On Friday I finally saw The Dark Knight at a press screening in London, the same day that it broke box office records in the US.
There is no doubt that this film has transcended its comic book origins to become one of the most accomplished and ambitious blockbusters in years.
As I couldn’t make the IMAX screening I had to go to the standard 35mm one earlier in the evening, so when I catch it on IMAX next Friday I’ll write something about seeing on that format.
But even in a conventional cinema it is probably worth beginning with how I felt as it ended – drained. There is a lot of stuff going on and at just over two and a half hours it looks and feels like a serious crime epic, rather than a conventional summer movie.
When Batman Begins came out in 2005, it was an impressive reinvention of the DC Comics character but I wasn’t as blown away as some were. But props to the suits at Burbank for recruiting a director like Christopher Nolan – it certainly atoned for the Joel Schumacher Batman films.
The realistic approach to the Bruce Wayne character and Gotham City worked well and has really reaped dividends with this sequel, which not only builds on the foundations established that film but makes this a richer and more rewarding experience.
In the same way that the first film rebooted our expectations of a comic book movie, this one takes it to another level – imagine a dark, sprawling and realistic crime saga set in a modern city, that just happens to have Batman and The Joker in it.
Emboldened after the success of the first film, director Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (with story credit by David S Goyer) have crafted a spectacularly ambitious summer blockbuster, one that has many layers and twists alongside some brilliant work from the cast and crew.
The story, set in a Gotham City soaked in crime, violence and corruption, revolves around three central characters: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a billionaire vigilante dishing out justice at night time; Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney boldly taking on organised crime; and The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious psychopathic criminal wreaking havoc on the city.
Added to this are several key supporting characters: Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the senior cop in Gotham and Batman’s main ally; Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Assistant District Attorney who is now Dent’s lover; Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the newly promoted CEO of Wayne Enterprises who helps supply Bruce Wayne with hi-tech weapons and equipment; Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Wayne’s trusted butler and Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), a local mobster in league with the Joker.
What’s quite startling about the film is the way in the plot doesn’t just revolve around Batman – it gives equal weight to Dent and Joker, forming an impressive triangular narrative.
Added to that, some of the supporting cast (especially Gordon) are given much stronger roles than you might expect for a film of this type.
Most impressively of all, these different strands are developed in ways that are engrossing and genuinely surprising – at times it is so layered, with key sequences often having parallel consequences.
There are points when the narrative (especially in the later stages) stretches to near-breaking point, so exhaustive are the plot lines and events on screen.
But despite the almost suffocating nature of the storytelling, it gives the film a grandeur and seriousness that complements the darker tone of this rebooted Batman franchise.
As for the action, it follows the script in being similarly dense, and some of the big set pieces – especially two key sequences – have an unpredictable and chaotic quality to them.
This at times makes it a little dizzying (I can only imagine what they felt like in IMAX) but also refreshing for this kind of movie, where the beats and outcomes are often too predictable.
What I particularly loved was the old school stunt work in the chase sequences and that actual (although presumably disused) buildings were blown up – it was a raw, effective contrast to the type of CGI-driven sequences that have become the norm for big budget blockbusters.
The performances too are a revelation for this type of genre movie. Bale continues his solid work from the first film but Ledger and Eckhart bring much more to their roles than what might have been expected.
As The Joker, Ledger has managed to completely reinvent him as a wildly unpredictable psychopath who brings Gotham to it’s knees.
Although – due to his tragically early death – there was always going to be added interest in his performance, he really is outstanding.
Completely immersing himself the role, he creates a villain who is scary, funny and unpredictable. Caring only for chaos and death, The Joker uses his considerable ingenuity to alter a city and the two figures (Batman and Dent) who can save it.
Eckhart has perhaps received less press but Harvey Dent is no less important to the story – in some ways his character is where Batman and The Joker meet.
He radiates an old-school charisma and integrity that fits his crusading DA perfectly, making his later problems all the more powerful.
Another interesting aspect of the script is the way in which it taps into modern fears about terrorism and the struggle to fight for good in a world that has become severely infected with violence and evil.
Many aspects of the film raise interesting questions and parallels. Can we see Batman – a sophisticated force for good caught up in a moral dilemma – as a metaphor for the US military? Could The Joker – a psychopathic enigma wreaking terror on society – be a twisted version of Osama Bin Laden?
The fact that a comic book adaptation subtly provokes these questions is daring, but what’s also clever is that they have mined the comic books (especially The Killing Joke) for themes and story lines which have a contemporary echo.
The anticipation of The Dark Knight has been immense over the last few weeks and in the last few days reached fever pitch: it has already grossed over $155m (breaking the the 3-day opening weekend record held by Spider-Man 3); Batman related articles are all over Digg; critics have mostly given it high praise and IMDb users have even voted it the number 1 film of all time (although I think this should and will change in a few days or weeks).
What is behind on all this mania? I think this is a film that appeals to many different types of audience: fanboys eager to see a cool comic book adaptation; Batman fans; summer moviegoers keen for escapism; cinephiles who loved Nolan’s earlier films (especially Memento) and those caught up in the recent hype.
Time will tell how well it will ultimately do, but for now I can’t wait to see this on an IMAX screen next Friday.
Have you seen The Dark Knight? Why do you think it has become such a success?
Leave your thoughts below.
> Check out more links, videos and background to this movie in our Countdown to The Dark Knight
> A post back in December about the Prologue at the London IMAX
> Official site
> The Dark Knight at the IMDb
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Get local showtimes via Google Movies
> Find an IMAX cinema near you
> Variety report on the box office opening
> Slashfilm report on it topping the IMDb user list
[All images copyright 2008 / Warner Bros / Legendary Pictures / DC Comics]