Why So Serious?

Let’s get this out of the way right now. The hype about Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is, frankly, short of the mark. He owns this film in a way no other actor could have.  The Joker was on screen less than five minutes, and I already wanted to kill him. No wonder Ledger found himself a bit disturbed. Now that’s acting.

Ledger’s Joker, while acknowledging the past efforts by Cesar Romero’s campy clown and Jack Nicholson’s enraged prankster, takes the character into darker waters than anyone had imagined. Ledger’s Joker is chaos incarnate for the sake of chaos.  Heath Ledger makes both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter look like a weak James Bond villain.  (Incidentally, both Cox and Hopkins would make excellent Penguins and wash the bad taste of Burton’s freakish version out of everyone’s mouths.  Christopher Nolan, write that down.)

Director Christopher Nolan already took Batman in a different direction when he created a real world version of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne is created in a much more convincing manner. Alfred is a loyal schemer, much more than a cardboard parody of Reginald Jeeves from Jeeves & Wooster. Gotham City is not the bland, washed-out nightmare vision Tim Burton has already overused to the point of parody. No, Nolan’s cops, clean and corrupt, are very real. And Gotham?

Gotham is so real in Nolan’s vision of the DC universe you can almost see the exit signs to Metropolis on the freeways. The Dark Knight amps this up a bit. The Dark Knight is about how far people will go to confront evil. The Joker’s parallel to modern terrorists, right down to hijacking $68 million of the mob’s cash and convincing them to pay him half of it to kill Batman, needs no subtlety. The Dark Knight is about three good men – Bruce Wayne/Batman, Jim Gordon, and newly-minted DA Harvey Dent – wanting so bad to destroy the criminals who control Gotham City that they’re willing to sell off pieces of their souls to do it.

Jim Gordon does it by looking the other way when he thinks it’ll serve the common good. Batman does it by crossing a few ethical lines that make even brilliant technical wizard Lucius Fox want to move away. And Harvey Dent?

Batman fans know what becomes of Harvey. But rather than the psychotic prankster played by Tommy Lee Jones in the dreadful Batman Forever, Aaron Eckhart’s Dent is a man who gives Gotham City all of himself in order to save it and is rewarded with death and disfigurement. Transformed into Two Face, he becomes Batman’s evil twin, one to whom no one is innocent any longer.

If only for Ledger’s performance, The Dark Knight is light years ahead of Batman Begins.  The Joker here is a terrorist more evil than Osama bin-Laden, if only because he lacks any other cause than wanting “to watch the world burn.”  But it’s not just Ledger.  Ledger merely does what is required of him, which is to be an unreasonable force of destruction, one for whom death is not a sufficient deterrent.  But credit must also go to Christian Bale, who gives Bruce Wayne and Batman humanity.  If Ledger is over the top and terrifying, Gary Oldman, who might have played the Joker in an earlier era with as much venom as Ledger squeezes out of the role, is the opposite, the quiet voice of reason against the Joker’s madness.  Michael Caine, of course, is excellent as the voice of Bruce Wayne’s conscience.  Aaron Eckhart plays the cards he’s dealt with an underdeveloped Dent and Two-Face and does well.

Nolan must be given points for bringing in Maggie Gyllenhall to take over Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes.  I liked Holmes in Batman Begins, but she doesn’t have the chops be a foil for the likes of Heath Ledger or hold her own with Bale, Caine, and Oldman.  Gyllenhall, on the other hand, sells Rachel Dawes all over again, an older, more seasoned actress to handle a much darker film.

I was disappointed in the development of Dent as Two Face.  Nolan had a terrific take on the character, a maimed vigilante out for revenge.  However, Harvey Dent, who as the District Attorney comes off as the guy you’d want McCain or Obama to name their running mate, never gets enough time after the transformation to grow into the grieving, enraged villain.  Also, the horror show appearance, which defies reality in what’s billed as a “real world Batman,” mars a terrific effort built around Heath Ledger’s psychopath in bad make-up.  In short, there’s no way Two Face could carry on a normal conversation with the damage to his face.  It’s one point (and the ONLY point) Joel Schumacher scores over Nolan.  Then again, one wonders why Schumacher didn’t go this route while Nolan would opt for Tommy Lee Jones massive scarring.

That’s the biggest flaw in the movie.  The only others for me were technical.  A scene where hostages were bound up to look as though they were holding other hostages was a bit confusing.  And throughout the streets of Gotham, Chicago is showing.  Not that I mind, but while Nolan does a good job creating a fictional city that’s bigger than New York, it almost threw me out of the story when the Joker and Batman do battle in front of an office I worked in over the most recent Superbowl weekend.  (Nice job painting out the Sears and Hancock buildings, btw.)  But if those are the biggest flaws, other directors should be so lucky.

The question now is how Nolan tops this.  The answer is he doesn’t.  The Penguin is on deck, and if Nolan is wise, he’ll stick to the franchise’s new-found love of the real world.  Instead of one of Tim Burton’s upchucked nightmares or Schumacher’s poorly executed camp villians, Nolan could go with the dapper Penguin.  After all, the mob is out a boss.  The Joker is likely in Arkham (most likely for good, with the loss of Heath Ledger).  And after such a dark, dark movie, it might not be bad to lighten up a bit and put Batman up against a dapper don in a tuxedo for getting really dark again.

Think about it, Mr. Nolan.  Don’t make the same mistake they did with Spiderman III.