The Dark Knight: A Villain For The Ages
So I said in my previous article, “Hopefully Friday at midnight, I’ll love it, I’ll think Heath Ledger’s last role is iconic, and I’ll think it’s the best comic book film of all time.” Two out of three ain’t bad.
Let’s get it out of the way. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is an instant classic. You will try your hardest to see Heath under that makeup, and you never will. Yet when it’s over, you finally feel his presence in the form of absence, and an extreme sadness that no Batman film will ever be better than The Dark Knight, because the most worthy actor playing his most worthy adversary is gone forever. He’s scary, he’s sadistic, he’s funny, he’s completely off his rocker, and you never once feels the seams of the performance. It’s the stuff legends are made of. This is an artist who had never shown his true colors until Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There, and this film. He was a man just now getting a hold on the depth of his talent, and for an artist to be taken in his/her prime is what creates whispers of “he could’ve been one of the best” and other such hyperboles. We don’t know the degree to which Ledger would’ve maintain such phenomenal work, but this is a hell of a swan song. It will be mentioned alongside the great movie villain portrayals, the Hannibal Lecters, the Wicked Witches, the Anton Chigurhs– and he waltzes away with the entire film.
Ledger actually elevates the rest of the film. The film is entertaining, with more action, humor, destruction, and stakes than the previous installment, but one wonders whether the film would’ve been nearly as good without the demented brilliance of this immensely watchable performance. Bale seems to have more fun this time around, not merely brooding intensely, but instead getting to color in the grey areas of Bruce Wayne. His growling Bat-Voice doesn’t work during his more sensitive monologues, but it’s appropriately intimidating during the action. Aaron Eckhart does a nice job with a character that could’ve easily become corny and one-note, and actually comes close to holding his own alongside Ledger. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman both continue their always-solid work in their supporting roles. Finally, I’m excited to report that Rachel Dawes is not only improved, she’s actually an interesting character as portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. (Note to movie executives: when you cast good actresses in important parts, good things happen.)
What else is noteworthy? A bank robbery. A pencil disappearing act. A stomachache in prison. A self-destructing car. A nurse in a hospital. These are all things that will resonate in your mind after the film is over. But none of these individual things are as powerful as the overall portrayal that Ledger delivers. I went in expecting the best, and I actually had my expectations exceeded.
The film isn’t perfect. It’s too long by at least 15 minutes, which brings it dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. I don’t know what the replay value will be of a 160-minute Batman film, only time will tell. In retrospect, a neat sequence in Hong Kong could have been cut in order to save those 15 minutes… but otherwise, the film is kept so busy that I’m not sure what could have been cut. Also, there are many clichéd speeches on “why this city needs a hero”—at least three too many. If you roll your eyes when Aunt May delivers her “there’s a hero in all of us” speeches in the Spider-Man films, these monologues will elicit a similar reaction. The fact that most of these monologues come at the end, after the whizbang final confrontation with the Joker has passed, make them seem even more interminable than they should.
Yet these are nitpicks in the long run, and only things that can be held against the film in Best Comic Book Films of All Time debates (for the record, I’d put this at either #2 or #3… we’ll see what happens to it over time). It’s engrossing, should captivate even those who don’t like summer blockbusters (the overall lack of noticeable CGI work is truly astonishing, and makes it feel even grittier than it already does), and will make an exorbitant amount of money. Batman fans, rejoice—you got as good a Batman film as you’re ever going to get, and the best villain any comic book franchise could imagine.