Tonight I went and saw the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, and I thought I should review it while it’s still fresh in my head. I have good news and bad news to relay about this film. First, it is possible that this movie falls just short of the hype surrounding it. That’s not to say it isn’t a good, solid summer action movie, because it certainly is that. It’s easily the best movie of the summer so far, and I seriously doubt there’s anything left on the summer schedule to top it. But the hype surrounding this movie was epic, and only an epic film of “Lord of the Rings” or “Godfather” proportions could have justified it. I’m not sure it measures up that high standard, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it won a well-deserved best picture nomination.
What’s wrong with the movie? Well, it’s too long, for one thing. At about two and half hours, I thought the last 15 to 20 minutes felt a little forced and superfluous. The writers and director also tried to cram a little too much into the last third of the film. For one thing, there was a regrettable bit at the end where Batman uses this mega-computer, electronic surveillance thingy with about a thousand screens that can monitor every cell phone call in the city. Supposedly, the purpose of the machine is to help Batman track the Joker, but his conscientious R&D guy (played by Morgan Freeman) objects that it’s “too much power for one man.” Keep in mind, this is the same worldly wise tech geek who has been building badss machines like the bat mobile, which is basically a crossbreed between a Hummer and a Tank on steroids, as well as million dollar body armor, motorcycles with machine guns, and who knows what else. All that is OK, but the supercomputer that looks like a leftover prop from *The Matrix? Oh no, that’s “too much power.” The gizmo is an obvious attempt at tackling the very serious issue of electronic surveillance in our own society, but it’s a shallow attempt at best. About ten minutes after we see the thing it melts down when Morgan Freeman enters a password that triggers a self-destruct mechanism. Apparently, electronic snooping is OK as long as you only do it once.
The other part that I found a little forced was the introduction of a second major arch-villain, Two-Face, who fans of the comic books, the cartoons, and the TV series will remember as a major character in his own right. For a while I thought they were bringing Two-Face into the mix so he could star in a sequel, but then they killed him off in the last five minutes. It was a shame because the character, played convincingly by Aaron Eckhart, seemed like he had a lot of potential.
Naturally, the subject of wasted potential brings us to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. Believe it or not, some people are still debating whether Ledger’s Joker is the best Joker ever. Some people are even asking who should be the next Joker. The answer to the first question is, “Um, yeah.” The answer to the second question is, “nobody.” Ledger didn’t just succeed in this role, he owned it and finished it, at least for a generation. I mean that his performance was simply so incredible that only a fool would try to cast another actor in this role for years to come. Can you imagine someone other than Tom Hanks doing a sequel to Forrest Gump? Or to use a more appropriate analogy, can you imagine someone other than Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter? Some day, if the movie watching public has enough time to forget, we will eventually see other actors in those roles. But not now, and not any time soon. The same is true of Ledger’s Joker.
No theatrical performance, no matter how brilliant, can ever justify the loss of a human life. And if it is true, as some have suggested, that Ledger’s mastery of the Joker character helped contribute to his untimely death, then that is no less of a tragedy than if he had died making a crappy sequel to A Knight’s Tale. But oh my, what a performance! It’s a shocking role, and not just because of the violence, which was bad enough. During the course of the movie the Joker kills a his victims with a pencil (don’t ask), a shard of class, gasoline, knives, nooses, and an assortment of other conventional weapons. But beyond the violence, there is something deeply sinister and disturbing about Ledger’s demeanor, voice, and body language in this role.
I’m not given to hyperbole over movies, but an ordinary word like “terrifying” just doesn’t cut it in this instance. Perhaps gorgonian hits closer to the mark, because this Joker seems more like a creature out of a dark myth than a comic book. A Puerto Rican friend of mine once told me a shocking story about how one of his relatives got a little too deep into studying voodoo, and lost his life (and possibly his soul) because of it. My friend was a talented liar, so I have no idea if the story was true or not, but watching Heath Ledger’s Joker gave me much the same kind of feeling as hearing that story. It was almost like there was something a little too real, too visceral, about the apparition Ledger brought to life on screen. I felt that if I had been the actor’s friend I would have told him to stop, walk away from the set for a while, or maybe quit the movie altogether. I am sure that’s a huge over-reaction, but that’s what I was thinking at the time.
Next to Ledger’s Joker, the other actors’ roles pale in comparison. But it would be a shame to end this review without mentioning the solid work done by veteran actors like Michael Caine (Alfred), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), and Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon). And of course, Christian Bale delivered another fine performance as the Caped Crusader. If Bale was somewhat overshadowed by the actor playing his arch-nemesis, he has no reason to be ashamed of that.