Jul 19, 2008
The Batman franchises have long struggled to find the correct balance between good and evil. In the original Batman, Tim Burton's love for the visually (and emotionally) bizarre, combined with Jack Nicholson's apparent inability to control himself, produced a film whose focus quickly shifted from Michael Keaton's mildly-tormented title character to Nicholson's wildly over-acted Joker. As the franchise moved from Batman to Batman Returns, from Batman Forever to Batman and Robin, the villains began to play a larger and larger role in the creation and marketing of the films, while the plastic suit-filling hero grew increasingly bland. (Warner Brothers' inability to retain their stars throughout the series almost certainly contributed to this blandness; the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney tag-team sounded good on paper, I'm sure. But it failed miserably on celluloid.)
When English-born director Christopher Nolan was given the daunting task of restarting Warner Brothers' signature franchise, he produced the refreshing Batman Begins -- a superhero flick that took its hero seriously, fleshing out Batman's motivations, emotions, and backstory in a compelling and convincing way. Yet in this cinematic version, a very different imbalance arose: Somehow, the villains got lost along the way. In the Burton and Schumacker films, they stole the show, but in Nolan's first attempt, they were either too insignificant in the overall scheme of things (Carmine Falcone), too effeminate to hold their own onscreen with Bale's growling menace (Dr. Jonathan Crane), or too absent for much of the film for the audience to care (the confusing Ra's Al Ghul/Henri Ducard combo). Despite the power and depth Christian Bale brought to the Bat Suit, the balance was still not right.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan has discovered the combination that eluded the franchise for so many years. In an interesting (and inspired) departure from Burton's original film, he gives us absolutely no account of the Joker's back story. There are no horrific factory accidents, radioactive insects, or otherworldly minerals to bring a measure of understanding to his condition, nothing that would cause the audience to feel sympathy. No, this Joker is as profoundly evil, and as terrifying as any villain that has ever graced the screen. His shocking brutality and violently unpredictable behavior captures the irrationality of evil in a way I have not experienced this side of Lewis's That Hideous Strength. At last, we have a villain malevolent enough to stand up to our hero.
This conflict between Batman and the Joker -- between Gotham's Dark Knight and the self-proclaimed Bringer of Chaos -- serves as the core of the film's story. As Batman Begins comes to a close, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Lieutenant James Gordon in his efforts to clean up the city of Gotham. And as The Dark Knight begins, they receive support in their undertaking from an unexpected quarter: the town's young, idealistic district attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent, whose constituents have dubbed him Gotham's White Knight -- an unsubtle jab at Batman's secretive modus operandi -- is not only an unwitting competitor for the hearts and minds of Gotham's citizens, but for the affections of Batman's life-long sweetheart as well, the charming (and prudently recast) Assistant DA Rachel Dawes. Wayne struggles to put this awkward little fact behind him during the planning of a coordinated attack on the few crime syndicates remaining in the city. Feeling their hold on the city gradually slipping away, the mob bosses turn to a peculiar fellow who inexplicably arrives upon the scene: a man known only as The Joker, with "a taste for the theatrical," and a most unusual calling card. Desperate to stop the onslaught of Gotham's "knights," the syndicates promise him half of their entire fortune if he will simply find a way to halt the dreaded Batman, unwittingly opening a Pandora's box.