“The Dark Knight”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

| July 18, 2008

Actually, it’s hard to write much of a review without giving away key plot points, so this first part will be brief (and spoilers listed below).

Truly an outstanding film. Not perfect (see the spoilers section), but every bit as tense, intelligent, and morally complex as the crime dramas that regularly get Oscar nominations. Put another way: if you took Batman out of the film (but left Bruce Wayne), removed the Joker’s makeup, and toned down the injuries to a certain character — it would be considered one of those Oscar-worth crime dramas, “ripped from tomorrow’s headlines”.

Adding to that verisimilitude is that Gotham City for the first time looks just like a normal city. There’s clearly a lot of effects to make it look both bigger than and different from Chicago — but there are none of the gothic city designs that have dominated the previous five Batman films, including Christopher Nolan’s first one, “Batman Begins”.  Ditto for Batman — with Wayne Manor still under reconstruction, there’s no Batcave, just a large, low-ceiling, well-lit expansive workspace buried somewhere in Wayne Enterprises-owned property, while Wayne himself lives in a large, sparse city-center penthouse. If anything, the city and the sets look normal to the point of banality — which serves to intensify the darkness within the people themselves.

That darkness is indeed the theme of this movie, and it’s pretty unrelenting — except for one grace note (or rather two) towards the end. The acting is all solid, with excellent performances by Aaron Eckert (Harvey Dent) and Heath Ledger (the Joker) — and, yes, Ledger’s performance really is Oscar-worthy. (Quick: who so far this year would you rate over him?) The score is likewise outstanding: it doesn’t call attention to itself but it does build the mood of the movie.

Like Harvey Dent’s coin, “The Dark Knight” is the flip side of “Iron Man”. In the few spots where “Iron Man” turns dark, it’s never more than a quip away from lightening up. In the few spots where “The Dark Knight” turns light-hearted, there’s still a weariness in the humor, and it never lasts long.

Highly recommended; spoilers after the jump

SERIOUS SPOILERS HERE, FOLKS — DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

At one point, the Joker says that — for him, at least — there are no rules, and he proves it in this movie. He says that people will die until Batman reveals his identity, and then he keeps that promise, killing several key people (a judge, the Police Commissioner) and attempting to kill others (the Mayor). Even Gordon gets caught in the crossfire.

The Joker, while in custody no less, sets up a situation where Batman has to choose whether to race to save Harvey Dent (the DA) or Rachel Dawes (Dent’s current love — and the woman Bruce Wayne wants to be with when he sets down his cowl). Batman races to save Rachel — and find that the Joker has directed him to Dent instead. Rachel is killed, while Dent is saved — but horribly burned on one side of his face. (The effects are gruesome enough that when Dent first revealed the burned and raw side of his face, a number of people in our sold-out theater — young girls by the sound of it — actually screamed out loud.)

In the meantime, the Joker escapes from custody by triggering a bomb surgically implanted in one of his own henchmen (also in custody) and sets in motion several more threats (and deaths). He also visits Dent in the hospital and pushes Dent — the white knight DA — into becoming Two-Face. Dent leaves the hospital and begans seeking his own vengance among the crooked cops who delivered him and Rachel into the Joker’s hands. He also kidnaps (now-Commissioner) Gordon’s family, to make him pay for having these corrupt cops in his squad in the first place.

In the meantime, the Joker sabotages two ferries being used to evacuate the city, stranding them in mid-harbor. One ferry is packed with criminals in custody, the other with regular citizens. Both ferries are rigged to explode — and each ferry has the detonator to trigger the other. The Joker gives them until midnight (about 15 minutes away); if one ferry has not detonated the other, he says he will detonate them both.

For me, the emotional climax of the film is when one of the convicts on the ferry (who appears to be an uncredited Michael Clarke Duncan, looking cold and mean) talks the prison guard supervisor into handing over the detonator, saying (in so many words), “You’ve never killed a man before. I understand why you can’t do this. I have. I know how to kill someone. Give the detonator to me, and I’ll do what you should have done ten minutes ago.” The supervisor lets Duncan take the detonator — and Duncan tosses it out the porthole into the bay. (At this point in the film, I turned to my sweet wife Sandra and whispered, “The red-black game.” She smiled and nodded. Go look it up.) In the meantime, the good citizens on the other boat have voted to blow up the other ferry, by roughly a 2-to-1 margin. One of the passengers, frustrated with the delay in implementing the vote, takes the detonator — and then can’t go through with it. He sits back down, waiting to die with everyone else.

Midnight comes — and nothing happens.

That’s because at this point, Batman and the Joker are fighting, and the Joker can’t trigger the detonation himself. That fight was actually the most disappointing part of the firm; Batman has just taken on an entire SWAT team, and yet the Joker gets the best of him using three Rottweilers, a net, and a metal rod of some kind. One could argue that Batman is exhausted at this point, but it just doesn’t quite ring true.

Batman eventually turns the tables on the Joker, leaves him dangling for the SWAT team to find, then goes to help out Gordon. He ends up getting shot himself but kills Dent in the process. (I must confess that I found myself thinking, “One good right hook and Dent’s jaw would come clean off –and his left eye might fall out, to boot.”)

The movie ends with Batman on the run from the law, being blamed publicly (at his own insistence to Gordon) for much of the mayhem in order to cover for Dent’s fall from grace.

The tragedy of Heath Ledger’s untimely death is only compounded by the outstanding quality of his performance and the fact that at film’s end the Joker is still alive and Two-Face is dead.  It’s unclear what they’ll do for the third movie, but if the quality keeps up, it will be something to behold.  ..bruce..

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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (1)

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  1. csddavies says:

    Wow, I’m gonna have to strongly disagree with you on this. I didn’t like the movie much at all. Check out my review at:

    http://www.fookabloo.com/?p=212