The Dark Knight descended on the box office this past weekend breaking records by amassing more than $155 million and doing more than its fair share to reinvigorate a decidedly mediocre offering of summer movies. Director Christopher Nolan created a more than worthy sequel to Batman Begins, continuing the saga of Batman, the reluctant tragic hero. Evil never looked so glamorous in large part due to a hauntingly beautiful Chicago, luminescent and eerie, ably appropriating the crime besieged Gotham City.
Christian Bale’s Batman is a far departure from the campy 60s television series and even other more indecisive portrayals of Batman throughout previous attempts on film. Here Batman is a tormented soul, torn between his two identities as crime fighter and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, not quite willing to relinquish the privileges and the pathos connected to either personality. The ensemble cast surrounding him is the ultimate dream team: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman all return to reprise their roles. Newcomers include Aaron Eckhart, as the golden-boy District Attorney Harvey Dent/horrifyingly disfigured vigilante criminal Two-Face, and Maggie Gyllenhaal ups the ante by filling in for Katie Holmes as assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes.
Heath Ledger breaks from the pack and is in a category all his own as the ultimate criminal, The Joker. Nothing is scarier than a clown and while that is a personal belief/tangent of my own not worth exploring for the purpose of this review, it is amazing how Ledger disappears beneath the smears of face makeup to emerge as a true thing of evil. He makes the Joker all his own and goes so far beyond the snappy one-liners and fiendishly evil laughs associated with the character. Ledger himself described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.”
In this performance, Ledger embodied those characteristics as he plays a criminal with a moral compass wildly spinning out of control. Hopelessly unbalanced, The Joker is seeking neither money nor power — but instead the satisfaction of placing characters in psychological and moral dilemmas that test their courage, heart and very survival. Heath Ledger’s tragic, untimely death in 2008 only enhances the eerie quality of his portrayal.
The movie clocked in at two hours and 30 minutes — and it is amazing how the time, literally, flew by in the fast pace of the movie. Many of the more violent elements of the movie involving the Joker are blink-and-you miss it moments including the opening bank heist sequence, an interrupted funeral service, and a “pencil trick” that doesn’t have an encore. But at the same time, this is not family fun or for the faint of heart. Although the movie’s merits do not solely rest on the elaborate action sequences, they are interwoven nicely throughout, pumping adrenaline into the very heart of the film. Most breathtaking of all involves a chase sequence between Batman on his motorcycle, “The Batpod”, and the Joker in an 18 wheeler circus truck speeding dizzyingly on Lower Wacker Dr. in Chicago.
The clichés of a “superhero” movie, however enjoyable they may be to watch, are not present; somehow this film aspires and becomes something far greater. It centers on humanity’s constant battle between good and evil, and the necessary struggles and sacrifices that must be made in the pursuit of that noble quest. While ultimate redemption should be the fitting reward, the movie doesn’t cheat itself and offer easy answers, poising itself instead for another installment — and yet another exploration.
The choice we are faced with is to “die as the hero or live long enough to be the villain.” Although this quote is the movie’s central theme and can apply to the moral dilemmas of more than one character, it is the fitting paradox to encapsulate Heath Ledger. His death at 28 years old cut his life, full of promise and unfulfilled potential, tragically short and yet his legacy will always be his last performance as a villain that escapes caricature and becomes a force of true evil. His performance alone makes the film a worthwhile outing. The Dark Knight emerges on the horizon like the sun and in a summer of discontent and disappointment at the box office, it is a welcome relief.
The Dark Knight is playing in every theatre in Champaign-Urbana
Runtime: 2h 30min — Rated PG-13 — Action/Adventure