RETRO REVIEW: The Dark Knight (2008)

Theatrical Release Poster - Warner Bros.

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros.

The following spoiler-filled retro review of The Dark Knight was written in August 2016

I saw this film in a movie theater, but I don’t quite remember how I felt after I first saw it. What I do remember, quite clearly actually, was that my sister bought the Blu-Ray for me as a Christmas gift. I think The Dark Knight is a haunting superhero movie masterpiece, but, for a specific reason, I don’t often sit down to watch it.

I’ve always thought Heath Ledger was an exceptionally entertaining actor, and it was tough for me to hear that the world had lost him when we did. Although he was brilliant in Brokeback Mountain and while I was never worried about what he would do with the Joker character, this performance remains one of the most surprisingly magnificent performances that I’ve ever seen. The Dark Knight wouldn’t be a masterpiece without Heath Ledger’s performance.

The Dark Knight continues the story of the Caped Crusader, who is no longer new to the criminals in Gotham City. But things will have to get worse before they get better, as the criminal mastermind known only as ‘the Joker’ begins to tear the city apart from within. But Batman is not the only defender of the city. The new ‘White Knight’ of Gotham City is Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent is trying to clean the streets, and still recognizes the positive influence Batman can have on the city.

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and his team fixed everything that was problematic about Batman Begins. Rachel Dawes was problematic in the first film, and here they’ve fixed that problem perfectly. Maggie Gyllenhaal does a fantastic job here, and you really feel torn up when Bruce loses her and when Alfred feels the need to burn her letter.

Batman’s relationship with the law is also handled much better here and it isn’t through Rachel, but with Harvey Dent instead. Dent and Wayne see eye to eye, but he could never tell him that – and Bruce’s relationship with Aaron Eckhart’s Dent is so interesting to see here. Bruce puts on two masks in this film, and, as he changes from one to the other, his relationship with Dent changes remarkably.

There are a ton of things to talk about here, and I’ll sum up the things I could’ve talked about later in this review, but this really is all about the performances. That’s all anyone talks about. Gyllenhaal is great and Eckhart is a revelation here too. Oldman, Caine, and Freeman are terrific as always. Christian Bale has gotten a lot of criticism for his voice as the Batman, but it doesn’t bother me – and I loved him in this film.

And then there’s the Joker. The only word that really fits when you describe the performance is ‘perfect.’ When I rewatch these films, I tend to talk during it to anyone who is rewatching it with me, but when the Joker is on the screen you just shut up. He is absolutely terrifying, captivating, and chilling. It really is one of the strongest supporting performances that I’ve seen in a film like this one.

While this definitely isn’t based on The Killing Joke, you do see how the story had been influenced by the Joker’s mission in the infamous graphic novel. In The Dark Knight, the Joker finds regular people absolutely dull and boring, and in the Batman he sees someone who understands the madness of the world much better. Batman is a symbol of fear in Gotham, and the impulsive Joker is a symbol of insanity.

Batman and the Joker are both victims. In the film, we get a lot of different variations on how the Joker got ‘his scars,’ and it reminds me of how, I believe, the Joker mentions, in The Killing Joke, that he likes that his past isn’t certain – there are multiple ways to tell his story. The ‘unreliable narrator’ version of Joker is always entertaining to watch, and in both The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight the Joker wants to bring someone high and mighty down to his level. Not the Batman or Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight, but, instead, the White Knight of Gotham.

“All it takes is one bad day,” is one of the most memorable lines of dialogue from the Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, and it is the same idea that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer work with here. Goyer and Nolan’s take on that idea from The Killing Joke, is presented in third act of The Dark Knight. As Joker hangs upside down in front of Batman, the Joker explains what he has accomplished:

“I took Gotham’s White Knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!” – The Joker.

This is such a well-made film on pretty much every level. All everyone talks about, and for good reason, is Heath Ledger’s magnificent performance, but there’s so much more to take away from this film. There’s the amazing performance by Gary Oldman, the actions of Alfred Pennyworth. The influence of Lucius Fox on Bruce. The fantastic heist sequence. ‘War on terror’ and so much more. This film deserves to be studied in film and acting schools around the world, it really does.

While I do think this is a true masterpiece in the superhero movie genre, I don’t think it is immune to criticism, and I know there are people out there that don’t love it as much as I do. But Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is going to be a movie classic, not just a superhero movie classic, and I think it will stand the test of time.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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