Here at AfterElton.com we don’t generally review movies that don’t have a prominent gay element (be it character, director, or star). But the eagerly-anticipated Batman sequel The Dark Knight isn’t the kind of movie that plays by the rules. And considering that many of us hold a special place in our hearts for Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger, we’re covering The Dark Knight and Ledger’s invaluable contribution to it here.
The review doesn’t get spoilery until the third page and gives ample warning, so consider this a pretty safe read for those of you who would like to have the details of Knight left in the shadows until showtime.
Here’s the long and short of it: The Dark Knight is perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made.
It is an epic, complicated, and relentlessly disturbing meditation on terror, fear, honor, and responsibility that grabs you in the opening scene and drags you by the throat through 150 minutes of intrigue, drama, and jaw-dropping action. From its grim palette to its wonderfully eerie minimalist score, everything about the film is a departure from what Hollywood has always told us a superhero film should be. This is something altogether more complex, more unsettling, and more rewarding.
The main reason that the film works is the performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker. It’s simply riveting. After the carefully-crafted origin story of Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan wisely shifts the focus off of the Pointy-Eared One and onto the villain who would make him fully realize his potential as Gotham’s savior: the mysterious and horrifying Joker, whose refusal to compromise plays foil to Bruce Wayne’s own internal conflict. And I cannot imagine that any other actor could have realized this part with the nuance, the bravado, and the sheer balls that Ledger brought to the role.
This is Ledger’s film, start-to-finish. Which is interesting, considering that at no point do we actually learn anything whatsoever about the character that he plays beyond his simple philosophy: Chaos reigns. As he himself points out in an early scene, he’s not crazy … he simply has a singular desire: to see everything fall apart. And if that’s crazy, then Batman must be crazy, too, because they are two sides of the same coin: Control … and chaos.
Fittingly, the coin-flipping villain Two Face (nee Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart) enjoys the most satisfying character arc the film has to offer. We actually see the new District Attorney (Gotham’s "White Knight") transform from the city’s greatest hope to the city’s greatest threat, a journey that further amplifies Batman’s yin-yang relationship with The Joker.
What’s really most impressive about The Dark Knight is its scope and scale, which makes even Batman Begins, which itself felt impossibly thorough and wonderfully grand in its exploration of the hero’s origins, look like child’s play by comparison. Batman Begins was literally the setup, and The Dark Knight is where the bat hits the fan. At the heart of the story is Gotham, in all its corrupt, overpopulated, mismanaged, crime-ridden glory. And Gotham is its focus through and through, as public servants fall prey to The Joker’s plans, innocent civilians are transformed into gun-toting clowns, and, in the film’s most harrowing sequence, two ferries loaded with citizens are asked to play jury, judge, and mass executioner.
I know that I called this the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it’s almost inappropriate to call it a superhero movie at all. Sure, the most ambitious superhero movies (Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman) have wrestled with "big themes" like responsibility, family, and greed … but not nearly to this extent. This is the anatomy of a society hobbled by corruption and driven by fear whose parallels to our own world are alarmingly tight. It’s not about the suit, and it’s not about the gadgets (although they’re amazing), and it’s not about the clown makeup (which is never explained, or even addressed): it’s about the clash of good and evil and the sacrifices that those who protect the greater good make in order to keep order.
And it’s wonderfully, exhaustingly thrilling.
Okay, enough big-picture rhapsodizing. On to the juicy details…
Heath will get an Oscar nomination
Count on it. His performance is the best I’ve seen so far this year, turning from lucid to loony in a twitch and swaggering to limping on a dime. It’s actually hard to remember it’s even him in that purple suit and smeared greasepaint, and his performance certainly bears no resemblance whatsoever to Ennis from Brokeback Mountain (another role which he played with uncommon sensitivity and for which he was nominated for – and robbed of – an Oscar). It’s crazy that this young man turned in not one, but two truly iconic performances in his relatively short career. And while I’ll never forget him as Ennis, he’s effectively bumped off Jack Nicholson as the definitive Joker. I know a lot of people are wary of seeing an actor who means so much to them play such a dark role, but seriously, it deserves to be seen.