Since 1989, there have been six Batman films: Two starring Michael Keaton, one with Val Kilmer, one with George Clooney, and now two with Christian Bale. In these films, Batman has fought a line-up of villains that includes, we’ll go order: the Joker (Jack Nicholson), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), the Riddler (Jim Carrey), Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), and Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). In his latest venture, “The Dark Knight,” Batman comes full circle again tackling the Joker (Heath Ledger). (Scarecrow makes a 10-second early cameo, and Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) is again featured, but more on that later.)
Why is the Joker back in action? Because of all of Batman’s arch rivals, Joker is the most intriguing but also the most repellent. Not that you would have known that by watching the 1960s TV series, Cesar Romero played the role, or even by viewing Tim Burton’s 1989 film, in which Nicholson essentially played himself only this time wearing a lot of clown makeup and green hair. No, we had to wait until “Dark Knight” to see how truly awesome this character really is.
“The Dark Knight” begins with a group of clown-mask wearing criminals holding up a bank. The man behind the robbery is none other than the Joker. But this isn’t just anybody’s money, he’s taking – it belongs to Gotham’s notoriously dangerous underworld. Is the Joker overconfident or is he just insane? You might say he’s both and neither, because he doesn’t really care about the money. (And in one scene, he sets fire to it.) He’s all about chaos and anarchy. This isn’t Nicholson’s cartoonish Joker – a guy who puts toxic chemicals in make-up and hair care products so he can watch them die with a stupid smile on their faces. That’s a guy who has a twisted sense of humor. No, Ledger’s Joker is infinitely more unsettling, because he has no plan. He is, as he says, like a dog who likes to chase cars but wouldn’t know what to do should he catch one. He likes chaos for the sake of chaos.
The reason critics have called this new Joker “disturbing” is because he’s eerily similar to terrorists who send anthrax through the mail and blow up random buildings. Because they don’t care about anything, they can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. And how do you fight someone like that? I’ve never been all that impressed with Ledger as an actor, and didn’t believe the pre-screening hype. Mea culpa, is all I can say. He’s almost unrecognizable beneath the stringy, oily hair; the scarred mouth, the crazy eyes, and the strange voice. It’s an amazing transformation. My biggest complaint about “Batman” was that the Joker (and Prince’s soundtrack) hogged the spotlight.
Now I’ll say the opposite of “The Dark Knight.” The Joker isn’t given enough screen time. I saw the film at an advanced screening, in IMAX, and even though the theater was sweltering hot not one person seemed to care. The minute the Joker appeared, the audience went wild. They laughed; hooted, hollered … it was mania at a rock star level. The Joker really is the highlight of the film, and based on his presence alone, I’d rate the film 10 out of 10. Will this be Ledger’s posthumous Oscar? Could very well be.
But wait, you say, isn’t this a Batman flick? Yes, it is, but as is often the case, the caped crusader is overshadowed by his villain. Sadly, I’ll remember his gadgets more than I will Batman. This is no fault of Bale’s. He’s a dynamic actor. He just doesn’t get much meat to chew. He does, however, have, as I said, some awesome vehicles. New is a fat-tired Batbike that can somehow spin in the center. Yes, it made me shout, “Whoa.” The armored Batpod is here, too. Very cool. Because Batman has to fend off attack dogs in the beginning and because he wants to be able to turn his head, he gets a suit upgrade, courtesy of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
The final cinematic character of any consequence is Harvey Dent, who only becomes the horribly disfigured Two-Face at the end. He is Gotham’s new district attorney and the new squeeze of Rachel Dawes (previously played by Katie Holmes, now very thankfully played by a more mature and infinitely more talented Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dent vows to take on the bad guys even when his own life is threatened. At first Bruce Wayne doesn’t trust him, but he is eventually won over when Dent proves he’s more than a slick-talking politician. Wayne truly believes that with Dent around, soon Gotham will no longer need Batman, which means he can go back to a normal life. Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dent and Batman double their forces, and really begin making progress in cleaning up Gotham. But the Joker is that wild card they didn’t expect. If he has his way, he will start the fire and then watch, laughing the entire time, the world burn. Eckhart brings warmth and humanity to the film, which makes his transformation at the end prove to be all the more tragic.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan has been a tremendous gift to the Batman franchise. He gives fans the action sequences they crave, but he doesn’t “dumb” his films down. For instance, “Dark Knight” deals with corruption in government and in the police force. It also asks difficult questions, such as what makes a hero? What separates him from a vigilante? What is justice? I’ve always loved Batman because he’s darker than most superheroes. In short, he has issues. And thankfully, Nolan has given us a really dark film. What I enjoy most about this script – he shares duties with his brother Jonathan and again, has some help with his story by David S. Goyer – is that nothing is black and white. And that’s life.
“The Dark Knight” isn’t a “perfect film.” At 152 minutes, it is a tad long – 20 minutes probably could have been excised without losing much – and we needed more Joker. However, it is one of the best superhero films in recent memory. And the box office proves it. As one news report said, the film took $66 million on its opening day, which means it beat last year’s champion “Spider-Man 3” by nearly $7 million. It will undoubtedly continue to smash records this weekend. Why? It is a very strong film. But let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there who want to see Ledger’s “final” performance. (It isn’t, of course. He died while filming Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which is due next year. I’m betting that one will also “smash” records.) Even if you are driven to see the film out of morbid curiosity, I think you’ll come away delighted and a bit disturbed.
What more could you want?
Christopher Nolan (director) / Christopher Nolan(screenplay)
CAST: Christian Bale … Bruce Wayne / Batman
Heath Ledger … The Joker
Aaron Eckhart … Harvey Dent / Two-Face
Michael Caine … Alfred Pennyworth
Maggie Gyllenhaal … Rachel Dawes
Gary Oldman … Lt. James Gordon
Morgan Freeman … Lucius Fox
Monique Curnen … Det. Ramirez
Nestor Carbonell … Mayor