Cheering for the Murderous Clown

In the newest reincarnation of Batman, all anyone wants to see is the hero’s demise.

Jason Zabel

In light of all the positive buzz, this review should begin with a disclaimer: This movie will not change your life. Batman will not make you understand anything about the “human condition.” The narrative does not end with a life-affirming declaration, and you won’t likely gain an appreciation for your existence (I know you’ve been searching). At its best, the movie is a convoluted nail-biter. But at its worst, it is a hurried action flick posing as something much more serious.

“The Dark Knight” is the second in the line of Batman movies starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolan (who co-wrote and directed the awesome thriller “Memento”). The movie sets a quick pace from the opening bank heist scene, where it’s criminal against criminal as the Joker (Heath Ledger) offs his helpers – his preferred tool is a knife, if only because it takes longer – and slyly escapes. Gangsters have inundated Gotham, and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), have done everything to curtail crime, with only some success. Meanwhile, Batman has some kind of existential crisis (Am I really doing as much good as I think I am, or do I just make matters worse?) which brings him to the brink of quitting. That is, until the Joker’s malevolence forces Batman back into the thick of things.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the plot doesn’t feel especially important. The stable setup of Good vs. Evil is enough to keep the audience shamelessly (and irritatingly) woo-ing whenever Batman glides in to save the day. The film attempts to draw a gray area with the protagonist questioning his self-worth, pondering his role as a hero -but, unfortunately, all attempts to muddy Batman’s moral compass feel like sloppy plot-thickening. (In certain scenes, you can smell the Hollywood, and I’m sorry to report that it reeks.)

But “The Dark Knight” is mainly a showcase for the departed Heath Ledger, who overhauls the typical villain experience by transforming his body, voice and aura into a work of artful entertainment. By flitting his tongue and twitching his eye, Ledger turns horror into comedy and ugly into sexy. Without Ledger’s Joker the movie feels stagnant – the same old Batman, but with modern, steroid-strengthened visuals. But when Ledger is on screen, the old formula is just a fuzzy recollection. Not since Jack Nicholson’s rendition of the Joker has an actor created a murderous villain with such a nuanced, happy hysteria.

Contrasting Ledger’s Joker is the cookie-cutter Batman. As Batman’s counterpart, Bruce Wayne, Bale is a bimbo-loving playboy who parades into social events with brand-new, seemingly store-bought inamorata whenever he gets the chance. But as Batman, Bale is a creepy-voiced (think a possessed Cookie Monster after a few diazepams) version of the classic dark-suited hero, but with shinier toys. To put it bluntly, in this world of Batman versus Joker, the latter is much, much more enviable. At times it seems as though the audience is waiting for the melancholy Batman to just go away.

When the audience isn’t hoping for the excitable Joker to kill the boring Batman, they are being treated to all the fire and fury that a hormone-addled teenage boy could dream of. The visuals are crisp – almost too stunning for any viewer to comprehend in a single showing. Especially impressive are the mile-high cityscapes. And action fans pining for inventive, fast-moving vehicular chases will not be disappointed.

The dialogue is another story. It seems that a movie with this much action just can’t resist becoming a campy cornball. A notable exception comes from the Joker, who delivers a “Jerry Maguire”-inspired but nary sentimental, “you complete me” to a severe-looking Batman.

The movie is long, with an enduring tension. The ending does little to alleviate this feeling, instead behaving as a setup for yet another Batman sequel. But with the loss of Heath Ledger, you have to wonder what the audience has to look forward to.