The Dark Knight Review
For filmmakers adapting superhero comic books to the screen, the fundamental question that almost certainly needs to be addressed first is what tone to adopt to bring the subject to a modern cinema audience, an audience with quite different expectations from the primarily younger comic book reader. In the wake of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, both published by DC comics now over twenty years ago, the modern trend, both in comics and films, continues to be towards gritty realism and philosophical angst, placing the characters within a world more recognisably our own, with less superpowers and more deeper concerns and human failings in their consideration of their place in the world and their conflicted reactions towards achieving vigilante justice in a world of secrets, lies and corruption.
Christopher Nolan’s exploration of the Batman legend comes recognisably from this more modern darker world of the superhero character, drawing on the Miller/Mazzuchelli Batman Year One to explore the origins of the character in Batman Begins. While The Dark Knight takes little more than the outline of Frank Miller’s futuristic Batman struggle-to-the-death end-story with a psychotic Joker in The Dark Knight Returns, it does recognisably see a Batman with a heavy reliance on technology to deal with the growing extremes of the world of crime in an aggressive all-or-nothing, take-no-prisoners approach to the ultimate battle between good and evil.
It’s that sledgehammer to nut approach in Batman’s dealings with a Gotham City crime syndicate in The Dark Knight then that gives rise to the polar extreme character of the Joker. The notion of Gotham being plagued with costume characters on account of their being a Batman to pit themselves against, rather than Batman being a force set up to counteract them has long been one of the delightful and complicated contradictions when examining the psychology of the Dark Knight and his relationship with the villains in his world, many of them being darker counterpoints of his own twisted psychological make-up. The old cliché of “We’re not so different, you and I” is very much the case here in The Dark Knight as it’s the Joker who is clearly the most dangerous threat that arises from the Dark Knight’s darkest innermost fears. The Joker is Bruce Wayne’s worst nightmare, his nemesis, an unpredictable and uncontrollable element of chaos that threatens his need for order and rationality, a figure that rather than being defeated by the force of the violence directed towards him, actually thrives on it. In many respects then, the Joker wouldn’t exist without the Batman, the latter’s single-minded, extreme zero-tolerance approach to crime giving birth to an equally extreme opposite, a dark force for chaos and disorder on a similar and perhaps more dangerous level.
Striving for a credible level of technological and psychological realism then, the modern-day real-world political resonances of the battle between the all-American forces of justice, law, order and the preservation of democracy against an unpredictable and unstoppable force of evil and chaos are hard to ignore, as is the implication that America, like Batman, has in some respect created those evils and brought an even greater threat upon itself through its roughshod interventionist approach to foreign policy. It’s hard also not to see the implications of another of those crusaders of political right and might being twisted into the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face and in the heavy electronic surveillance that is carried out on each and every member of the population by those forces interested in preserving their “liberty”. Without making this explicit, Nolan plays marvellously on these kind of contradictions and their real-world significance, even if in the process he at times takes them and Batman’s powers beyond the limits of realism, suspension of disbelief and even narrative coherence.
While those flaws are apparent and certainly niggle, the underlying psychology and approach is thematically correct, Nolan himself taking a similarly Manichean approach to the film and the character, staging events with all the subtlety of Batman’s heavy-duty Tumbler version of the Batmobile ripping through the streets of Gotham City. Those consequently seeking to find a traditional Batman as a hard-but-fair noble crusader for justice however will be left aghast at the Dark Knight demolishing anything that stands in its way, with little concern for the collateral damage he is leaving in the wake of his steamroller approach to achieving justice against a threat that has become an obsession and a personal vendetta. In this context Batman becomes less sympathetic to the audience - a dull, one-note figure not greatly helped by Christian Bale’s deeply serious, stiff, wooden interpretation, mechanical growl and a fascistic costume that looks patently ridiculous and out of place in any environment. If there is one area where realism is taken too far however, it’s not so much in the attempt to make the Batsuit a credible, light and manoeuvrable suit of body-armour, as much as in the dubious psychology of Bruce Wayne and his schizophrenic double life. Nolan addressed this in the origin story of Batman Begins, but was only successful in making the underlying motivations of his disorder work in comic-book terms. In The Dark Knight the credibility of Bruce Wayne’s ability to be a successful playboy millionaire and keep a secret identity as a ludicrously costumed vigilante with his finger on the pulse of the crime world is even harder to accept. In one plot thread Nolan does flirt with the question of how difficult it could be for a celebrity millionaire to maintain such a secret life, and the danger of exposure to the omnipresent media, but tellingly this element of the story mysteriously and conveniently disappears.
With his delightful interpretation of an sociopathic criminal, Heath Ledger’s Joker becomes a more interesting figure than the righteous crusader for justice, since he is less constrained by the need to remain founded in some basis of conventional psychological realism or even comic-book continuity (a fact that his relating of different accounts of his origin plays with), and his unpredictable behaviour consequently can take the film anywhere. And it does, enlivening what would otherwise be a fairly conventional crime thriller or credibility-stretching modern superhero angst film. The addition late in the film of a further rogue element in the form of Two-Face being created from the fractals left in the Joker’s sowing of chaos, is then perhaps not strictly necessary to the story narrative, but it seems perversely appropriate that, rather than say The Penguin or the Riddler, it’s another twisted version of the Batman’s notion of justice that emerges from his actions. As a consequence The Dark Knight appropriately veers between the two polar extremes of order and chaos, frustrating those Batman-sympathetic viewers with a keener sense of structure and traditional narrative by allowing plot-lines to dangle and the film to run it own unwieldy length, but delighting those Jokers who come to the film with the expectation only to be entertained by the wayward trajectory of the storyline and see things explode in full glorious IMAX quality.
Christopher Nolan’s challenge then is in navigating between these poles of chaos and order and, if there are inevitably pitfalls of credibility in the plot and characterisation that have to be navigated, at least keep everything grounded in some level of realism, even if it is in actuality little more than realism in comic-book or movie terms. The grim purposeful determination with which the Batman pursues his prey and the plentiful explosions that he leaves in his trail should at least obscure any minor deficiencies in this regard and largely satisfy the film’s target audience. One suspects that Christopher Nolan would like the film to be a bit more meaningful than that and say something about our society’s attitudes towards law and order, possibly even on a global scale, but in reality all the detail and “realism” seems to be there merely to assure its audience that it credits them with some intelligence and satisfy the fanboy among us that their favourite character has been treated with gravity and respect. If nothing else then, The Dark Knight is at least seriously entertaining.
The Dark Knight is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Warner Bros as a two-disc set. The film is presented on BD50 disc with a 1080p encode, while the extra features on disc 2 are also presented in HD. The set is not region coded.
Expectations are justifiably high for this High-Definition presentation of a film with many key sequences shot on IMAX camera, but while those sequences are certainly impressive, their integration with the 35mm footage in a hybrid master is problematic and the results are not entirely satisfactory. The image is certainly sharp, clear and detailed throughout, but the tones and colouration on some of the interiors shot on regular 35mm doesn’t have a natural feel about it. Flesh tones tend towards orange and lose the fine gradation of tone you would expect to see in them, while blacks are heavily crushed, showing inadequate shadow detail. It could be a question of grading and colour-timing, the creators aiming for a more brooding, darker feel to the film on DVD, but much of the detail of the theatrical presentation seems to be lost (detail that you can see much more clearly in the excerpts from the film in the HD documentaries in the extra features). Unpardonable on a HD presentation, edge-enhancement ringing is also visible, over-emphasising outlines. The film fares much better in the IMAX sequences, the film slipping seamlessly from 2.40:1 to 16:9 aspect ratio for the eye-popping action scenes. Even in very dark night-time sequences, such as the centrepiece showdown between Batman and the Joker during the police convoy hijack, the amount of detail is impressive, affording the viewer the opportunity to savour every moment of the meticulously storyboarded and dynamically filmed operation.
The film comes with a range of audio tracks (details in the sidebar), but for English viewers the choice is between Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1. I need hardly point out that the TrueHD experience, if you are suitably equipped, presents a much finer presentation of the soundstage, with clarity and dynamism applied to the smallest of details, as well as being a touch warmer and more natural sounding in the deep reverberation of the lower-frequencies. The mixing isn’t always the best, dialogue sometimes sounding quite low and indistinct on the central channel, but in most cases this is more to do with Gary Oldman’s ridiculously underplayed mumbling of his lines and the irritating mechanised bat-growl. The film however is clearly meant to be played at very loud levels and here the audio tracks perform outstandingly, never wavering, delivering with tremendous force and accuracy.
Optional English hard of hearing subtitles are included in a white font. International options are available, a full list of which can be found in the sidebar to this review
There are no menus on the film disc, which means that can take an extremely long time to load up on your player, seeming to override your player’s controls with its own. The soundtrack and extra features options can therefore only be brought up on a pop-up menu when playing the actual film. Disc one then allows you to view the film with Focus Points that take you to behind the scenes into the creation of certain scenes at the relevant points in the film. Essentially, this is similar to the Follow the White Rabbit feature of the original Matrix DVD. I’m not sure it’s best viewed while watching the film, but there is an option to view all 18 sections (1.04:10) as a whole. This does provide a good effective behind the scenes look at all aspects of the making of the film, with emphasis on stunts, set-pieces and explosions, but also looking at the IMAX cameras, designs and music.
The main documentary features come on Disc 2 through two ‘Behind The Story’ features to keep the techno-geeks and comic-geeks happy. Batman Tech (45:59) looks at how all the technology and gadgets used in the film - everything from the utility belt, armoured suit and flying cape to the Batmobile and Batpod - have a strong basis in scientific reality. Batman Unmasked (46:02) presents a psychological profile of Bruce Wayne, the Batman, examining his pathological fears and obsessions and comparing them to that of his gallery of villains, with emphasis evidently on the behaviours of the Joker.
Batman Tonight (46:41) shows six episodes of the evidently fictional news-magazine programme for Gotham’s main news channel, featuring news, profiles and debates that add further background to the political, social and cultural life of Gotham City in addition to an examination of its crime problems. Very much in the tradition of the documentary interludes to Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel, and featuring some of the main cast from the film, this is not without interest, but of limited value.
The remainder of the extra features focus on the design and promotional aspects of the film with Galleries of 74 Jokers Cards (9:44), 59 Concept Art Designs (7:44), 12 examples of Poster Art (1:36), 90 Production Stills (11:52), 3 Trailers & 6 TV spots (8:48). All the extra features are in High Definition.
A lot of expense and effort that has gone into making sure that The Dark Knight is not only the most spectacular depiction of Batman or indeed any previous comic-book hero on the screen, but that it is also realistically credible in psychological and technological terms. In the grander scheme of things I don’t suppose that’s saying much and I don’t think such realism is strictly necessary as long as the film entertains. If on this level the figure of Batman in The Dark Knight is rather dreary, lacking in humanity and failing to come across convincingly on the screen, struggling as he does not just under the weight of a cumbersome bat-suit, but the accumulated weight of decades of sometimes conflicting comic-book history that has been given a modern real-world spin of tenuous psychological profiling, the figure of his age-old arch-nemesis the Joker, brilliantly incarnated by Heath Ledger, injects a welcome note of anarchy, unpredictability and madness into the proceedings. Why so serious? indeed.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:26:29