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Sunday Slugfest: The Dark Knight

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David Goyer
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Joey Davidson: 5 Bullets
Shawn Hill: 2 Bullets
Erik Norris: 5 Bullets
Kevin Powers: 4.5 Bullets

Joey Davidson 5 Bullets

It's funny how much the crowd in a theater affects the reception of the film. Really. A truly terrifying horror film can be turned into a Naked Gun-esque comedy if just one person starts to laugh at nearly every brutal scene. A perfectly good night at the movies turns into hours of persistent headshaking and face-palming. One cannot sigh at a volume high enough to say "shut up" to those who find the slaughter of innocents amusing. The Dark Knight nearly fell victim to the same type of fate in my showing. I say "nearly" because a movie like this is way too strong to fall to such a group of onlookers.

Allow me to share my pain. See, I went to a midnight showing (that same showing attended by Erik Norris, another contributor to this Slugfest) and it was absolutely packed. We toyed with the possibility that the auditorium may be filled with the people that make movies suck, but dismissed it citing that these were "Batman fans," and that they'd never do something like that. We were wrong, of course, and as soon as the movie opened up to a round of thunderous applause, we knew that we were probably going to be in for a night of incredible frustration. What is it with those people who choose to greet character entrances with hoots and hollers? It's a film. The visuals on the screen are fake, and beyond their lack of physical presence they'll never know that you clapped for them that night in the auditorium. You must then be clapping to show everyone else in the room that you like the people doing their jobs on screen. Well, jerk, obviously you like what you came to see or else you wouldn't be seeing it at midnight on the same day of its release. You wouldn't have purchased your ticket something like a week in advance in order to run into the theater and not enjoy yourself.

See, it was those same people who took Heath Ledger's disturbing version of the Joker and made it laughable. That's right. A group of watchers took time out to laugh, loudly, at every single Joker scene. I didn't go to see the dark knight for Nolan, Bale, Freeman or anyone other than Ledger. The Joker is my favorite villain. I find him demented, and I can't get enough of his personality. It's like Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs; everyone I know loved every moment that they were disturbed by his character. I wanted that same feeling from Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. But see, that level of disturbance that seemed to be oozing from the Joker with every trailer and teaser was completely knocked down to a level of laughable sickness.

Alright, enough of that. The crowd sucked. I should have listened to my first notions of the presence of jerks, but I didn't. Perhaps now I should get down to talking about The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight is probably one of the most entertaining experiences I've ever had at the movies. Checking in at around two and a half hours, never once was I troubled with its pacing. When I looked down at my watch, I was glad when over an hour remained in the film. When the movie ended, I was able to sit through the credits with a sense of reward. There's no special clip at the end of the credits, by the way, so those tempted to stay in their seats to find out have been warned.

Bale does a wonderful job with both the Bats and Mr. Wayne. In fact, I'd like to say that his Bruce Wayne is much more believable than his Batman. When on the screen as Wayne, Bale exudes the troubled-playboy nature perfectly. Those familiar with the character will notice moments of Batman forcing through Wayne, and that's when Bale is most convincing in this role with two personalities.

Caine is still a wonderful Alfred. And Freeman does just as well as he did in Begins. Gyllenhaal is certainly the weakest link, but her moments on camera are nearly always filled with suspense, so her presence is something that can be just as easily swept under the rug. She isn't bad by any means, but the company that surrounds her is just on an entirely different level. She is, of course, a few steps above Katie Holmes.

Eckhart, as Harvey Dent, is simply amazing. He has only one weak moment, and it comes when he consults the coin. "Heads you live, Tails you die…" or something like that is spoken with Eckhart's awkward rasp, and it falls flat. The moment reeks of cheese, and it marked the only point when I actually cringed over dialogue in the entire film. Other than that, as both Dent and Two-Face, Eckhart was great.

As far as plot goes, I'm sure everyone in this Slugfest will probably be better suited to dismantle it. I would like to tease out one of my favorite Batman dynamics that Nolan developed in his film. Batman has always been, and should always be, troubled by the possibility that he is the root of evil in Gotham. The idea that the crazies would never flood Gotham if there were no Batman to face them is something that should always plague Wayne's conscience. Batman should even think that without his presence, there may be no death or pain. Batman struggles with this throughout the film, and aside from the relationship between the Joker and Batman, Wayne's internal turmoil is my favorite part of the film.

Leaving the actors and the plot with exceptional reception, there is one last thing that I'd like to address here with this review. Some have said that The Dark Knight is more of a crime film than a comic movie. I've heard it compared to the likes of The Departed. I'd disagree. This movie is more like a comic book than any other comic book film before it. The story feels like a six issue arc that one would be able to find nearly anywhere in the Batman universe. Batman is stacked up against all kinds of odds that would develop nicely in any one of his stories. The movie is dark like a Batman book, and its narrative feels less and less like a crime film whenever a costumed hero or villain is on screen.

Sure, there are plot points that stink of a crime film, like money laundering or assassination attempts, but the core motion of the movie is very comic like. The tone in the film feels dark and foreboding like the "Face the Face" arc in Detective Comics from a couple of years ago. This, of course, only aligns the movie more closely with a comic than a crime film.

But these are only the opinions of one person, obviously. I had a thrill with The Dark Knight and recommend it to everyone. You'll get some extra thrills if you are a Batman fan, but even those who hate comics will feel welcome in the theater throughout the length of the film. This is one of the year's best, and if you go to any movie this summer at all, let it be The Dark Knight. If this is any indication, I never head out to see films more than once during their stay in theaters; I plan on doing just that in a few weeks with The Dark Knight. Let's hope those jerks who applaud movies aren't there.

Shawn Hill 2 Bullets

This film is relentless. Both within the story and from the audience perspective. Things start badly for the citizens of Gotham, in a merciless and chaotic bank robbery attempt, and they go only lower from there. Ultimately, ordinary citizens and shackled convicts end up on modes of public transportation with detonators in their hands, faced with impossible moral choices.

Choices are what the Joker is interested in; he expects the worst at all times, and he wants everyone else to get on board with his nihilism. As he explains so happily to his foe, he's almost an inevitable result of Batman. "You complete me," he giggles, and the joke is in hearing those words from a romance movie in this type of movie…

Which is more like Saw than it was like Batman Begins for this viewer. Torture porn. If the Joker is all that Batman's war on crime in Gotham has called up, then things truly are hopeless. Or as the Joker says, whenever someone surprises him by doing good "they just haven't been broken yet."

At this point everyone has their own best Batman. He's had 60-some years to evolve. Morrison is currently writing every version at once, in layers, in the title comic, and having fun doing it. His anemic, ill, mad and loony Joker is a lot like Ledger's. Nolan opens up the screen to Ledger's creative, playful, wacky and totally entertaining performance, and the whole movie falls into it. As Joker, he offers a different version of his scarred origin story to each of his victims, and they're all plausibly twisted poems of pain. There's a giddy scene where he walks, giggling, in a nurse's dress, out of a hospital, pesky malfunctioning detonator (the FX budget is entirely explosions in this film. And a bat-cycle. And then more explosions) in his hand. Ledger milks these surreal moments for everything they might possibly offer.

But unfortunately, he's not the only villain in the movie. And none of the rest of them seems to realize he should be. When you see Joker, you don't stand up to him. You don't dare him. And you most definitely don't insult him. You run and hide. Plain and simple, there's nothing else to do, short of being Batman yourself. There's no tension in the scenes where Joker reacts to his victims; it's a predator playing with his already dead food. And that's just sick.

Gyllenhaal gives a more soulful, warmer reading of Rachel Dawes than the previous actress, important to this film as she is the one gleaming light of hope in two men's shadowed eyes. Gary Oldman is excellent as the always compassionate Chief Gordon. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine execute their supporting roles with their usual meticulous craft.

But Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent had me longing for the Tommie Lee Jones version. When I wasn't reflecting on the meta-textual fact that Heath Ledger has flirted with both Gyllenhaal siblings on screen at this point, I was squirming in my seat and looking at my watch by the beginning of Dent's demise. At least Tommie Lee's Two-Face could smile (hard not to with Jim Carrey preening around in a green leotard I suppose).

Dent is caught in an impossible role as Gotham's "White Knight." Everyone (Batman included) sings his praises while his inevitable fall is glaringly evident in every frame. Maybe there just isn't a way to do his character on film: what makes sense on the comics' page sometimes looks ridiculous on screen, and yet what this movie lacks most of all is a sense of humor.

It also lacks Gotham. The grim urban environment, full of ports and ferries, is absent the Wayne Industries imprint and all of those elegant elevated trains from the last film. The art direction must have been very simple: gray, and Joker's lipstick. All of the interchangeable mobsters are just clones of Tom Wilkinson's criminal from the last film. With Wayne manor burned down, Bruce has nothing but faceless lofts in deep sub-basements or high above ground to brood in between battles. A brief visit to China makes little difference, because he just flies from high-rise to high-rise as he would in Gotham when he gets there. Any sense of international exoticism is eaten up by Gotham's infinite grim blank panes of glass. As is Bale's performance, a role without quirks, save for silly visual and vocal effects. He doesn't know it at all, but his Batman screams out for Robin at this point.

I've realized at least who my Batman is. He was last seen in a much more interesting city, flirting with Michelle Pfeiffer. And he needs more of a life than that provided by Alfred. Or Rachel. He needs a sense of the absurd, bubbling somewhere on the screen. Not just the absurdly deadly. Gotham needs to look like a place worth saving. It may even need to be a city where saving an orphan whose aerialist parents were murdered could give a dark knight a reason to live.

Erik Norris: 5 Bullets

What did you expect? The Dark Knight is the shining example of what a comic book movie can be. It is the film that raises the bar to a staggering high level for every following movie to match. Every nuance of The Dark Knight just melds perfectly to create the ultimate Batman picture and by far the best superhero movie of all time.

Just like Batman Begins succeeded in encapsulating the essence of the Batman character, The Dark Knight perfectly portrays a number of other characters in the Batman universe, the first being the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger, who was probably the main reason for 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. showings. The hype surrounding his performance has been legendary, and he really doesn't disappoint. At no point over the course of the two hours and thirty minutes did I go, "Hey, that's Heath Ledger in clown makeup." He embodied the character so completely that I was enthralled the whole time. It was just a pleasure to watch every mannerism that Ledger used for the character; stealing the show whenever he was on screen. Ledger's Joker was completely insane in the best way possible. I truthfully wish DC Comics would use this interpretation in their books. However, just a word of warning, if you go on opening weekend you might run into a crowd like we did at midnight. A crowd that cheers and yelps at every sadistic thing the Joker does. They just didn't understand the irony that the one character dressed as a clown was the least funny of the lot. It just killed a lot of the tension and creepiness to a number of scenes when you have a bunch of hyena-banshees behind you laughing their asses off when Joker says he plans to blow up a hospital. Consider yourself warned.

Then there's Aaron Eckhart who plays District Attorney Harvey Dent perfectly as a cool individual who is not afraid to hide behind a façade to show what he believes. And while Eckhart's performance wasn’t nearly as flamboyant as Ledger's Joker, he did an excellent job revealing the layers of Dent's character over the course of the film without jamming it down the throats of audiences that he would be turning into Two-Face. By the time you see Harvey start to lose control, everything leading up to that point makes sense and it doesn't seem like a sudden, out-of-nowhere, character development. Aaron Eckhart was probably the biggest toss-up in performance quality going into the movie, but truthfully I came out most impressed by him out of the entire cast.

The final character that gets a hefty amount of development is Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman. Due mostly to his relationship with Harvey Dent, Oldman really gets to show his legs and reveal what makes Jim Gordon's mind work and why he goes about law enforcement like he does. I also liked the way Gordon's family was incorporated into the film, adding a lot of emotional weight to a number of sequences in the film.

But the movie is called The Dark Knight, so where is Batman through all of this? Well truth is Batman doesn't get a lot of development in this movie. His drive was shown extensively throughout Batman Begins and what The Dark Knight does to further the character is focus on Batman's influence. Where Batman Begins develops Bruce Wayne/Batman, The Dark Knight is all about his city, which means the film takes a completely different route in showing what makes Batman so important to the scheme of things.

I also want to comment on how a lot of people have called The Dark Knight a crime film and not a superhero flick. I completely disagree with these assessments, as you probably could tell from my introductory paragraph. I have to wonder why certain viewers label The Dark Knight as a crime film. Is it because the mob plays an integral role in the plot? Or the lack of trust for the boys in blue? Well besides those two elements, The Dark Knight couldn't be anymore different than stereotypical crime films. Batman's use of gadgets and overall god-like fighting talent really separate it from the grounded gun battles of standard crime dramas. But don't get me wrong, The Dark Knight continues Christopher Nolan's real world Batman vision while still delivering fun bombastic action sequences. That said, The Dark Knight is the most nontraditional superhero film, but one none the less.

There wasn't a single element of The Dark Knight that disappointed me. Topping my previous favorite superhero flick, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight gave me the ultimate celluloid Batman experience. So much so that I want its elements to bleed into other Batman media, namely the comics, ASAP. I might be crazy for saying that because a lot of comic fans usually want separation between their books and films, but the captured essence of the characters in The Dark Knight was so perfect and quintessential that I can't help but want this every single month instead of once every three years. So rush out to see The Dark Knight. I guarantee you will be leaving with a smile on that face of yours.

Kevin Powers: 4.5 Bullets

Arguably, the most anticipated movie of the summer, The Dark Knight hit theaters this past weekend to much critical acclaim and massive box office numbers. The film has already set a few records, and while next weekend will be the true test for the film's staying power, it is definitely one of the biggest movies of the decade. Personally, I've talked to many people--both of the comic persuasion and not--about this film to gauge opinions and compare them to my own. The Dark Knight is a fantastic film. It's dark, edgy, gritty and realistic. I think that comparisons to Heat and Chinatown are appropriate. There are even parallels to The Departed in terms of police corruption. The Dark Knight is a fantastic film, a great story, a memorable crime epic, but it is not the greatest comic book movie ever. Comparing it to Nolan's first Batman film, which I absolutely love, I think The Dark Knight does indeed move beyond the origin story and get into some form of classic Batman.

I suppose the easiest way to break this down is to tell you what I loved and then go into a little more detail about a few aspects of the film.

I love the beginning of the movie, first with the bank robbery and then the re-introduction of Batman. The fact that Batman actually has a legitimate reason to change the suit and the fact that he's still chasing down the Scarecrow made this film feel like a genuine sequel. I absolutely love the level of realism that Nolan and company bring to Gotham City. There are aspects of the classic a true Batman that work very well in the film. The detective work Batman does, the way he hurts but doesn't kill criminals and even the way he wants to escape being Batman in hopes of a normal life. I think all of this worked exceptionally well and in turn added an extra layer of depth to Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox and Michael Caine's Alfred. In fact, I love the fact that the filmmakers acknowledge Alfred's history with the British SAS; I kind of felt that did true justice to a character who is often misunderstood as a mere manservant. Now before I go off on too much of tangent, I'll just say I really loved The Dark Knight as a film. While it has a few major flaws, it's an epic story that is indeed "Best Picture" caliber. However, I do not think it is as good as everyone makes it out to be. It's also an extremely difficult film to enjoy because of its dark and overall depressing story.

One thing I feel that I am always coming back to when discussing the film is that The Dark Knight is not really a comic book movie in the traditional sense. This is both good and bad, but for the most part, The Dark Knight is a gritty crime drama that focuses on the crusade of not just Batman, but District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant/Commissioner James Gordon as well. I admire director Christopher Nolan's initiative in moving away from an actual comic book inspired story and telling a gritty, dark and borderline sadistic crime drama about what could possibly be the worst place in the world. At the same time, the Joker, Batman and Gordon are supporting players to the story of Harvey Dent.

I’m found myself comparing Harvey Two-Face to Eddie Brock from Spider-Man 3. While the character was fantastic and we root for Harvey the entire movie, the villain side (i.e. Two-Face) was a bit rushed. Granted, there is an additional half hour already cut out of this film by the time it was Two-Face's time to shine, but I didn't really care since the film had already concluded on a few occasions. But it was a fantastic story about the rise and the fall of Harvey Dent and the way that he first takes the fall for Batman, and then Batman takes the fall for Harvey, but I felt that they could have left this film at a cliffhanger in terms of Harvey. I love the fact that he only goes after criminals and that he always finds another reason to flip that coin, but at the same time, I just wish there was more. While it is ambiguous whether or not Harvey is dead at the end of the film, I just feel that the Two-Face aspect was a bit rushed.

With Two-Face in mind I can mention Rachel Dawes. Maggie Gyllenhall gave a much more passionate performance than Katie Holmes. But I also felt that Rachel becomes just a random casualty in the epic struggle to clean up Gotham City. At first you do feel a bit of sadness when Rachel doesn't survive, but the story continues so quickly that she is soon forgotten and used only as a plot device for Harvey Two-Face. Even her effect on Batman is brief as she doesn't exactly serve as his catalyst to continue his crusade; the existence of Batman is based more out necessity.

Heath Ledger's performance was every bit as amazing as the hype suggested it to be. His interpretation of the Joker is fantastic, the best I've ever seen, a maniac obsessed with chaos and the testing of people's morals in bizarre situations. He nails every aspect of the character, the humor, the insane joy of causing panic and destruction and the fact that the Joker isn't doing it for the money. I love that there's no back-story to the character, only the disturbing stories he tells about the smile on his face. There's a scene when the Joker burns "his half" of the mob's money and it's quite possibly the greatest Joker moment ever; "It's not about money, it's about making a point" he declares. That scene is not only true to the film's interpretation but the overall theme of the Joker throughout history. The Joker in this film literally eats Jack Nicholson for breakfast. Just about every death has some kind of weight to it and it's the Joker that makes it personal. He exists because Batman exists. Their bond is unbreakable and throughout the entire film the Joker is pushing Batman to his limits, testing his morals, trying to cause chaos in a world of order. Heath Ledger is barely recognizable in this move and just nails the Joker perfectly. One of the greatest film villains of all time, my favorite scene of this movie is when he blows up Gotham Hospital; it was absolutely hysterical and chilling at the same time. I also loved the innuendo to the 1989 film during Batman and Joker's final battle. Ledger's performance is frightening, insane and so real that you really do fear him the entire film. While it is horribly sad that we will not see Ledger as the Joker again, I hope they honor him by re-casting the role and having someone essentially copycat an amazing performance.

Christian Bale is Batman. While he over-exaggerated the raspy voice a little too much in this film, all I can say is that he is the greatest Batman/Bruce Wayne ever, period. He is one of the greatest actors of our time, and it's truly great that he will be immortalized as Patrick Bateman and Batman.

There's heavy post-9/11 innuendo in the film, from the exhilarating quest to Hong Kong to capture a mob boss, to the Joker as a terrorist, to Dent, Gordon and Batman's quest to clean up the city and even Batman's blatant deus ex machina, the mini brother eye he uses to find the Joker. It works fairly well, and there is even a moment that would have been perfect for a Brandon Routh cameo. When Batman stands on top of a building listening to all of Gotham's cell phone usage, it would have been the perfect moment for Superman to fly in and ask Batman if he needed help. It would not have disrupted the pace of the film and it would have quickly established a relationship between the two for future endeavors.

With this in mind, I can finally mention my biggest problems with the film. The first is rather minor but is worth mentioning. Gotham City did not feel like the same place that it did in Begins. Yes, it's a testament to Batman's crusade, but the city didn't feel the same as it did in the first film. I think it may be because Ra's Al Ghul made such a big deal about Gotham's importance that in the second film the sheer problems and characters living in the city outweigh the actual scale and scope of Gotham. Another problem I had was Boss Maroni. Here was a great character and a great actor playing the role, but he was merely a plot device. I felt like there could have been more behind his character and a deeper relationship between him and Harvey like in the books. I also had a big problem with the fact that we do not see the reconstruction of Wayne Manor or the Batcave. It is mentioned, but Batman runs his operations out of a temporary base and penthouse, and I feel like just a clip of Wayne Manor being rebuilt, or Bruce and Alfred laying out plans for the Batcave would have been very prudent for this film, especially at the end.

While those arguably are nothing more than nit-picks, my biggest problem with the film came when the Joker crashes Bruce's party, looking to kill Harvey. He fights Batman and tosses Rachel out of a window, after Bruce knocks out Harvey to protect him. After the Joker tosses Rachel out of the window, Batman saves her. They share a moment and the film cuts to what seems to be hours later. The Joker is left in a room full of rich folks, and he just leaves? That one small edit really disrupted the pace of the film for me. I would have at least wanted a scene where Batman goes back to the penthouse and the Joker is gone. But there's nothing. I had a hard time swallowing the climax of that scene, and for me that is the film's weakest and most troubling spot.

Okay, now I'm going to cut myself off before this becomes another Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review. Overall, I loved The Dark Knight. It's a great film, an epic crime drama and a decent film featuring a dark and classic interpretation of Batman, as it should. Heath Ledger's performance is just as good, if not better than the hype, but I don't think the movie is as spectacular as everyone makes it out to be. I do not think that this film is better than Iron Man. To me, Iron Man is the greatest comic book film ever with this coming in second and Batman Begins in third. I think The Dark Knight, even with its flaws, is one of the best movies of the year, a fantastic drama and one of the hardest movies I’ve ever had to rate. It's dark, action-packed and while long, definitely worth a second, a third and an IMAX viewing.

(Closing Note: Did anyone else notice the hinting towards Batgirl during the final Two-Face scene?)

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