The Dark Knight: 2 Disc Special Edition Review
I'm almost certain no one reading this won't have seen The Dark Knight already, but if you're one of the three people who haven't, please be aware this review is packed with Batspoilers from beginning to end.
At the end of Batman Forever the Riddler presents Batman with a dilemma. He tells the Caped Crusader gleefully that he has put Robin and Bat’s current squeeze Dr Meridian Chase in a trap by which both will meet with certain death at the same time, taunting our hero that as he can only save one he must therefore choose which will die. It’s quite a problem for our hero but at no point do we, the audience, ever doubt that he will do the seemingly impossible and save them both, for Batman Forever is a bit of knockabout nonsense, an amusing bit of fluff to have some fun with, and for him to do otherwise would be totally anathema to its whole tone. Not so in The Dark Knight: when Batman faces the exact same situation here he does not do the impossible, and we do not sit chuckling at his predicament while happily stuffing down popcorn. For Christopher Nolan’s film is not a comic book film in the sense that the Schumacher and Burton films (or for that matter Spider-Man and most of his Marvel brethren's big screen adventures) are. It is instead entirely preoccupied with using Gotham City as a fantastical allegory for the world in which we have lived over the past eight years, a reflection of the pain and bewilderment the Western world felt post 9/11 and an examination of its muddied responses since and why many good people found themselves propelled down a path as terrible as that of the foes they were trying to bring down. When Batman races to save either Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes, we are on the edge of our seat because we see in him a race to save our own souls from a direction no one wished to take. This time, it matters.
From the moment the poster art appeared featuring Batman standing in front of a burning building, its higher floors ablaze, it was clear where Nolan’s intentions lay. As if out of the blue Anarchy in the form of Heath Ledger's Joker strikes Gotham, his origins unknown, his actions unpredictable, a force totally unable to be reasoned with; in the eyes of the audience total insanity. The metaphor with modern terrorism is imperfect given we generally know a particular group’s origins and intentions, but the fact that its reasoning often appears irrational and its techniques sadistic is nonetheless reflected in the Joker’s own methods. And, just as Al Qaeda and similar organisations have apparently come about as a reaction to the perceived amoral decadence of the West, so too does the Joker claim that he and his companions in the hall of rogues have appeared only as a response to the appearance of the Batman – as his predecessor in Burton’s first film also claims, Batman made him, not the other way round. Gotham City is caught in a vicious cycle, so infused with the decadence and filth bred over years and decades of corruption and amorality that, in a city in which the police are in the pay of the mobsters, the only man capable of making a difference is a sociopath whose methods are little better than those of the villains he takes down, who in turn will breed new terrors. For those who have enjoyed jeering the Bush administration, there is an uneasy parallel drawn between the Caped Crusader and the Neocons, whether it be in the extraordinary rendition of the chief bankroller to Gotham’s criminal fraternity or the phone-tapping climax in which our hero literally listens in on every single phone call made in the city to take out the bad guy. Here the shades of grey which over the past ten years or so filmmakers have delighted in painting our superheroes with don’t just extend to roughing the baddies about a bit; at a thematic level too, Christian Bale’s Batman works on the edges, and causes the audience to question anew whether the ends justify the means. Typically, the film has no conclusions; on the one hand Batman saves the day by capturing the Joker and averting a catastrophe, but the collateral damage includes the destruction of Harvey Dent’s soul, a corruption which is in turn hidden from the public for their own good. No one can ever be a real white knight, every man has his dark side and the past decade in the States and elsewhere society has examined how far we can be pushed before we too break down. If it wasn’t for the redemption offered by the actions of the two groups on the boat, who stand for the common decency of those on the sidelines caught up in the war on terror, The Dark Knight would be an utterly nihilistic piece.
All of which makes for a grim, often exhausting film. Even in the moments of triumph the tone is overwhelmingly bleak, while Nolan keeps up the pace so relentlessly, flinging so many ideas at the screen, that on first viewing one can't help but be rung out by the end. From the opening moment when Hans Zimmer’s discordant Joker theme is played for the first time, the audience’s nerves are set on edge, unsure as to what will happen. The now infamous pencil scene is not just there as a sick gag to announce the Joker’s arrival, it is also a very clear statement: this guy could do anything. The gloves are off, and every time he sticks a knife in someone’s mouth or makes a threat we know he might just go through with them, something that is not often true of movie villains who play by the rules of the genre. Indeed, this playing with convention is a technique Nolan and his brother Jonathan use time and again in their screenplay to ensure the audience is never on safe ground, constantly playing tricks with expectation. It’s arguable, for example, that nothing the Joker does subsequently is half as shocking as his magic trick, but that’s because the trick has done its job – in a way, he doesn’t have to be that vicious again, because we’re expecting it. On a purely structural level The Dark Knight is a master class in audience manipulation. When Gordon is killed off, for the shortest time we really do question whether continuity has been ignored on such a fundamental level (especially if, like me, you'd accidentally read a semi-spoiler regarding the death of a major character) – when he is resurrected, we are lulled into believing that, in the following sequence with Harvey and Rachel’s kidnapping, that somehow Batman will repeat his Forever feat of saving them both – and if he doesn’t, well, we all know that it will be Harvey that gets it, because we all know what he will become. That it is Rachel that goes in turn is a shock, one which means that that finale with the boat is far more tense than it would be otherwise; while it doesn’t work quite as well, in that having reached the end of the film we can’t help but suspect the salvation that ends up coming, we still can’t be quite sure that the Joker doesn’t have one more trick up his sleeve.
But, of course, none of this would work half as well if it wasn’t for the powerhouse performance at the centre of the film by Heath Ledger. It is still too soon to assess just where in the pantheon of movie villains his Joker will rest as it will take several years, long enough for the sadness surrounding his death and the hype surrounding the movie to abate somewhat, to be able to look at his performance dispassionately enough to say where he ranks against the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. That said, it's probably safe to say that his performance is pretty remarkable. Physically, his face and figure is far too full to be that of the Joker of the comic, who is a gaunt, sharp-featured creature, but that aside his version is little short than definitive. Helped along by a script which presents a far more complex creation than might initially appear, he embodies the role, the actor disappearing completely behind the make-up to become the psychopathic embodiment of Batman’s perennial foe. He is a man totally in control at all times, a criminal aware at all times of the image he is presenting, a puppet master who seems simultaneously numb to his own physical feelings – when he stands in front of the Batpod, or invites Batman in his cell to batter him around, we really believe that he doesn’t give a stuff whether he lives or dies – while revelling in the pain he causes to others, having a warped sense of humour coupled with a marvellous feel for the dramatic. It’s a characterisation impossible to pin down but fully realised, spelled out perhaps in the moment when a character calls him insane and Ledger looks at him and says, “No, I’m not. No. I’m not,” showing a serious side to complement his warped sense of humour. Here is a man who plays with his image, gleefully mocking various hackneyed origin stories when he relates how he got his scars, while all the time playing all those around him for fools. Even at the end, at Batman’s mercy, one senses that his defeat is only physical, not psychological, and that these two men will be facing off against each other many times in the future. For the first time the character from the comics, the proper one from the past twenty years, has been embodied on screen, and if there are some moments when his jokes seem a little Jigsaw-like (that mobile gag is pure Saw), well, the Joker came first.
Somewhat inevitably, he overshadows everyone else in the film. It’s long been said that the problem with Batman films is that the villains are far more interesting than the hero, and it's true again here. After making Batman the star of Begins the Bruce Wayne of this sequel takes a retrograde step, something which is to be regretted. Batman becomes even more of a symbol than in the first, but as a counter to the Joker in an arguably less interesting way; the idea that the Joker is a direct result of Batman is thrown out but never really explored to any great degree (it doesn’t help that Bale’s Bat-growl renders at times the character almost laughable). As Wayne he gets little more to do than look anguished, whether it be at Rachel’s apparent happiness or the decision to hang up his cowl. However, perhaps given the nature of the piece this was somewhat unavoidable; arguably much more disappointing is that Harvey Dent is also a surprisingly superficial creation. At the start he is a white knight, and up until the point when he rubs his face in some acid that’s all there is to him, a one-dimensional, honest man. The one moment in the film which doesn’t ring true is when he kidnaps the goon and tries to force a confession out of him – it feels artificial, trying to make the transition to Two-Face less sudden, a way of suggesting that this shining knight does have a dark side after all, but it doesn’t quite come off. Ultimately the real problem is that, given the total command the Joker has over the film, the character of Two-Face at all is superfluous to requirements. By becoming little more than just another tool at the Joker’s disposal, he is rendered far less interesting than he should have been, leading to the impression that he is utterly wasted. The last third of the film, from the point Two-Face is born, feels like a subtly different movie, a diversion which comes across as nothing more than an extra subplot which was crow-barred into a piece that really didn’t need it. That Two-Face is the embodiment of both the Batman and the Joker in one being is a potentially fascinating concept, but it needed far more time and room than it gets here, and one can’t help wishing that the original plan, which was to have the birth of the villain as the end of this second film before leading into a third which would star principally him, had been adhered to. Thematically one can understand why it was included here – as discussed earlier, at what point do we stop being the hero is the film’s overreaching concern – but it is an opportunity squandered.
And perhaps that’s the major criticism of the film as a whole, that there are so many ideas and themes running through it that some aren’t given enough time to breathe. At times the script feels compressed and, despite its lengthy running-time, rushed – the spelling out of the moral at the end, for example, is rather clunky. However, to quibble about a film which is overambitious in these days when films like The Incredible Hulk are still getting made is churlish in the extreme. There are also some who feel that the film as a whole feels conceited and self-important, that crow-barring such weighty issues into a superhero flick smacks of pretention, but I don’t buy that at all. From the earliest days of superheroes the genre has reflected and served as a voice to the society in which they were written, and to suggest that Batman isn’t sufficiently sensible enough to serve as a metaphor for the past few years is snobbishness. If Nolan had produced a film which traded on the war on terror in a cheap or sensationalist fashion then the charge would be fair enough, but he has provided a thoughtful, nuanced account, one which mirrors but doesn’t judge, and which answers its own question – why so serious? – with the answer that we live in serious times. Ignoring the subtext, and taken on its own terms, the film is an improvement on the first – the set pieces aren’t as cluttered, and are infinitely more satisfying, the villains are far stronger, and, of course, the script is far denser – and while it has its flaws – we really would like to see more of the real Bruce in the next film – for once the film merits all the hype and commercial success which has been heaped onto it.
In addition to the Blu-ray edition, there are currently three different editions of The Dark Knight available on Region One DVD, two single-disc versions, one fullscreen and one widescreen, and the two-disc edition under review here. The packaging of the disc is neat, with the sleeve bearing the artwork seen above holding a case which has the Joker on the front, and a “Jokerised” version of the outer sleeve blurb on the back. In addition to the two DVDs, you also get a little leaflet with the code needed if you wish to download a Digital Copy of the film.
Disc One opens with an anti-piracy ad, an anti-smoking ad, one for Blu-ray (has anyone else noticed that the ads singing the praises of HD make exactly the same promises that those for DVD did about ten years ago – “Don’t just watch the movie, live the movie!”) and trailers for Batman Begins, Watchmen and the forthcoming Batman – Arkham Asylum video game. Disc Two, meanwhile, opens with a trailer for Batman: Gotham Knight and The Dark Knight’s soundtrack. The Main Menus aren’t anything to write home about, consisting solely of a lengthy collection of some of the film’s most striking images accompanied by the movie score, a somewhat unimaginative, almost lazy choice.
There has been much made regarding the fact that for a film of this stature the AV presentation hasn’t been anything to write home about. As Noel explained in his review of the Blu-ray edition even those who have upgraded had reasons for disappointment. The same issues which cropped up on that version are also present here in the Video transfer, most especially the at-times surprisingly low level of detail in some of the scenes. Black levels are not as finely delineated in the darker sequences as one might expect; I found some of the murky scenes with the Joker in jail especially a bit flat, while digital artefacts such as background noise make regular appearances as well as spasms of edge enhancement. Having said all that, however, it’s hardly a terrible transfer, with Nolan’s use of colour to create an atmosphere nicely brought across, but it’s just not as good as it really should be. Fortunately, the Audio is somewhat better, with dialogue crisp, the action sequences suitably resonant (especially the hijacking of the truck halfway through) and the musical score nice and clear.
Unfortunately, the Extras are arguably the biggest letdown. There’s no commentary from Nolan, and bizarrely, no tribute to Ledger – for once, I could have put up with one of those sycophantic “He was great” featurettes, especially given the fact he really was great in this instance. What extras us SD fans do get feels a bit like a "Best of the Blu-ray" package, at least half of which seem intentionally to rub our noses in the fact that the HD set is far superior. While BD viewers get the chance to watch over an hour of Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene, SD viewers get two samples which is frustrating especially as, on the evidence of The Sound of Anarchy (6:25), in which Hans Zimmer discusses how he put together the score, this is a documentary of real quality. The other which we are blessed with, The Evolution of the Knight (17:35) starts off with a reasonably detailed look at the construction of the Batsuit and Batpod before descending into what amounts to a trailer for the rest of the features edited together quickly, giving little more than nods to such elements of the film’s production as its IMAX scenes and the stunts. Even though SD couldn’t branch these in, why don’t we get the full lot? A bad joke I'm sure the Joker would appreciate. To further underline the superiority of the other release, one of the other extras of note are the six IMAX sequences - The opening robbery, the Hong Kong sequence, the Armoured Car Chase, The Lamborghini Crash, The Prewitt Building and The Dark Knight - in their original framing. On their own, as opposed to incorporated into the film. Sigh.
The most fun to be had from the bonus material, then, is from the six episodes of Gotham Tonight,(46:34) a faux news magazine programme which details the deteriorating situation in the city. The pastiche of a real show of this type is done well with some sly wit, and while a couple of the episodes, such as the profiles of Wayne and Gordon, are little more than story-so-far filler, there is much background information included which adds to the story and grounds it even more in reality. Featuring interviews with Dent, Maroni and others, this is good fun, especially as the last episode ends just as the film itself opens.
Reminiscent of the dull main menus, the Galleries aren’t presented as well as they could be, with the images surrounded by a large border of a background which is totally superfluous – why not have them just fill the screen so we don’t need a big monitor to appreciate the Poster Art and Production Stills properly? To round things off, there are three theatrical Trailers (5:34) which I’d almost go so far to say are the most satisfying of the extras on offer.
Great film, shame about the disc. I wonder if it's possible there'll be another one along soon...?