(Christopher Nolan, 2008, USA/UK)
Picking up where the coda of Batman Begins (2008) teasingly left off, hinting at the intensifying presence of a homicidal fiend who leaves a joker card as an insignia to his mounting crimes, The Dark Knight continues Christopher Nolan’s grittier approach to the Batman saga by pushing the story into complex, swollen directions. If Begins was an origin story coupled with an exploration of Gotham’s seedy underbelly and the din of inequity that was The Narrows – the city’s postulating black heart, the sequel shifts the action to ground level, offering a teeming meditation on the fluidity of anarchy and the inherent presence of a fallible morality that lies dormant in us all.
From an opening shot that careens through Gotham’s vertiginous heights, settling in to an introductory bank heist that owes a debt to the dynamism of Michael Mann and his stark crime drama Heat (1995), Nolan gets to work on quickly establishing that his follow up actively rejects the laws of diminishing returns by signposting that, second time around, he’s setting his sights on surveying the bigger picture. Graphing the inner workings of a city wracked by Ra’s Al Ghul’s previous attack and the latest threat in the form of Heath Ledger’s frenetic, maniacal Joker – a self-confessed agent of chaos armed with a merciless ploy to infiltrate Gotham from the inside, The Dark Knight has at its hilt a larger budget that allows it a more ambitious and broad scope to grapple with the series’ thematic conflicts of the blurred boundaries between morality and depravity.
Operating on a larger playing field – both physically in the form of a wider spatial consideration of Gotham and metaphorically through the intricately woven subtext, Nolan and screenwriting partner (and brother) Jonathan sculpt a film of two sides in many ways; a first half that is vigorous and playful is backed up by a second that is altogether bloated and overwrought, hindered by copious set pieces that have a reliance on full-frontal coincidence. Where the aforementioned inaugural heist and a high octane chase above and the below the streets of Gotham stay true to action formulae whilst offering plenty of studied, restrained but suitably awe-inspiring spectacle, a later stage stakes holder aboard a duo of ferries booby-trapped with explosives over-eggs the statements the Nolan’s are attempting to make regarding the availability of choice and the prevalence of good over the abundance of a remorseless evil. These statements are also fanned by the inclusion of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s white knight striving for a better tomorrow. As his uphill battle is made evermore muddier by The Joker’s increasingly destructive button pressing, Dent eventually makes the transition to Two-Face: a canonical villain made distinct by a half demolished face – in one of the film’s lesser believable, though thankfully scarce, effects shots. With enough material to be carried over to a later instalment, Dent’s rapid descent feels hasty and underdeveloped, distracting from the more interesting two-sided character traits of Batman and a progressively menacing Joker, who gets short shrift during the film’s slapdash finale.
Cut to Zimmer’s thoughtful and humming score, which leaves more room for the visuals to work for themselves, The Dark Knight learns from it’s predecessor’s mistakes by shifting the focus from the standard Batman iconography – though it is indeed present and correct – to a feeling of astute and measured realism, which is mirrored by the narrative’s concerns with the dangers of various organised crime and nefarious terrorism. This is commendable on Nolan’s part as he continues to forego the self-awareness of previous Batman outings and ground his films with a certain degree of recognisability, yet once again his rough and ready style of editing robs sequences of their consistency and cause them to become frustratingly unfinished. For instance, a potentially striking scene that sees The Joker and his henchman intrude on Dent’s rabble-rousing fundraiser in an attempt to assassinate him is squandered by it merely cutting away incomplete once Batman saves a falling Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, distractingly and passively taking over from Katie Holmes). Though events constantly build up a palpable atmosphere before an ensuing and aesthetically pleasing mayhem, Nolan leaves numerous aftermaths’ very little room to breathe, creating a relentless pace that glosses over the inconsistencies in the story. Much like The Joker’s description of himself as a “dog chasing cars”, The Dark Knight is a film constantly pursuing a more serious and mature approach that, although conveyed, disregards quiet contemplation in favour of a thicker thematic canvas.