What comes to mind when you hear The Dark Knight uttered as a movie title?
I often hear, "It's the greatest Batman movie ever made."
Why? I ask.
Because Heath Ledger was awesome, dude.
I'm asking why it's the greatest Batman movie ever made. Heath Ledger's performance not withstanding, can you tell me why it's the greatest Batman movie ever made?
Um... That car chase is cool?
That's about it.
That sums up the second film in Christopher Nolan's trilogy.
I read a retrospective review by Matt Brunson from Creative Loafing with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. He touched on Tim Burton and Joel Shumacher and finished with Rises. It was a thoughtful set of reviews, although I have to disagree with four stars on The Dark Knight. Two stars would have been more accurate in my opinion.
The Dark Knight begins the downfall of the trilogy.
A bold statement?
Watch it. Better yet, read the script.
I spent a lot of time with that script (probably more than was mentally healthy).
What I discovered was a story filled with a ton of expositional dialogue, but no substance.
Matt Brunson states in his review that the film wears its menace on its sleeve. I agree. He also goes on to say that Harvey Dent is the only character with a complete arc.
There I have to seriously disagree. None of the characters have a successful arc. Not one. Harvey Dent's transition is superficial at best. It's built on snippets of shallow dialogue between him and Rachel Dawes. Their relationship is never fully realized (emotionally consummated with any moments of true intimacy as it were). So when Dent undergoes his transformation, it's never believable. That does not make an arc. It makes a shallow attempt at trying to shove another Bat-villain into an already bloated story.
But that is not why The Dark Knight is the downfall (Knightfall as it were).
No. That is just another burr in my craw.
My issue with The Dark Knight starts in the end of Begins.
Christopher Nolan was on the mark at the beginning of the trilogy. Fear. That was the key to the iconic character of Batman. Nolan incorporates that into Batman's first appearance (and even during the training sessions with Liam Neeson's Ra's). Remember the explosive powder? Theatricality being a powerful weapon? Well, apparently Batman forgets after the first encounter with the thugs on the dock and doesn't remember again until his fight with Bane in Rises. (Oh, yeah. I've got explosive pellets in the utility belt. I should use those, they're only over ten years old.)
The Dark Knight is full of introductions. Joker's first appearance. Batman's first appearance (one of the worst in the history of the franchise). Batman's first confrontation with the Joker. All missed opportunities.
Think about it. There were more dynamic entrances and intros in the one hour Batman/Superman animated movie than in all three Christopher Nolan movies combined.
As an exercise I reworked the script to put the Joker in the bank before the robbery occurs, although, like the movie, I keep his face hidden. I had him in the bank manager's office, the bank manager tied and gagged. The Joker got in under the guise of delivering flowers and chats in his mischievous way with the bound manager while he waits for the robbery to go down. We see his face in a dramatic reveal before he takes out one of the robbers and dons his mask. This would say way more about his character than the robbers' expositional banter.
In the Batman/Superman animated movie, remember Batman's first appearance in Metropolis? He crashes through a skylight and lands on a table. The gangsters are scared witless. I would be, too.
How does Nolan make Batman's first appearance in The Dark Knight? Batman is standing off camera as a Bat-wannabe walks up to him. Batman flinches like he came from somewhere else. Fight ensues.
The Batman/Joker first meet?
Joker to Rachel: "You got fight in you. I like that."
Batman (Off Screen): "Then you're going to love me." Fight ensues.
What defines the character of Batman?
Fear. The dramatic entrance. Everything that is not Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight.
Go back and watch a few episodes of Batman The Animated Series. You'll see what I'm talking about.
Christopher Nolan's need to ground the franchise in a pseudo-realistic world was a characterization sacrifice that I would not be willing to make. If you take that away from Batman, all you have is a guy with gadgets in a suit. That being the case, you can replace Batman with say, Vigilante and the dynamics don't change.
Tim Burton had a better handle on that. How did Batman make his first appearance to Nicholson's Joker? Hands? Anybody? Batman dropped smoke pellets. BOOM. He drops down through a cloud of smoke, cape spread. That is an entrance.
There is NO DRAMATIC POWER in The Dark Knight. Not from Batman at least (which is what counts). No. All of the intros. All of the cool of that movie goes to the late Heath Ledger. For what that's worth. The film isn't called, "The Joker".
So, if I want a more definitive experience of the Batman, I'll take Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy any day.
Join me for a brief follow up on The Dark Knight and Rises (a much shorter read, I promise!)