrorism against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. That’s a rather extreme way to look at it, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this storyline did tap into the zeitgeist. We ourselves have wondered where to draw the line in our fight on terrorism as to aggression. How much counter-aggression does it take before we ourselves become the aggressors?
Of course, you can’t discuss the movie without heaping superlative after superlative on Heath Ledger’s The Joker. It’s a role that deserves to take its place among the most iconic characters in cinematic history, something Ledger’s unfortunate passing sealed. His complete immersion and stunning transformation overshadowed pretty much every other performance in the movie, which says a lot because there were some other fantastic turns. Forget the deep, raspy Batman voice and Christian Bale is flawless, delivering a subtle portrait of Bruce Wayne’s affliction and inner torment. Aaron Eckhart is compelling as Harvey Dent and Two-Face, as good at being the hero with a face as he is at being the villain with half a face. There’s solid foundational performances from veterans Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, but the movie’s true unsung hero is Gary Oldman. As the only truly noble man in the movie, he’s a figure to be admired and respected, and there’s a good chance you won’t even notice it. But that doesn’t stop Oldman from putting any less sensitivity or emotion into it, nor does he try to overdo anything to make himself stand out more.
Still, it wasn’t Heath Ledger alone that drove the movie to extreme critical acclaim and some of the most enormous box office receipts in history. Nor was it the look of the film – which, by the way, was spectacular, particularly Wally Pfister’s breathtaking cinematography. It was Nolan’s script, full of intelligence and insight, that won audiences over. Such intellect was so unconventional for a movie of the genre, and we had generally allowed ourselves to think that action movies don’t require us to engage our brains. Yet Nolan challenged our assumption and delivered a movie that successfully blended smarts with action, and we loved the exciting and refreshing change of pace. Now, we want every action movie to be more like “The Dark Knight.”
So call it a masterpiece. Call it the most thematically rich and relevant movie in recent memory. Call it the first shot in a revolution for the comic book, superhero, and action genres. Call it the movie to define a decade not just of moviegoing but also of American life.