(2008, Drama/Action-Superheroes, color)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett
The finest film, maybe the finest thing, ever created by human hands.
In a nutshell:
The Joker plays mind games with Batman, eventually creating Two-Face.
Robbers in rubber clown masks rappel down to the roof of a mob-owned bank. Technician clowns shut down the alarms and break into the vault while gun-wielding clowns deal with the guards and the customers. An irate bank manager pulls a shotgun and mows down two or three clowns before he runs out of ammo. Meanwhile, the clowns begin to kill each other, until only one remains. The clown takes off his mask, and he’s wearing makeup underneath as well, with scars stretching his mouth into a smile. The Joker (Heath Ledger) quips at the wounded manager before driving off in a stolen school bus with all the loot.
This heist has interrupted two schemes. The mob, who owns the banks, has been trying to launder the money. The police, led by Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) with assistance from Batman (Christian Bale), have marked the bills in an effort to trace the money-laundering operation. I won’t bore you with the details of the investigation, headed by Gordon, or the prosecution, headed by Gotham newcomer Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Sufficeth to say it involves Batman going to Hong Kong to extradite the crooked broker responsible for mob’s finances.
Meanwhile, the Joker has broken into a meeting of Gotham’s various mob leaders and offered to kill Batman in exchange for half of all their money. They scoff at him until the captured broker confesses to the cops, resulting in several hundred arrests. They put the word out that the Joker is hired.
The Joker immediately offs the police commissioner and the judge responsible for hearing the cases. He also makes an attempt on Dent’s life during a high-class fundraiser in Batman alter ego Bruce Wayne’s penthouse. Bruce has knocked Dent out cold and hidden him, so the Joker tries to take his frustrations out on Harvey’s girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Bruce re-appears as Batman and punches every clown henchman he can reach, eventually catching Rachel as the Joker throws her from the balcony to cover his escape.
Soon afterwards, the Joker makes a televised announcement. Someone will die every day until Batman reveals his identity. People are staunch at first, but their support for Batman begins to waver as the days pass and the body count rises. Finally, Joker names the mayor as his next victim. This leads to a convoluted scheme in which the Joker’s men steal honor guard uniforms during the commissioner’s funeral. Gordon covers the mayor’s body with his own, and is shot instead. The Joker names Rachel as his next victim. The enraged Dent steals an ambulance with a prisoner in it and disappears. Later that night, Dent threatens his kidnapped prisoner with death unless he spills information. Batman finds him and tells him to stop. He’ll publicly reveal his identity at a press conference tomorrow to stop the killings.
At the press conference, Bruce is ready to step forward, but Dent doesn’t give him a chance, falsely confessing to being Batman. While transferring him to prison, the convoy comes under attack from a semi piloted by the Joker and his cohorts. Batman intervenes, flipping the truck and zooming towards the Joker on his motorcycle. He decides not to hit him at the last minute, and crashes. Before the Joker can pull off his mask, another masked man comes up behind and takes him prisoner. It’s Gordon, who faked his death in an effort to bring the Joker in.
Dent and Rachel both disappear from the scene of the crime, so Batman and Gordon interrogate Joker until he tells them where they’ve been taken. Joker gives them a pair of addresses, but intentionally mixes them up so that Batman goes to get Dent while the police race to rescue Rachel. Rachel’s explosive timer kills her before Gordon can arrive, while Batman rescues Dent just in time. Or, almost just in time, as half the skin on Dent’s face burns off during the rescue.
Meanwhile, the Joker has goaded a cop into reaching just a little too far. He holds a piece of broken glass to his captive’s throat while demanding a phone call. He uses this call to set off a bomb implanted in a jailed henchman’s stomach. He and his men flee in the confusion.
The next day, one of Bruce Wayne’s accountants has figured out his employer’s identity and plans to reveal it on daytime television. The Joker has changed his mind about wanting to know Batman’s name. He threatens to blow up a hospital unless the accountant is executed in one hour. Chaos ensues. Batman and Gordon rescue the accountant, but while they’re occupied, Joker visits the now horrifically scarred Dent in the hospital. A demented little speech finishes the job of driving Dent murderously insane, and the Joker gives him a gun. Dent flips a coin, and decides to let Joker live. They both leave the hospital, which explodes shortly thereafter.
More televised threats send the city’s people fleeing for the suburbs. The Joker stops two ferries headed across the river—one filled with ordinary people and one filled with transferred prisoners. Each is laden with explosives. Each ferry has been given the detonator for the other ferry. If one ferry blows up the other, that ferry can live. If neither blows up, they will both be destroyed at midnight. The passengers deliberate among themselves while Batman finally traces the Joker to a building skeleton nearby, guarded by clown henchmen with hostages.
Batman breaks in and discovers that the clowns are bound and gagged with empty guns taped to their hands, while the hostages are armed and ready to fight. He pulls the rest of the clowns out of sight and then fights off the S.W.A.T. team until they figure out that the Joker has tricked them into trying to kill the wrong group of people. Up at the top, Batman fights off the Joker’s dogs and then the Joker himself. The midnight deadline arrives, and each ferry has refused to kill the other. The Joker tries to detonate both, but Batman prevents him, finally catching the murderous clown. Joker taunts Batman, revealing that Dent has gone insane, and is out terrorizing the city even now.
Meanwhile, Dent has assumed his college nickname of Two-Face. He hunts down the mobsters and crooked cops who sold Rachel to the Joker, deciding each one’s fate with a coin toss. Eventually he kidnaps Gordon’s family and holds them hostage at the site of Rachel’s death. Gordon and Batman plead with him to let them go. Batman knocks Two-Face over the side of the building and then falls himself rescuing Gordon’s son. Batman gets up bruised but otherwise uninjured. He and Gordon realize they can’t let people know that the widely idolized Dent became Two-Face. Rather than let the Joker have this last victory, they decide to tell people that Two-Face’s crimes were committed by Batman. Batman flees while Gordon orders police pursuit.
I strongly suspect that Christopher Nolan is incapable of making a lighthearted film. I suspect even more strongly that he is incapable of making an uninteresting one. Insomnia, Memento, The Prestige and of course the latest Batman movies all seize the viewer’s attention and hold it for the entire running time—even if, as in this case, the running time is approximately eleven hours long. This makes him something of a minor god to comic book movie fans, many of whom consider this movie scripture. And I confess, it’s certainly the best Batman film, maybe the best superhero film, and probably among the best comic book films ever created. But there’s a whole ocean of other tastes and genres out there. Holding it up as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement is a bit absurd, especially considering that the genre has foolish names, silly melodrama, impossible coincidences and illogical plot twists built right into its foundation. No matter how much you drape it in pathos and grit, you have to go in knowing that you’re about to see a man in a spiked hood fistfight a giggly clown.
With that in mind, however, this (along with Iron Man) is about as good as it gets. Nolan drops his characters into the comic book milieu and then punishes them over and over again with real-world consequences. It is not a fun movie. Puns aren’t on the menu, and the quips are half-hearted. There are set-piece action sequences, but at its heart, The Dark Knight is a deep and darkly fascinating drama about people who’ve pushed a conflict until it’s escalated beyond their control. Batman’s efforts to solve the problem of organized crime have attracted the Joker, who has now made things worse than ever. In the end, Batman realizes he’s not a hero, and can’t be if he wants to help his city.
There isn’t really anything wrong with the Rifftrax commentary, provided once again by Mike, Kevin and Bill. When the Joker asks if they want to know how he got his scars, Mike guesses, “You tried to kiss one of the Indigo Girls?” As Alfred the butler continues to make wry observations about Batman's situation, Kevin explains, “I’m English, sir. Congenitally droll.” Bill refers to Batman as “Die Fleder-Man.” Throughout, it’s fun to hear them bait people who worship the film and all it stands for. Still, they’re partially hobbled by the film’s grim tone, which doesn’t much indulge in as much silliness as the previous superhero films they’ve mocked. Nolan’s relentless pacing also defeats them in much the same way as it did during Memento; each scene demands full attention, often fading the commentary into the background. The movie is worth watching, certainly, and anything worth watching is worth watching with a Rifftrax, but The Dark Knight seems to sit right on the edge between “Too Grim to Laugh With” and “Too Absorbing to Laugh At”.
(2008, Drama/Action-Superheroes, color)