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The Dark Knight (2008)
Director: Christopher Nolan

review by Roger Keen

Of all the villains pitted against any superhero, the Joker has always been the most charismatic, embodying in the yin and the yang of his hybrid personality that most singular of nightmare bogeyman archetypes - the scary clown. Now in his third celluloid incarnation, this much-heralded new Joker (Heath Ledger) stands on the shoulders of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson to reach higher heights... and deeper depths. This Joker is more than just a scary clown; he's a trickster-psycho terrorist-anarchist who's out to do in everyone's head, law-enforcement officers and fellow criminals alike, just for the hell of it. He isn't in the game for money or prestige but for the buzz of pure chaos.

He bursts onto the scene as the mastermind behind a bank robbery, where the purpose is to steal much more than cash. "Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you... stranger..." he declares, before blowing away an adversary, giving us a taste of his new brand of jokery. The robbery is the first move in the Joker's strategy to gain influence and control within the Gotham City mob fraternity, which he achieves by a display of fearless clownish antics, super-intelligent cunning and a true psycho's readiness for casual violence.

Meanwhile, much like Spider-Man, Batman (Christian Bale) is suffering image problems and a bad press, with gun-toting fake batmen appearing on the scene and muddying the waters about Batman's true motives as a crime-fighter. Batman, and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), are anticipating the arrival of new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a colourful figure who is expected to rescue Gotham from its current crimewave. Dent expresses an interest in getting to know Batman but instead becomes involved with Bruce Wayne, the link between them being Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce's former girlfriend and assistant DA, now involved with Dent and so laying the ground for a love triangle situation.

As the trio of Dent, Gordon and Batman inveigle together to tackle the mob, the Joker emerges as the lynchpin of everything that's been happening, now a crime celebrity, calling the shots and waging all-out war on Gotham in general and Batman in particular. In arch-trickster fashion, he uses Batman's image problems - together with his legendary 'always do the right thing' conscience - against him, his 'jokes' manifesting as vicious manipulations of Batman's loyalties as he attempts to tear his adversary apart every which way.

If Tim Burton's take on Batman versus the Joker was a kind of surreal German expressionist pantomime, Christopher Nolan's is a nail biting, tech noir, post-cyberpunk thriller, a relentlessly paced action movie that crams together a character-driven psychological drama, a dizzyingly complex and convoluted crime story and enough bravura suspense and chase sequences to rival the new Bond and Bourne franchises. Without being explicit or seeming message-driven, it is shot through with zeitgeist concerns - terrorist threat, pyro-blackmail, politically-inspired hostage-taking and dark, self-destructive fanaticism that comes from some irrational place and makes impossible demands, relishing the fact that they cannot be met.

Following on from his Batman Begins, Nolan has both pared-down and added to the burgeoning Batman franchise, making it even darker, more noir still, but much more real. In fact Batman and his gadgetry, the omnipotent Joker and later Harvey Dent as he slips into Two-Face mode, are the only obviously fantasy elements in what otherwise plays out as a story with close to real-world cause and effect. Adding to this feel, the action and the stunts are done very much for real, eschewing the distancing effect of CGI. So familiar elements - an articulated lorry flipping, a building going up in a massive explosion - seem minted new and better. Somehow within this framework we accept a vigilante in a rubber suit with pointy ears and a villain in a purple frock coat and clown makeup as components of a recognisably concrete world - how far things have come from the camp, pop art days of the original TV series.

Heath Ledger as the Joker

On the scripting front too, Nolan and brother Jonathan have worked hard to freshen things up. The Joker remains an enigma, his origin story reduced to a few spoken lines about dysfunctional family life, the details constantly changing, another of his gags. Woven in with a developing underworld plot that wouldn't be out of place in a Scorsese or Mann movie, the Joker's stunts and japes eventually dominate, building exponentially in scale and mind-boggling evil - way beyond the scope of the Jokers of old, but still resonating very familiarly. Adding to drama and tension in the later stages, Harvey Dent's unravelling and transformation from upright, white knight DA to the crazed, out of control Two-Face is another scene stealer, with Aaron Eckhart rising impressively to the challenge.

And here lies the one possible weakness in the film, in that through the sheer efficiency of its freneticism it somehow lacks a heart, a true centre. The Bruce Wayne/ Batman character, though well realised on both fronts by Christian Bale, is rather caught in a pincer movement between the Joker's pyrotechnics and Harvey/ Two-Face's tragic flip and made to feel a bit of a supporting player. True, his human predicament is examined, refracted through the eyes of the redoubtable Alfred (Michael Caine), more consigliore than butler, and company CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who both warn him against over-reaching himself. But the personal story of Bruce and Rachel, in which Harvey Dent also figures, is somewhat skimmed over and we're left wanting to know more about what makes our hero tick. For this reason The Dark Knight comes across as a film more to be admired than loved, more a dazzlingly brilliant demonstration of how to make a comic book action movie than an absolute all-time favourite - but others might disagree.

Unlike Spider-Man 2, which had a marvellous villain in the form of Alfred Molina's Doc Ock, but still undoubtedly belonged to Peter Parker, The Dark Knight is stolen by its illustrious scary clown, with a performance few could have anticipated from Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger. Jack Nicholson's Joker was an extension of his known acting persona, a Joker by way of Randle McMurphy and Jack Torrance; but Ledger shows us something never before seen, exciting and dangerous in its virtuosity. That he should have died so soon afterwards sets the seal on the enigma, and like with James Dean, whom he outlived by four years, we are left wondering what might have come next.
The Dark Knight

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