Simon Dillon reviews the film

The Dark Knight

Is The Dark Knight a great film? I don't know. It's certainly an unusually good one, but I suspect it is not the masterpiece everyone claims. As I write this I know I could well end up eating my words, because I felt the same way about Batman Begins when that was initially released. However, after repeated viewings I now consider that film to be the best Batman film, despite at the time preferring Tim Burton's twisted fairytale take on the franchise.

The plot begins in suitably explosive fashion as the Joker (Heath Ledger) stages an audacious, Heat-esque bank heist. Following this, Batman (Christian Bale) captures the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), presumably for no other reason than to tie up a loose end from the previous film. We are then reintroduced to honest cop and soon to be Commissioner, James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is working hard to put the mob behind bars. With Dent's crusade in full swing, Bruce Wayne thinks it might be time to hang up the Bat cape and move on. However, when the Joker begins to target public officials, events escalate and take a much darker turn.

With The Dark Knight, there are a number of bubbles I feel the need to, if not exactly burst, then deflate slightly. Firstly and most obviously, there is the issue of Heath Ledger's performance. Since his tragic death earlier in the year, critics have been excitedly waxing lyrical about a potential posthumous Oscar. Whilst it is true that Ledger is superb in the role and manages to surpass Jack Nicholson's take on the character (no mean feat), he is no more impressive than Christian Bale, again excellent as both Batman and playboy Bruce Wayne. Equally impressive are Gary Oldman, again brilliantly cast against type, and particularly Aaron Eckhart, who contribute a performance of infinitely greater subtlety than Ledger. Yet unlike the Joker, because they are not the showy roles the Academy loves it is unlikely any of them will be nominated. Elsewhere in the cast, there are solid supporting turns from Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who replaced Katie Holmes).

My next complaint may seem like nit-picking to most viewers, but I was once again disappointed with James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's music score. Admittedly the music works effectively enough, but they have deliberately eschewed the big epic themes that prove so memorable in great superhero movies of old, such as Superman and Tim Burton's version of Batman. The current trend towards more percussive underscores irritates me greatly, especially where it is appropriate to write big bold themes. The argument for doing this goes something like "big themes lack subtlety", but with a great composer this is actually completely untrue. Take for example John Williams' epic orchestrations of the Darth Vader march. There are many superb and infinitely subtle variations of it played throughout the Star Wars films from epic to fast, exciting, scary, sinister, melancholy and tragic. And everyone knows the theme. Ever since Erich von Korngold's magnificent music score for The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, classic adventure films have benefited greatly from recognisable themes. My four year old son instantly recognises the unforgettable music for that, Superman and many other classic adventure movies. But no-one will be humming the themes from Iron Man or The Dark Knight in twenty or thirty years.

Director Christopher Nolan abandons his trademark non-linear narratives here for the first time, and directs with considerable flair, especially in the stunning, gadget driven action sequences and some very tense moments (one in particular involving hostages on ferries). The tough, gritty feel of Batman Begins is maintained here, and ultimately the screenplay feels more like an epic crime drama than a comic book. Needless to say, the visual and sound effects are first rate, but as a whole, I feel the story is less satisfying than its predecessor, despite the presence of a proper villain this time.

Speaking of which, Ledger plays the Joker not so much as a person but as an evil force. He has no character arc, no background and no name. He doesn't fear death or pain, and seems to take a masochistic delight when on the receiving end of violence. If anything, it seems to make him stronger. Even when incarcerated, he is absolutely unstoppable, utterly psychotic and apparently without motivation. At one point he says he's like a dog chasing a car. He wouldn't know what to do with one if he caught it. The Joker could be symbolic of something like international terrorism. Indeed, much of the film can be taken as an allegory of post 9/11 America and its responses to that tragedy, including how good men can turn evil in their responses to such atrocity. Is Harvey Dent ultimately a symbol of the Bush Administration's more controversial reactions, such as the invasion of Iraq and Guantanamo bay? If so, then The Dark Knight is also a pseudo-Biblical tale, with the Joker obviously representing Satan and Batman representing if not exactly God then some kind of force for good in the battle for Harvey Dent's soul.

SPOILER WARNING: My feelings about the ending were somewhat ambivalent. One the one hand, the idea of Batman taking on Harvey Dent's sins and destroying his own reputation in the process brings a Christ-like dimension to his character. On the other hand, he is lying, and I'm always uneasy where lying for the greater good is seen as a positive moral quality. That said, overall, The Dark Knight is a very good, but flawed, comic book adventure. Perhaps I will think more favourably on it with repeated viewings, so with that in mind I do recommend seeing it. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.