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Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Dark Knight

As superhero movie characters go, Batman has one big problem: he beats up muggers. He does more than that, of course, but at a time when blockbuster movies are expected to feature huge amounts of jaw-dropping CGI, there's only so much you can do with a man who dresses up in a bat costume and punches out criminals. What makes The Dark Knight so good – and it's easily the best blockbuster of 2008 to date, leaving everything else fighting for second place - is that director / co-writer Christopher Nolan (back after directing Batman Begins) knows that Batman can't compete on a spectacle level with guys who can fly or turn into big green monsters, and so doesn't even try. Where Batman can compete, and where The Dark Knight triumphs so spectacularly, is on a human level. So what we get is a 150-odd minute character-based crime drama where one of the main players dresses like a bat, another is an amoral clown who likes to blow things up, and the other two are just regular guys trying to do their jobs. Not that you don’t get loads of action here too: there's at least one really good car chase, Batman gets in plenty of fist-swinging fights, and explosions are pretty much Gotham City's big tourism drawcard. But the story keeps things for the most part at a human level where characters we like strive against evil and from there it simply cranks up the tension: other superhero movies might put the world at risk but here the Joker will simply kill you dead for no good reason. That's a whole lot creepier, especially as time and time again he's successful in carrying out his murderous threats until eventually this becomes a film where you honestly don't know what's going to happen next… but it's probably going to be something bad. If that wasn't enough to keep you watching (and the plotting here is a huge improvement over the occasionally shaky Batman Begins), there are four top-notch actors in the central roles. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman might still need to work a little on the gruff Batman voice but otherwise he's rock solid as the playboy by day, crime fighter by night who this time around is starting to hope his day is done. Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon is put to much better use second time around as a cop trying to hold things together and Heath Ledger is extremely good (in a very well-constructed role) as the chaos-loving Joker. Gotham's new DA Harvey Dent is in many ways the film's heart and soul, the one good man in a rotten city, and Aaron Eckhart is totally convincing in the role. The Dark Knight is a big, sprawling film, and occasionally a subplot clunks or a scene feels a little surplus to requirements. But that's part of its charm: it's a truly epic saga, and without such a grand scope the stakes wouldn't seem nearly so high.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)