I remember dancing a lot during my senior prom. As it was getting late, and everyone was either too tired or too drunk to continue, the band, dropped their pants, revealing Batman boxer shorts and started playing the theme to the old "Batman" TV show. My dorky friends and I were the only ones left dancing. We stayed up all night and then went to see the first matinee showing of Tim Burton’s Batman movie in the morning, its opening day. The movie, and Jack Nicholson’s performance in particular, was enough to satisfy us–it wasn’t a complete bomb–but it was still lacking. It didn’t fully deliver on the promise of the comic book, it wasn’t harsh enough, sinister enough, scary enough.
Well, the movie I wished for back then has now been made and it has been made well. The latest version is not only the ultimate Batman movie–pushing the violence and nihilism to the edge–it aims to be the ultimate comic book movie. The only thing is, I don’t know if it’s what I really want to see anymore. Leaving the new Batman movie, which is operatic, sweeping in its ambitions and length (at two-and-a-half hours, it is longer than any super hero movie should reasonably be, and yet it moves briskly), I was satisfied that a true Batman movie had finally been made. But I also felt a little bit dirty about it.
The new Batman doesn’t leave you feeling elated or bubbly–it may leave you exhausted, or, more probably, unsettled. Each of the Joker’s scenes is accompanied by an insistent sound effect, a buzz saw that starts softly and gets progressively louder, that is particularly unnerving.
This is as far from a Happy Meal Super Hero as you can get–it is a graphic novel, closer to a horror film, or a tense thriller, than it is to the usual popcorn action movie. It is ominous, serious-minded and dark, like "Fight Club," or "Seven." The movie does have a sense of humor, a dry sense of humor, especially in the Bruce Wayne scenes. But there isn’t a lot of gleeful madness to Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is what made Ceasar Romero so creepy and effective in the role.
The Joker here is all madness–and Ledger wisely roots his performance in a natural approach–without much goulish fun. I think Ledger is good but not great. I think the conception of the Joker in this movie is great which goes a long way is setting the stage for his performance, which is excellent. But I also feel that other actors, say Robert Downey Jr or John Leguizano, would be equally as effective in this particular conception of the Joker. I really like the flatness of Ledger’s accent though. The insanity is there with Ledger–the only tick that distracted me was his habit of licking his lips, something that is more prevelant in the second half of the movie.
The screenplay is dense but I think it works, and the supporting cast is excellent–Michael Caine is an ideal Alfred, Gary Oldman is winning in an under-stated turn as Jim Gordon. Aaron Eckhart is strong as well. I think the movie achieves what it set out to do–it may be turgid but it is also accomplished. It’s ill, it’s sick, twisted, it’s all of that.
Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry, fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton’s original conception for "Batman" (1989), completing the job of coarsening the material into hyperviolent summer action spectacle. Yet "The Dark Knight" is hardly routine—it has a kicky sadism in scene after scene, which keeps you on edge and sends you out onto the street with post-movie stress disorder. And it has one startling and artful element: the sinister and frightening performance of the late Heath Ledger as the psychopathic murderer the Joker. That part of the movie is upsetting to watch, and, in retrospect, both painful and stirring to think about.
Relentless, uncompromising–satisfying, but not much fun. A very dark Knight indeed.