"It was a dark and stormy night." --Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Note: In the following joint review, both John and Jason provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to John:
Like most viewers, I enjoyed 2008's "The Dark Knight" quite a lot. Yet the movie met with such universal acclaim, love, and adoration that fans set upon with slings and arrows any critic who dared hint at the movie's possible shortcomings, no matter how small. As I say, I liked writer-director Christopher Nolan's second superhero epic; I liked it almost as much as I liked Nolan's highly successful "Batman Begins" three years earlier. But I shall brave the possible consequences and start with a few of the misgivings I had with the newer film. If you're a sensitive soul and would prefer not to hear somebody faulting your favorite film, no matter how gently, skip down a few paragraphs. And keep those slings and arrows to yourself, please.
Here's the thing: "The Dark Knight" turned out to be the most financially successful film of 2008, an accomplishment in itself. One wonders, Why?
Was it the movie's star actor in the leading role that primarily encouraged its popularity? I don't think so. Christian Bale is good, and he looks right for the part of Batman, but he doesn't quite project as complex a character as Michael Keaton did in the Tim Burton films. Moreover, Bale's voice is truly odd when he's in the guise of the Caped Crusader. Sure, he needs to alter his voice to help hide his identity, but in this episode he seems to be conjuring up the spirit of Lamont Cranston as The Shadow. One superhero with an eccentric voice is enough, I think. Besides, in this second outing Bale's role is almost secondary to that of the villain's, and Bale merely does his best to cope with the cape.
Was it the movie's supporting cast that generally encouraged its popularity? They're good, but I don't think they carry the picture. We've still got Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, the unflappable butler and father figure to Bruce Wayne; we've still got Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Wayne Industry's most valued employee; and we've still got Gary Oldman as James Gordon, seemingly the only incorruptible cop on the Gotham police force. But their roles are diminished compared to the first movie. And, yes, Maggie Gyllenhal as attorney Rachel Dawes does seem a bit more mature than her predecessor in the part. Furthermore, we've got a capable Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, whose personality metamorphosis almost mirrors Bruce Wayne's. Notwithstanding, these people don't sustain the picture any more than Bale does.
Was it the movie's plot that mainly promoted its popularity? I don't think so. "The Dark Knight" has a rather convoluted story line that goes on too long and makes little sense when you think about it. I've read that the movie "Heat" inspired Nolan, and "The Dark Knight" begins brilliantly with a bank-robbery sequence that foretells good things to come. If only it were so. Instead, much of the creativity of the opening robbery quickly dissipates into flashy action, questionable characters, endless narrative gyrations, and glorified sadistic violence. By about three quarters of the way through the picture, I wasn't sure what was happening or why, and by the time the conclusion rolled around, I was scratching my head wondering when the string of anticlimaxes was finally going to end.
Was it the film's themes that propelled its popularity? I don't think so. Maybe some viewers appreciated the film's sentiments on dual personalities, its treatment of antiheroes, its exploration of vigilanteism, its 9/11 references, its seeming opposition to unregulated surveillance, and so on, but I found most of these topics superfluous and rather superficially glossed over. Surely, these points added to the film's prestige, but I doubt they played a major part in heightening its approval rating.
Was it the movie's costumes and settings that predominantly encouraged its popularity? I don't think so. Batman himself looks much the same as ever despite a slightly altered Bat suit. The Joker's makeup is crudely scary but nothing special (which probably makes it even scarier, so what do I know). Gotham, now more clearly than ever the city of Chicago, looks rather matter-of-fact, especially in the daylight. Did the filmmakers think that New York City, whose real-life nickname has long been "Gotham," was too obvious or too familiar to viewers? Be that as it may, Wayne Manor is now up in flames, replaced by a bland underground Bat lair. And the movie's general production values are only so-so for a multimillion-dollar project. Frankly, this is not a film whose graphic images seem all that striking to me.
Was it Christopher Nolan's directorial skills that chiefly elevated its popularity? I don't think so. He's an accomplished director, certainly, but he still favors too many quick edits and too much swirling camera movement. Worse, half the time you can't tell what the characters' motivations are, why they're doing what they're doing. Perhaps with Bruce Wayne this is justifiable because he's got such a conflicted personality. But the Joker, Lucius, Harvey? We never really know why they're behaving as they do. Let's just say that Nolan keeps the action moving forward, whether we can follow it or not.
No, the fact is, the movie's enormous popularity is probably the result largely of one person: Heath Ledger as the Joker. Indeed, Ledger is so good in the part, he practically owns the picture. The filmmakers might just as well have called the movie "The Dark Joker" and been done with it. Ledger overshadows everyone else in the show. Never mind that his Joker is a preposterous villain who, like so many villains before him, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere at once, with practically everyone in Gotham on his payroll. Oh, well. The fact is, Ledger is good. He's scary. He's obsessed, and his character is literally maniacal. I've read that even his fellow actors found his characterization terrifying on the set. Maybe that's just publicity talking, but you get the idea. When Ledger in on the screen, he dominates it, and you don't notice anybody else. Ledger's Joker will undoubtedly go down in the annals of film villains as one of the very best, alongside such perennial favorites as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and the Wicked Witch of the West.
The question is, Can one great character carry an entire movie? In the case of "The Dark Knight," the answer is obviously yes. Ledger does it. I still can't get over a scene that involves something so simple as a pencil. Chalk that one up to Nolan, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, as well as Ledger. Moviemaking is a collaborative business.
And, needless to say, there is still the movie's cumulative effect to consider. The plot, the characters, the cast, the costumes, the settings, and the action, whether they equal the quality of Nolan's first "Batman" movie or not, continue to add up to a rewarding experience. You'll find "The Dark Knight" filled with twisted loyalties, corrupted moralities, and blurred lines between good and evil, which, despite their superficiality, imbue the film with an intelligent sensibility. Despite its grimness, "The Dark Knight" is an engaging superhero movie.
John's Film Rating: 7/10
The Movie According to Jason:
"The Dark Knight" is more than a sequel to "Batman Begins." It is an extension, a second chapter to the story, if you will. In the 2005 film, the groundwork is established for the characters, the relationships introduced and the world created. Here, aside from a very quick re-introduction to the players, the 152-minute running time is taken with briskly paced plot and rather little character development, as if writer/director Christopher Nolan is daring the audience to keep up with the action.
Gotham City is under siege. With the police and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) raiding banks for mob money, the underground leaders turn to a diabolical villain known as the Joker (Heath Ledger). He begins targeting Gotham for the express purpose of unmasking Batman (Christian Bale), the city's protector. But are there enough good guys to capture the new terrorist…or have they, too, been corrupted?
What Nolan did with "Batman Begins" is make an explicit promise to the audience. Stick with me for the backstory and a slower comic book film than you expect and you'll be rewarded in the second act with a grand and epic spectacle. And by god, he delivered. Whatever small deficiencies the first film had have been corrected, including more action, a more menacing antagonist and a confidence from everyone concerned about their individual role to play.
In essence, "The Dark Knight" is a continuation of its predecessor, more than "The Empire Strikes Back" or even "The Godfather part II," completing the Arkham Asylum escape storyline early on. And it's done with panache. I half expected flashbacks to the Scarecrow's plot to remind the audience what happened before. Not to be, as Nolan expects us to know the franchise's history. He also doesn't bother with long scenes of exposition designed to catch us up, so to speak. In their place, shortly after the opening action scene, the story drops in on the leads, just giving us enough information to see where they are now. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce Wayne (Bale). Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking the place of Katie Holmes) and Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). It's at this point the editing and pacing of the film becomes evident. It's brisk and lively, never lumbering or belabored. Almost too fast, some may say.
Why too fast? Nolan never lets the story slow to a pace where the audience can catch its breath, regroup and come back again. He assaults our senses in every possible way at every possible moment. Small, character scenes are rapturous (a scene late in the film featuring Wayne and Fox under Wayne Enterprises, for instance), filled to the brim with information integral to the story. Nolan, his brother Jonathan (who also wrote the screenplay) and David S. Goyer (who shares story credit with Christopher) use dialogue and visuals to convey story information in a way most of Hollywood lacks the talent to replicate. Each frame is a small painting into the world of Gotham, even when the camera is simply flying by a building or two. The darkness, the scattered lights…they carry a sense of fear.
This film, rightly or wrongly, has been compared to the 1990's franchise headed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. In particular, how Batman was overshadowed by Catwoman and the Penguin in "Batman Returns." It's an apt analogy, considering Ledger's performance. He is second billed on the posters and in the credits, yet his is a magnetic personality we're simply drawn to. Even at his most wickedly deadly, it's impossible to turn away from the screen for fear we'd miss something. Ledger is ruthlessly maniacal in a way neither Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson could ever hope to be. The cackle is there, the make-up, the purple suit. This Joker, however, turns out to be more grounded in the real world. He's never overplayed and never a mockery. From the lip curl Ledger brings to every scene (the only word for it is unsettling) to the playful terror aspect he brings to the part so very well, he would outshine any hero.
Which isn't to say the rest of the cast sits on the sidelines, watching Ledger. This is, after all, a Batman movie. Whereas "Batman Begins" was about Bruce Wayne and becoming Batman, "Knight" focuses in on the hero himself, specifically the lengths he will go to in order to protect Gotham City. There is a fine line he must toe between becoming the Joker and being good. We catch glimpses of the battle within throughout the film, though it is brought forcefully onto the screen in the climax.
Any self-respecting comic book fan knows who Harvey Dent is and his alter-ego. For the purposes of this review, I won't spoil the character. Suffice to say he is one of the lackluster aspect to the production. His alter-ego is brought onto screen, runs around a bit and then…nothing. An ignominious end to a potentially new character for the inevitable sequel. As Dent, though, Eckhart doesn't disappoint. He is a fresh face (to the series) with a hope for the city not seen on anyone else's face. The character is a charmer in the vein of Wayne, but without the vanity. And Eckhart plays it well.
The one casting change from the first film is Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes. As much as audiences liked to rip on Katie Holmes in the character, for as much as Rachel gets to do here, would it have really mattered who played the part? Don't get me wrong: Gyllenhaal has a grace and elegance Holmes never could possess while being a more credible love interest for Wayne (Bale looks older than his age while Holmes considerably younger). The issues lies with the way the movie is plotted out, as I already mentioned. The relationships are already in place, leaving "The Dark Knight" to begin to pay them off. Gyllenhaal didn't get to do any of the heavy lifting in the first film and here seems a just a bit lost in what to do perhaps because she wasn't present before.
(That's not to leave out the contributions from Oldman, Freeman and Caine, or the smaller parts played by Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts and Anthony Michael Hall, but there are other aspects of the film to talk about.)
When Bale and Ledger share the screen, as in an intense interrogation room scene, the film crackles with excitement and potential. And when they end up debating the merits of humanity at the end, we're watching two people on the fringes of society ruminating on their futures. Oddly, everything the Joker predicts comes to pass at the end, providing this universe not with a hopeful outlook on the future, but one seemingly destined to be bleaker than it was before. (Not to mention leaving the audience clamoring for more.) There's a new direction for the series set up in a handful of minutes, one hinted at through the entire production. In a sadistic way, the Joker is able to kill hope and Batman in one fell swoop despite not winning the day in conventional terms.
Chris Nolan has gone on record saying as many effects as possible were done practically on set instead of with the use of computers. To be frank, it shows. There is a weight and substance CGI simply hasn't caught up with yet when it comes to action sequences. As good as the finale to "The Incredible Hulk" looked, it pales in comparison to any of the chases, fistfights, shoot outs or explosions here. We're always mindful someone could be hurt at any given moment because of the reality of the situation. When a hospital blows up, it is an actual building and not a construct. It has all the details an actual location would have without any of the computer gloss.
A very minor nitpick takes place in an early courtroom scene, eventually coming off as too quick, too easy, too polished and too rushed. It flies in the face of the rest of the movie and I can't help but wonder why. Is it deliberately structured like this for some reason? Did I simply become too used to the way the rest of the film was plotted? I'm not sure, but since the scene lasts less than five minutes, I'll overlook it. (There is also a traitor subplot which never gets any traction in the film. It's an important piece of the story and one glossed over too easily. Certain camera moves through the film do suggest something is happening, yet the story doesn't delve into it.)
Is this film perfect? No. To make a perfect film, the filmmakers would need to be infallible. But this is a damn good-dare I even say great-film. A masterful performance from Ledger, fantastic supporting turns by a big enough A-list cast to populate three movies, fantastic visual splendor and an engrossing story. As legendary as "Batman Begins" and "X2: X-Men United" and "Spider-Man 2" and even "Superman: The Movie" all turned out to be, this production takes the crown as best comic book movie to date. Not to mention possibly one of the five best movies so far this year and the best of the summer. Mr. Nolan, we are ready for the encore. An enthusiastic 9 out of 10, if only because a 10 out of 10 demands perfection.
Jason's Film Rating: 9/10
If you watched the film in a regular movie theater as I did, you saw it projected in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. If you saw it in an IMAX theater, you saw it in a variable aspect ratio, with some scenes in a 1.44:1 IMAX ratio and the rest of the scenes in 2.40:1. The Blu-ray disc offers the film in something approaching its IMAX configuration, although it changes the 1.44:1 ratios to 1.78:1 when they come up; so, yes, you miss a bit of the top and bottom of the original IMAX framing. I fully expected these switches in aspect ratio to be distracting, but, in fact, I hardly noticed them, except periodically to admire the bigger, wider IMAX panoramas whenever they rolled around.
The video presentation, enabled by a VC-1 encode and a dual-layer BD50, is quite good, especially the IMAX sequences, which are mostly razor-sharp in their delineation and detailing, some of them looking spectacular. (Note, however, that the IMAX process can render wide expanses of solid colors like sky with such exacting precision that it can exaggerate minor photographic defects. Needless to say, because these minor imperfections can be exacerbated by your TV's sharpness control, you should be sure to check that your television's sharpness setting is adjusted to low or off.) The regular 2.40:1 sections of the film are also good, although I observed touches of softness occasionally, some instances of moiré effects, and a few facial shots that looked a tad too dark in both screen formats. But, then, the film's overall tone is intentionally dark. In other respects, the colors show up realistically, the application of filtering and edge enhancement is minimal, and there is never any serious cause for concern except perhaps to videophiles who nitpick everything, as they did the high-definition HD DVD and Blu-ray transfers of "Batman Begins." Which is to say that if you found fault with the previous film, you'll find fault here, too; otherwise, you'll enjoy the BD video quality of "The Dark Knight."
In English you get the choice of either regular lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1. I opted for the TrueHD, of course, but as usual with a Warners disc you have to choose it at start-up because WB make DD 5.1 the default. That still mystifies me. Anyway, the soundtrack provides everything you'd expect from an action movie and more. The surround effects wrap around the listener, the dynamic range is wide, and the impact is impressively punchy. If there is any issue I had with the audio, it is that the bass is so thunderously deep and loud at times that it can obscure dialogue. Bass lovers will have a field day, but I found it too much of a good thing.
Warner Bros. offer this particular edition of "The Dark Knight" on three discs. Disc one contains the feature film plus "Gotham Uncovered: The Creation of a Scene," a series of eighteen featurettes wherein director Christopher Nolan and his fellow filmmakers discuss the film, the IMAX process, the new Bat suit and Bat-pod, and the usual stuff you expect a director to talk about. You can watch these featurettes interspersed throughout the movie (you click the on-screen icons when they appear), or you can watch them apart from the movie, all at once (over an hour) or individually. In addition, disc one contains BD-Live features, which Warner Bros. describe as enabling you to "create your own profile with a personalized avatar, check out exclusive content from the media center, review new trailers, and express yourself through Live Community Screening and My WB Commentary."
Things on disc one conclude with thirty-nine scene selections and bookmarks; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
On Disc two there are three sections: "Behind the Story," "Extras," and "Trailers and More." In "Behind the Story" we find two documentaries. The first is "Batman Tech," forty-six minutes in high def, exploring the gadgets and tools that Batman uses and the real technology behind them. The tech goes all the way back to the early Batman comics and continues to the present. The second documentary is "Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight," forty-six minutes also in high def, delving into real-world psychotherapy to probe Bruce Wayne's psyche and the psyche of his adversaries.
The second section, "Extras," contains a series of six Gotham television news broadcasts, again totaling forty-six minutes. (Is there a significance to the number "forty-six" in "Batman" lore, or was this a coincidence?) Plus, there is a series of four art galleries covering pictures of Joker cards, concept art, poster art, and production stills. The third section contains three theatrical trailers and six TV spots, these totaling nine minutes.
Disc three contains a standard-definition digital copy of the film compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices (but not compatible with Apple Macintosh and iPod devices in Mexico).
The three discs come housed in a BD keep case with a center insert, further encased in an attractively embossed, metalized cardboard slipcover. Oh, and you can buy the set with either of two covers: The one pictured in the upper right of this review with Batman or the one I have, with the Joker. It appears to be another admission that this is really as much the Joker's picture as Batman's.
The movie's film rating below is an average of Jason's and my opinion of it. We both enjoyed Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, but Jason felt the supporting cast, the atmosphere, and the plot were a tad more enjoyable than I found them. Fair enough. "The Dark Knight" is a good, entertaining superhero film, overlong, to be sure, and often delving into the morbid for the sake of morbidness, but nonetheless up there among Hollywood's better superhero films.
Whether it is the best, however, remains open to question.
"Some men just want to watch the world burn down." --Alfred Pennyworth