A week ago, as part of the spectacular birthday celebration that heralded my 39th birthday (apologies if the fireworks kept you awake) Karen took me to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. I’d quite enjoyed Batman Begins – as superhero movies go it was nice ‘n’ dark, gritty and packed a hard hitting punch or two. But for me the story was too fragmented, too intent on ticking as many bat-boxes as possible within the classic Batman framework... it tried to do too much and felt frustrated and frustrating. So despite the hype it was with some trepidation that I settled into my seat to watch The Dark Knight.
I needn’t have worried. It totally blew me away.
The sets, the backdrops, the stunts, the action... all on target. The story – despite the length of the film – felt tight and compact (like a well defined six-pack). And the humour... ah the humour was so dark it felt beyond black. I actually felt a twinge of regret when it was all over.
Michael Caine was a joy to watch and I’d at last fully accepted the bat-voice without wondering at what point in the movie Bruce Wayne had smoked a hundred Columbian cigars... Gary Oldman too was effortlessly believable as Gordon. The man is such a chameleon – he manages to change his physicality in every film I’ve ever seen him. How else can he go from the emaciated Goth cool of Sirius Black to the fustiness of Gordon and yet still look like himself?
But all this is just the nuts and bolts of the movie, the framework – the skeleton – albeit a very impressive one. The flesh, the heart, however is The Joker. Was Heath Ledger as good as the hype? For me: yes. Definitely. All the clichés are at least meaningful and fresh – a commanding performance, hypnotic, mesmerizing. In any scene where he didn’t appear I found myself pining for him to pop up in front of the camera.
I liked the fact his performance doffed its cap to the classic Joker and yet also managed to contemporize it so fully. The lies, the tricks, the surety that he will always, always play you false, the certainty that even the truth from his lips will inevitably be a lie. My favourite part of the film was The Joker’s self-deprecating speech to Harvey Dent: he dismisses himself as a mad dog, too chaotic to plan, to organize, he merely acts on his every whim, it’s not personal... it is the police, Batman, the authorities who plan and plot, who connive and conspire.
It is of course another delicious lie but one that hints at an interesting subtext of the movie. The Joker is the most organized agent in the story. To tell a good joke, to perform an effective trick takes eons of planning, post production, preparation... It is The Joker who connives and conspires more effectively than anyone. The Joker allows himself to be captured by the police or at least plans ahead for it – how else explain his henchman with the bomb-phone sewn into his guts?
The mad dog, the man who acts on his whims is, of course, Harvey Dent. Stripped of his suit and tie, the façade of law and order, he merely becomes another one of the Joker’s slathering canines, maddened, hungry, blindly animalistic but leashed and very carefully directed. Controlled completely by The Joker.
But isn’t Batman himself also a creature of instinct and whim? Isn’t Batman too something of a mad dog? He reacts emotionally, personally to all of The Joker’s plots and machinations. He considers giving up his Bat alter ego on an emotional whim and returns to it without a second’s regret. His explosions of violence match those of The Joker and he is just as apt to change the rules of engagement to suit his current requirements... The Joker was correct when he told Batman that he completed him (though it was a corny line). The correlation between these two characters is intriguing and gives the film its distinctive resonance.
Where they go from here in the regretful absence of Heath Ledger is a mystery but I’m awaiting the next film with a pleasurable amount of excitement. Just what kind of morning will follow this dark night? I can’t wait to find out.