Thursday, February 21, 2019

Before The Dawn

by Tyler Langness (writer), Northridge, July 22, 2008


Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight takes comic book films to a new realm on the strength of Heath Ledger's final, brilliant performance

The Hollywood hype machine makes it nearly impossible for anything to live up to inflated, lofty expectations in modern filmmaking. If internet, television, and print media coverage weren't enough, factor in legions of rabid fans when the event release is something of comic book caliber, and disappointment is almost a certainty. Look only so far as some of the more recent releases from major comic book labels and their studio partners - The Incredible Hulk, Superman Returns, Spider-Man 3 - and see that gargantuan efforts made to try and please everyone end up feeling hollow and falling flat.

So in the age of oversaturation, the viral marketing campaign and endless stream of buzz surrounding Warner Brothers' The Dark Knight, particularly in light of the untimely death of Heath Ledger, may have seemed overblown, even exploitative. Midnight showings across the country sold out weeks and months in advance, and zealous fanboys peppered cyberspace with declarations of the film's supremacy over everything from Tim Burton's original Batman to sliced bread.

And then The Dark Knight opened up and swallowed us all.

Christopher Nolan's second offering in the series does more than deliver on its myriad promises - it shatters the glass ceiling previously thought to contain comic book adaptations. Where even the genre's best efforts (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins) have fallen a little short, The Dark Knight far outstrips them in every category - and it does so not by upping the ante, but by grounding the hero in the trappings of his own humanity. The scale that expanded for Nolan and his team this time around was not one involving explosions, computer graphics, or a bloated budget (though all are present and accounted for), but rather the measure of a man, and the lengths to which he'll go to further his own agenda.

The three particular men who are measured are Bruce Wayne, new Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent, and The Joker. Christian Bale returns as Wayne/Batman, all grit and gusto, putting the bad guys in Arkham and trying to convince the good guys he doesn't belong in the loony bin with the likes of The Scarecrow. There is no joy in Bale's performance - his Wayne is a man of supreme utility, carousing with the trust fund brigade only as much as it serves his alter ego. His fleet of unattainable toys and never-ending parade of beautiful, disposable women are not escapes - they are tools used to further the interests of vigilante justice. As the film's namesake, he doesn't disappoint - precise, calculating, and electric in the pursuit of the evil he's driven to eradicate. Some will have qualms with his gruff, gravelly voice when he dons his cowl, but in the larger picture of a superhero film so grounded in reality, it makes sense to disguise himself in as many ways as possible, even if it is a bit jarring.

Superbly guided by an excellent script, the supporting players don't disappoint, either. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a more-than-capable replacement for Katie "Scheduling Conflict" Holmes, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine give Bruce Wayne the sage advice and sublime acting we're used to from them, and Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent, and his subsequent transformation into the pathologically dichotomal Two-Face, is an image not soon forgotten when you leave the theater.

But towering above all of them is the indelible swan song of the late Heath Ledger. It is as if someone switched off the showing of his promising career far too early, but the final image has been burned onto the screen. Such complete immersion in his role as The Joker recalls some of the great villain performances of yesteryear, particularly because it seems like he's combining every available influence in a single frame. Insane, diabolical, funny, manipulative, perfect... There aren't enough words to describe such a performance, so one will have to suffice: Oscar. That's right, Mr. Ledger's family - do not pass go, do not collect $200, go straight to the Kodak Theater next spring and wait for the first posthumous gold statue in over 30 years, because nothing can top this.

On the back of Ledger's performance goes The Dark Knight, and it goes well. A hauntingly tense score by Hans Zimmer pushes the breakneck pace, barely giving you time to breathe as the action ramps up. However, credit to Christopher Nolan for not overwhelming the audience with massive CGI set pieces. The action is not driven by escalating violence, but rather the converse - the escalating violence is driven by the actions and decisions of those involved.

There are flaws among the accomplishments, though. There are parts where the film drags - perhaps a result of such a relentless pace needing to slow down a few times over two and a half hours, but it drags nonetheless. There's little in the way of comic relief, but after all, it is The Dark Knight. Bale isn't perfect, but were it not for Ledger's commanding presence, no one else would be under such a scrutinizing microscope.

But really, we're finding pimples on Miss America here. Not only has Christopher Nolan made arguably the greatest comic-book film of all time, he's redefined the genre. Remember a few years ago, when Gladiator was released over the summer, and it was simply too good to be ignored by Academy voters, even though they have notoriously short memories? Beyond the legacy of a film that will be remembered as both Ledger's greatest work and the best film of the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight has taken the mask-and-tights crowd and lifted it to a place Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and Jerry Siegel always dreamed it could rise to - the upper echelon of American cinema.

About the Writer

Tyler Langness is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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