Fear and Frights in the Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is a direct sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, largely considered the greatest comic book hero adaptation film in history. I echo that sentiment, and unfortunately hold it to still be true even after seeing The Dark Knight.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the action and JOKER123 spectacle of The Dark Knight–and will most assuredly pre-purchase the DVD–my critical side is alarmed. After the complex depths with which Director and Screenwriter Christopher Nolan delved into the psyche of Bruce Wayne and made Batman believable in the previous film, I cannot help but feel that the Caped Crusader was shortchanged this time around. I can sum up Batman’s/Bruce Wayne’s character development through the course of The Dark Knight in the following sentence: Batman upgraded his suit so that he can turn his head. That’s it . . . Seriously.

The film makes the mistake, in my opinion, of repeating the sins of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films that Warner Bros. tried so hard to disown with this recent reinvention of the franchise: The Dark Knight focuses too heavily on the antagonist and secondary characters rather than the development of Batman as a hero. Cramming two arch-villains into one movie further exacerbates the problem and reduces Christian Bale’s screen time even further.

On the good side, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is unquestionably the best ever seen. The film effectively portrays The Joker’s uncanny ability to get under Batman’s skin. Gone are the Disneyland parade floats and poison gas attacks from the sleeve, as seen in the Tim Burton film. Whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a pompous prince and easily forgettable rapscallion with little impact, Nolan’s Joker is far more disturbing. He’s fully believable as a hands-on murderer, arsonist and demolitionist with a penchant of doing the exact opposite of what ration criminals and crimefighters would consider logical. But under the facial scars and clown paint, he honestly seems human. Ledger takes full advantage of what remains of The Joker’s subverted humanity in several calm moments during the film when talking to other characters. Ledger takes character traits we usually find endearing in normal people and uses them to portray a villain who does insane things, but isn’t necessarily insane. The only times I found myself disagreeing with Nolan’s and Ledger’s Joker were moments when the character begged for someone to kill him. Understanding that The Joker approaches crime and mayhem with a clear sense of his own purpose (to fraction society), the character undertaking his actions out of a suicidal tendency doesn’t stand to reason. Still, I’m glad to finally see The Joker done mostly right, and in line with writer Alan Moore’s unforgettable take on the character, The Killing Joke. However, the film’s intense focus on the villain and his exploits leads me to question why they titled it “The Dark Knight” and not “The Joker”.

The other villain in the film is Two-Face, a madman whose face is half-handsome, half-horrible, probably as a challenge to amateur comic artists. For me, Two-Face has always been one of the most chilling Batman villains. The guy flips a coin and you have a 50% chance of exiting the room alive regardless of your guilt or innocence. There’s nothing colder than leaving someone’s fate to a coin toss. For most of the film, Two-Face is Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent . . . and a hero. Dent’s physical transformation into the villain as depicted in the film is probably one of the best scenarios thus far. (In the comics, Sal Maroni only threw sulfuric acid on the left half of Dent’s face during a courtroom trial. Not as effective.) As far as the visual effects are concerned, Two-Face’s visage in this film is utterly shocking and disturbing, far more than The Joker. But unfortunately, I feel like we get the Cliff’s Notes version of Two-Face’s transformation through the use of a hackneyed romantic revenge scenario. Batman fans understand that the film’s portrayal of Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne as budding buddies is right on the money. However, Harvey becoming a raving maniac because The Joker “talks him into it” is completely implausible. With the Sal Maroni character readily available in the film, I get the sense that something may have been muddled in the script rewrites. From the comics, we at least get the backstory that Harvey Dent is the abused son of an alcoholic, who secretly suffers from schizophrenia and multiple personalities before his physical transformation into supervillain. So therein, his personality schism is somewhat more believable in light of his accident. As propagated in the film, Two-Face feels tacked on at the last minute when he could have just as easily waylaid until the obviously forthcoming third film in this series.

Between Harvey Dent and The Joker, there is little time to catch up with Bruce Wayne or Batman. While I enjoyed the readily apparent metaphor of Bruce Wayne becoming layered with scar tissue while his alter ego remains an unstoppable vigilante, his fleeting reunion with Rachel Dawes provided little opportunity for advancement of his character. And with so little actual focus on Batman and what the actions of The Joker and Two-Face mean for his crimefighting career, I can’t help but feel that the film left me wanting for a protagonist. Perhaps it was the influence of seeing the trailer for Watchmen prior to the film, but several scenes made me wonder if there wasn’t some heavily buried message in play that Batman is a fascist symbol and an unnecessary hero.

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