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The Long Dark Knight Of The Soul

Warning: This entire post may contain spoilers for The Dark Knight

Last weekend, I took a few days off of work to go down to Phoenix to visit my good friend there. He's preparing to leave Phoenix and move to L.A., which will be quite a switch, I imagine, so we wanted to take advantage of what remained of his time in Arizona and check out some of the sights and attractions that we didn't have time for the last time I visited. This we accomplished quite handily; we drove out into the desert to visit Gammon's Gulch, an "old west" movie set where parts of my friend's most recent film "One-Half World" (which I would link to, but I can't seem to find the website, if it exists) were shot. We also stopped by historic Tombstone, which was appallingly tacky and touristy, and enjoyed both the lovely desert vistas and any number of Phoenix eateries.

But none of those things were really the reason I went down there. The real reason I went down there was to see The Dark Knight.

Why travel so far just to see a movie? Well, this particular friend and I have a long history of interest in Batman films; in 1989, when Tim Burton brought out his original Batman, it started off my interest in the character (believe it or not, at that time I had never paid much attention to Batman outside of occasional cartoons) which helped feed my growing fascination with comic books in general--and for more information about the character I turned this particular friend, who was, at the time, more an expert on the subject than I. We both pored over the film and the related merchandise, and were even more excited when the sequel, Batman Returns, was released, painting an even darker and more characterologically twisted picture of Gotham and its inhabitants.

(As we all know, after that, no more Batman films were released. None.)

So it seemed entirely appropriate that when Christopher Nolan released his follow-up to the highly decent (if deeply flawed) retelling of Batman's origin, Batman Begins, he and I should hook up once more to re-experience the new iteration of the concept, and recapture some of the excitement we felt back in 1989 when Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson first made their indelible marks on the characters. We were already excited to see Dark Knight, as the hype had been strong and preliminary reviews good, and we knew that Heath Ledger's farewell performance was supposed to be the actor's greatest work.

Now, normally I wouldn't devote an entire blog post just to discussing a particular movie like this. But when I finally saw the Dark Knight, even after all the raised expectations and hype, I knew that I had to put my impressions down so that I could add my voice to the cacophony of discussion that was sure to follow.

So, first off: The Dark Knight is, hands down, the best superhero film ever made. Admittedly, that's not a hard field to stand out in, but even speaking as someone with strong nostalgic ties to films like the 1989 Batman and the original Superman, and with a powerful fannish attraction to flawed superhero films like Spider-Man and X-Men 2, there's no denying that Dark Knight surpasses all of them in terms of style, filmmaking expertise, and the tightness of the storytelling. Nolan is a filmmakr whose work has been steadily improving, and with the Dark Knight he clearly shows that he has the talent and the self-restraint to be a fully excellent director.

Not that the Dark Knight isn't without flaws. Nolan has his characteristic moments of too much dialogue, and as the Katrabbit pointed out upon her first viewing, movie tries to occupy a more "realistic" space than previous Batman films, but that realism breaks down in the face of certain scenes, such as the horrific injuries Harvey Dent sustains, or Batman being able to catch a falling Joker with a grapple line without either having the grapple-gun ripped from his hand or pulling the Joker's leg clean off.

But if you're able to put aside these inconsistencies--and happily I am--the movie is so deliciously well-crafted that watching feels like candy in the mouth. The exploration of the ways in which Batman changes his city simply by his presence there, the focus on the supporting characters of the Batman mythos and their very human struggles, the wonderful use of the coin motif as it shapes the development of the Harvey Dent character, and, of course, the absolutely terrifying portrayal of the Joker by a maniacally talented Heath Ledger (God damn but I'm sorry he's dead; I would have loved to see where he went after this), all serve to lend the film a gut-wrenching veritas that keeps you hooked from the opening moment to the closing credits.

This film is, if I might craft a somewhat visceral analogy, like being kicked repeatedly in the balls, but in a good way. (My female readers will just have to use their imaginations.) In many ways it is less a Batman film and more a thriller/cop drama, that happens to have Batman in it. But Batman is not superfluous to the plot--he's an integral piece of the scene, but only a piece, and the police officers, crooks, bystanders and supporting cast all fit neatly into the picture in a way that makes each of them vital without overshadowing the major players. Not that anyone could fully overshadow the Joker--Ledger portrays him as so gleefully sadistic, and yet somehow sympathetically pseudo-insightful, that you can't help but cringe each time he appears--and at the same time, you want to hear what he has to say, in that lilting, off-kilter cadence that moves from singsong to furiously roaring without warning.

The real surprise treat of the film is Harvey Dent, however. Aaron Eckhart is not an actor with whom I have a great deal of familiarity, but he seems well-chosen for the role, and though he over-emotes at times he serves to fully draw the audience in to sympathy with his crusading District Attorney, who sees his entire morality crumble around him with a simple twist of fate--like a coin toss. And the coin which keeps appearing throughout the story, and which finally serves as the character's core symbol after his transformation, is a brilliant device in the way it structures and foreshadows the character's journey. As much as I loved Ledger's Joker, Eckhart's Dent is almost equally engaging--and even after seeing the film three times, I still get a rise in my gorge when I first see the deformations that push him from Dent into Two-Face territory.

In short, Dark Knight is a genuine tour-de-force that, I sincerely hope, will reinvent the superhero genre in film and serve to shape (just as Burton's 1989 Batman did) the character as he is portrayed in all media. Batman fans could use a little more Dark Knight in their Recommended Daily Allowance, and even non-Batman-fans should check the film out, just to see how evocative the character and setting can be when handled right.

Quick, readers! To the Bat-Theatre!