THE DARK KNIGHT premiered in Tokyo yesterday. I finally got to see it. The wait was excruciating! The hype of the film had been colossal, it's been breaking one box-office record after another and judging by its momentum, it is most likely going to be the second top-grossing movie of all-time in the US (behind Titanic, before adjustment to inflation).
After seeing the film, I'm a little baffled by the crazy amount of money it's making. It's quite a dark and intense film, not as cheery as the Spidey films, not as family-friendly as Shrek 2 or Pirates of the Caribbean 2), yet in just 3 weeks, it made more money than the likes of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Spider-man 1 etc.
I think it's probably due to a few factors, like this being Heath Ledger's last complete role, the goodwill from the previous film Batman Begins (read my review here), the insane hype generated from fan anticipation, marketing campaign etc. And this film's proving to have legs because of the extensive media coverage it had gotten with each of the box-office record it had broken, sparking curiosity from people who weren't initially interested in superhero films, and even those who didn't see the first film.
The Dark Knight, along with Spidey 2, is one of those rare films that aspires to be more than just an entertaining superhero film, but a great film that happens to have a superhero in it. That's what I feel about the film (and also its predecessor). It's really not just about Batman anymore, or his superheroics. It's really a crime thriller, deceptively epic in scale, featuring themes that resonate with most of its audiences.
It's also an ensemble film revolving around Harvey Dent's (Thomas Eckhart) fall from grace, while the Joker (Heath Ledger) is more a force of nature who pops in from time to time to wreak some major havoc, trying to prove his own twisted philosophy, and Batman (Christian Bale) is a superhero fighting to end his own role as protector of the city just so another hero can take over, clinging on to the romantic notion that this can finally reunite him with his love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), even though she is now going out with Harvey.
While these three are the primary characters, James Gordon (Gary Oldman) has a much bigger role in the film compared to before (on the other hand, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine's roles as Lucius Fox and Alfred are smaller than they were in the previous film). The characters are all handled with maturity, showing hints of complexity that make them very real. But unlike its predecessor Batman Begins, this film has less time to dwell in the psychology of Bruce Wayne/ Batman since there are more characters sharing the limelight, and because the plot moves briskly, the characters become less of who they are and more of what they stand for, recognizable archetypes audiences can relate to.
The film is about duality, good and evil, order and chaos, and how it exist within all people. From the bank robbery intro of the film, it's shown that Joker thrives on creating chaos by bringing out the worst in people, having all his minions double cross and murder one another so that he's always the last person standing. There will always be ugliness and evil in people in their attempts to preserve their own lives, that is what the Joker wants to prove, it's his raison d'être. Batman is order, Joker is chaos, while Harvey Dent is duality personified, representing how even the purest of them all can descend to darkness.
By now, Heath Ledger's interpretation of Batman's most iconic nemesis has garnered so much acclaim that I can see it's very possible he will win a posthumous Oscar. (oh, and people applauded when his name appeared during the end credits) I think the success of this Joker character is that unlike his more clownish and flamboyant predecessors, he is actually someone many can disturbingly relate to. I don't mean his psychopathic tendencies, but more of his anarchistic methods and desire to expose the worst in people. (I once ranted about my disdain for hypocritical goody-two-shoes in a post I wrote 3 years ago, the first few paragraphs made sense, but it degenerated into incoherence)
At times, I feel uncomfortable meeting certain political or social activists, or documentary filmmakers, because with their self-seriousness and perpetual belief that they are 'fighting for good' and 'exposing the ugly truths' of the world, I can't help but feel that many of them just seem to be perched on a very high horse, easily deluding themselves into overestimating their self-importance, and annoying me with their sanctimony and (unintentional) condescension, they are often so busy with the selfless cause they fight for that they have no time for anything else. Tear these apart and you see hypocrisy. I would rather see a flawed human side of them so that I can emotionally relate to them more, so I can be more convinced of that they are, well, humans. So I think that is the 'Joker' in me.
Why so serious?
Batman always has a strong sense of justice in his fight to preserve order. But he understands that he's not flawless and initially admired Harvey Dent because the latter, unlike him, never has to resort to violence to eliminate the criminals in the city. Batman is human because of his flaws. He has his personal desires, he rather have Rachel Dawes than to continue on as the city's 'protector'. He knows that if he continues on with his violent crime fighting methods, he will soon become just like the villains he had been fighting against.
Yet he remains the most fitting hero for the city because he knows his own flaws, and is less self-conscious about trying to be a 'hero'. Even though the Joker had pushed him to the edge throughout their encounters in the film, Batman still believes in the people he tries to protect, he knows that nobility and kindness can be found in the most unlikely of people during the most unpredictable circumstances. Batman doesn't fight for what he believes is good, just what he thinks is right.
I've read how Joel Schumacher defended the idiotic excess of Batman and Robin and Batman Forever by asking "Well, it’s based on a comic book; what did he expect, Long Day’s Journey into Gotham?" That is what separates the Nolans from the Schumachers, the latter underestimated his source material and the intelligence of his audiences, creating films that embody what so many people have hated about Hollywood. As for Nolan, he shows many anti-Hollywood elitists that one can still take chances with commercial filmmaking in Hollywood, that a film with superheroes in it can still be well-crafted, well-written, and possesses thematic elements that are more likely to haunt audiences than to comfort.
The Dark Knight is a heavy (albeit truly entertaining) film, it's not the type of popcorn fluff people will walk out of the theaters from with a feel-good grin. That's why I appreciate it. Sure, 95% of the Hollywood films are rubbish, but so are 95% of foreign films, or 95% of art films.
Hollywood films are often derided for not just being some personal artistic expression. They are about making money, meeting the financial expectations of their financiers, so many compromises have to be made, so that it can be accessible to audiences etc. But ultimately, I care more about the end product. A badly executed self-wanking pretentious art film repulses me just as much as a bad Hollywood film, even though it may be a very personal and sincere artistic expression.
It annoys me more than enough when I see numerous incompetently made 'indie' or 'art' films getting praised more because of effort than because of the film's actual artistic or technical merits. There should never be double standards. A good film is subjective, and a good film can be a good film regardless of whether it's mainstream or non-mainstream, commercial or indie. So, for me, despite some flaws (some fighting scenes, while an improvement over its predecessor, are still a little choppy, the pacing isn't perfect but its gets better as the film goes on, thematic exploration and larger canvas sacrifice intimate character developments etc.) The Dark Knight's a really good film, probably one of the best of the year because it meets my expectations.
Even so, I don't really look forward to a sequel for this film (even though it's probably inevitable). The film is good as it is, the ending, while it screams for conventional closure, lingers. Maybe I'm weary of trilogies, but I just don't want to see another disappointing third installment that fails to live up to its predecessor, it's always a trend that when the second film is better than the first, the third film generally underwhelms, except for Bourne Ultimatum, I have yet to find an exception to this rule. But who knows what surprise can Nolan pull off in the future?
Go read Mike Peterson's critical review of The Dark Knight (I like the film more than he does, but many of his points, I agree with), or Sebastian's list of logical holes in The Dark Knight.
Another recommended read is io9's The Dark Knight Twice As Long As It Should Be.
DMJ's description of how she felt after the finished seeing the film in the first time in her The Dark Knight review is exactly how I felt too.