Wednesday 24 January 2018

On Second Thoughts #4... The Dark Knight (2008)

Joker's wild: Heath Ledger remains easily the best thing about The Dark Knight

Welcome to On Second Thoughts, an occasional column in which I look back at a movie I didn't much care for on first viewing and give it another chance. Most of the films I cover in these columns will be ones I haven't seen in years, so there's a good chance my opinions and feelings about them may have changed over time. Well, that's the idea, anyway...

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Please note: This article contains spoilers for The Dark Knight.

What is it? The second in Christopher Nolan's famous trilogy, sandwiched between 2005's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises from 2012. The Dark Knight is easily the most admired of the three films, voted in at #33 by critics in the BBC's best film of the 21st Century poll in 2016, and at #3 by readers of Empire last year in the magazine's greatest movies of all-time list. In 2009, the late Heath Ledger won a host of Best Supporting Actor awards including a posthumous Oscar for his blistering turn as The Joker.

What's it about? The Dark Knight is set around a year after the end of Batman Begins. Billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now well established in Gotham City as the vigilante Batman (complete with silly gruff voice) and has organised crime on the run. However, the emergence of a new threat in the guise of The Joker, a heinous, clown-faced, "agent of chaos", threatens not just the Dark Knight, but everyone dear to him, including former girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over from Katie Holmes), and Gotham's crusading district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is ultimately transformed into the monstrous Two-Face.

Why didn't I like it first time round? Batman has been pretty much ruined by the "grim and gritty" makeover he received in the 1980s, courtesy of comic-book creators Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (The Killing Joke). I doubt either creator intended it, but the character has been taken far too seriously ever since, particularly in films including, but not limited to, Nolan's. I grew up with the knowingly silly Batman TV show, while Tim Burton's pair of movies (Batman and Batman Returns) were a nice mix of new-school and old-school treatments of the character. In other words, I've never been a fan of anything comic-book, TV show or movie that takes seriously a man dressing up in a bat-suit to fight crime. As a result, I found Nolan's films rather po-faced and, in The Dark Knight's case, overlong, uneven and cluttered too.

Its saving grace is Ledger's performance as The Joker, which channels bits of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson's takes on the Clown Prince of Crime, but adds great big dollops of genuine madness, anarchy and unpredictability to the mix. The Joker is meant to make you uneasy and Ledger does every time he appears. Most modern screen villains are a bit rubbish, aren't they? Cliché-spouting dullards with all the charisma of a breeze block. Ledger's Joker is the antidote to all that and the real star of The Dark Knight, which only really comes to life whenever he's on screen. In fact, when he isn't, you're wondering what he's doing and when he'll be back. 

Fright Knight: Christian Bale reprises his role as vigilante superhero Batman

Why am I rewatching it now? 2018 brings us a couple of Dark Knight-related anniversaries: July marks the 10th anniversary of the film's theatrical release and, sadly, this month marks 10 years since Heath Ledger's untimely death. The movie returns to the screens of one US cinema chain next month, with others set to follow.

Have I changed my mind? A little, but not much. The film remains uneven and at 2hrs 32mins far too long. I always thought it should have been split in two, with the ending setting up Eckhart's Two-Face storyline, which could then have played out in the third film instead of all that Bane nonsense. That said, the first hour of TDK is terrific, as Nolan makes a good fist of reintroducing his cast (which also includes Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman), whilst giving Ledger all the space he needs to strut his stuff.

Alas, the whole thing loses coherence long before the end, as too many plot strands compete for space, leaving the film feeling a bit overstuffed. Two-Face is introduced and despatched far too quickly and even the climax of The Joker's plot feels a bit rushed. And whilst the villainous clown might be the best thing about the movie, there are times when the character's ability to pull off the most extraordinarily detailed schemes not only stretches credulity like loading 200 barrels of petrol on to two separate ferries without anyone noticing  but flies directly in the face of his agent-of-chaos, make-it-all-up-as-I-go-along persona.

On the plus side, Michael Caine is splendid as Wayne's butler, Alfred ("Some men just want to watch the world burn"), and Nolan's take-no-prisoners approach to killing off his cast of characters means you are genuinely on edge about who is going to make it to the end. There's also some good thematic work in which the director explores notions of duality and how, just under the surface, we're all uncivilised and capable of evil. It remains Ledger's film, though, his performance seeming, if anything, even better 10 years on. The scene I always remember is that of The Joker, his head sticking, Labrador-like, out the window of a speeding car, laughing like a loon, revelling in the sheer madness of it all. A genuinely iconic moment.

Did you know?
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, in an article called "What Bush and Batman Have in Common", journalist Andrew Klavan drew parallels between the then-US president's War On Terror and the Dark Knight's battle with The Joker. He called the film "a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past." I assume a follow-up article, entitled "What Trump and The Joker Have in Common", is on its way any day now...

Scene you should check out on YouTube right now: Batman interrogates The Joker  "When the chips are down, these civilised people... they'll eat each other."

Rating then: WW
Rating now: WW½

Coming soon: Call Me By Your Name

In the meantime, check out my review of Most Beautiful Island for Film Inquiry

1 comment:

  1. Ledger is good in this and does carry the film, but he's good not brilliant, and -- unpopular opinion time! -- I don't think there would be nearly as much fuss over the performance if he had lived.

    That said, you are quite right about weak screen villains and in comparison to what we've had since, his Joker is unique. I like the Marvel films but aside from Loki and -- at a push -- Zemo, they haven't really cracked villains yet. They need someone to grab the character and make it come alive, like Ledger did.