The Dark Knight

(Reviewed June 28, 2008, by James Dawson)

Let's get the "speaking ill of the dead" part out of the way right upfront. I can't believe the degree to which some shameless quote-whore critics are overpraising Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. The truth is that Ledger phones in a bad impersonation of Paul Giamatti doing Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. Except, you know, more homicidally crazy -- in a weirdly unentertaining and unconvincing fashion.

There, I said it. Now I'm sure to rot in hell. Oh, well.

The best thing about "The Dark Knight" is Aaron Eckhart as crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent, who experiences a rather dramatic change in attitude for reasons best left unsaid (in case there is anyone left on earth who doesn't know that character's strange and tragic destiny).

Unfortunately, Eckhart deserved to be in a better movie. Most of "The Dark Knight" is so passionless, coldly clinical and deadly dull that it seems to have been produced by people whose main watchword was "tasteful."

Parts of it also feel, shall we say, "overly familiar." One of its big action scenes is a retread of a very similar section of "Mission Impossible 3"; both scenes even take place in Asia. A skyhook rescue bit has an even more distant precedent: James Bond and Domino getting "airlifted" from a life raft at the end of "Thunderball." And "The Dark Knight" opens with a bank heist, the same way "Batman Forever" did -- although the robbery here is considerably less "comic-bookish."

That's not to say "The Dark Knight" isn't better than "Batman Begins," which wasted its entire first hour on the most boring setup in superhero history. It's just not better enough.

I came out of both movies thinking the same thing: "I can't believe that I have no desire ever to see that again." Technically, Christian Bale has a decent look for Bruce Wayne, and director Christopher Nolan directed one movie that I absolutely loved ("Memento"), and I have nothing against Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman, and Heath Ledger was magnificent in "Brokeback Mountain."

But put them all together, and the result somehow is one big disappointment. Bale looks ridiculous as Batman, mainly because the costume's cowl now bulges out at the sides in a "squirrel storing nuts in his cheeks" fashion. Nolan seems to think he's directing a lifeless "Masterpiece Theater" drawing-room drama, with no interesting camera moves whatsoever. An unmemorable score runs under nearly every scene.

There also are logic problems aplenty. Two of the biggest, without ruining any plot points: There is no reason for anyone to believe that the Joker would stop a killing-a-day spree if Batman unmasked himself, as the Joker promises he would do. And when Batman and the police are told that two of the Joker's about-to-die victims are in different locations, couldn't Commissioner Gordon simply get dispatch to send patrol cops who probably would be in the vicinity to those addresses? It's not as if Batman and the cops who are with him at police headquarters when they get the word are the only people in town, after all.

"The Dark Knight" is well over two hours long, and man does it feel like it. In the "everything old is new again" category, it's kind of funny that the difference between DC movies and Marvel movies today is like the difference between the two companies' comic-book lines back in the early 1960s. DC had the older, stodgier, considerably less hip Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, while Marvel had the cooler and more interesting Spider-Man, X-Men and such. These days, the most recent Superman movie was a colossal bore and the Batman franchise seems to be striving for some kind of unmerited artistic legitimacy, while Marvel movies like the Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, "Iron Man" and even "The Incredible Hulk" retain a more tongue-in-cheek sense of their less-than-lofty origins.

Also, this movie's version of Gotham City is sterile, shiny-modern and utterly generic, which is exactly the opposite of what the place looks like in the best Batman comics. The famous description of production designer Anton Furst's conception of the place for the first Tim Burton "Batman" movie (which had its own problems, of course, not the least of which was one called "Michael Keaton") was that Gotham should look like Hell had burst through the streets and kept right on growing. The Gotham City of "The Dark Knight," on the other hand, looks about as menacing as a gleaming Dubai metropolis after a neutron bomb left the streets empty.

Even the cinematography here is lacking. Many scenes have an icily offputting bluish color scheme that's like what Mister Freeze's pad looked like in the Batman TV series. In at least two shots of people on balconies, the foreground figures are far too dark, as if somebody thought it was more important to get the lighting right on the background than on the people who are talking. Isn't this kind of thing pretty basic stuff on a big-budget movie, people?

Maybe somebody should ring up Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller to see if they're available to write and direct the next Batman movie. This franchise is in serious need of some blood, some guts and some serious messing-with.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

To see my reviews of Christopher Nolan's
other two Batman movies, use the links below:

"Batman Begins" (2005)
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)