It’s hailed as one of the greatest contemporary films, and certainly one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Heath Ledger’s performance, made more tragically notorious as a result of the actor’s untimely death, attracted so much buzz and acclaim that he was awarded a posthumous Oscar.
It’s a sweeping film with some of the slickest editing I’ve ever seen (a hallmark of Christopher Nolan’s brilliant storytelling). The plot is more episodic than traditional, charting Harvey Dent’s rise in the public eye and then his secret downfall as the vengeful Two-Face, and Bruce Wayne’s desire to make the city safe enough that it no longer needs Batman. Amidst it all is the Joker who comes to realize that he needs Batman as a foil to his own chaotic insanity.
Throw in a lot of sub plots such as Bruce investigating a Chinese businessman who has ties to the mob, the Rachel/Bruce/Harvey love triangle, a secret project that not even Lucius Fox knows of at first, a Wayne Enterprises employee who tries to blackmail Bruce with knowledge of Batman’s identity, and a group of Batman copycats who do anything but make things safer, and you’ve got a densely packed film that almost tries to manage too much, but inexplicably keeps everything from spiraling into excess.
Much like Batman Returns, one of the main issues with this story is that, once Bruce’s issues with his own dual identity have been dealt with in the previous film, he steps into the background in this one with the villains taking center stage. The Joker completely steals the show (which isn’t a bad thing) but it robs Batman of fulfilling an essential role in the story. Harvey’s conflict with Jim is so compelling, it could have easily filled its own film, especially since you see their initial ego-driven hostility growing into a full-fledged revenge quest on Harvey’s part once he loses Rachel, but Bruce doesn’t really factor into this story until right at the end when he saves Jim’s family.
The Joker isn’t really in conflict with anyone. Obviously his actions put him in conflict with the mob and then Batman, but he doesn’t really have an M.O. apart from creating and enjoying chaos. He puts a great deal of planning into his schemes, but his ultimate goal is just to show people that chaos renders everything meaningless. Batman has to stop him, but it’s not really personal between them. Joker’s fascinated by Batman, but that aspect doesn’t show up until near the end. Essentially, it’s the Joker and Harvey’s film. In Batman Returns, it was Catwoman, Penguin, and Max’s story and this film has the same sort of feel, with Batman feeling like a secondary character, or at least a very passive character. I do like the growing conflict between Batman and Lucius, but that’s drowned out by so many other plots that it’s not really given much attention.
It’s difficult to really surprise audiences nowadays, but I think the middle section in which Jim is “killed” and Harvey “turns himself in” in order to draw out the Joker is one of my favorite sequences just because of how skillfully it misleads the audience. It has a Mission Impossible feel to it that’s just a lot of fun.
My only issue with this film is that, it’s so intent on being realistic and grounded in other genres like the spy thriller that it feels more like a James Bond film than a Batman film. I’m rather fond of James Bond, so it’s not that big of a deal, but I think such a slick realistic approach causes Batman to lose a lot of the atmospherics of its comic counterparts, which for many years has drawn from the heightened reality of film noir and German expressionism. Batman Begins hit the nail on the nose in terms of Batman becoming more than a man in the eyes of his enemies through theatricality and deception, but in this one, Batman is just a man in armor. He doesn’t really inspire fear, he just hits enemies really hard.
Oddly enough, for a film so intent on being realistic, I’m puzzled by its portrayal of Two-Face who, in the comics, was scarred by acid and who in this film is horrifically burned. For someone with no left eyelid and no tear ducts, he manages to keep that eye nicely moistened somehow (maybe he walks around with a gallon jar of eye drops?). Also, he’s able to be pretty articulate with only a half-functioning mouth. I read that Nolan didn’t want the character to be too showy so he didn’t want Aaron Eckhart to incorporate any of Two Face’s deformities into his performance. I can understand that a villain whose left eye is drying out and who can’t speak without slurping drool out of the left side of his mouth wouldn’t fit into the mood of the rest of the film…but I think they could have let Eckhart do SOMETHING that acknowledges his ruined face instead of having him shrug it off pretty quickly and be able to down shots of whiskey without screaming his face (or at least half of it) off in burning pain.
But, rag as I might, it is a fantastically made film. It’s perfectly paced, its characters are, for the most part, complex and likable, and it features one of the greatest performances of the contemporary age. I will freely admit all of this.
Now let’s stop trying to duplicate its awesomeness. Nolan tried to do that with the next film I’m going to be looking at and even he couldn’t get lightning to strike twice. So let’s just accept that this movie was a rare and beautiful confluence of talent and move on.
Next week, we’ll be concluding the Dark Knight Trilogy! Even if you didn’t like it, it features Tom Hardy, and that’s worth a visit!