Ledger's dark night

The Dark Knight: 152 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight The Dark Knight is a rarity: an intelligent action film, and an 'event' film that lives up to the hype. Its roaring trade at the Australian box office ($11,779,716 on its opening weekend) has been matched by the din of critics singing its praise. Plus it's a superhero movie that will keep the most slathering, purist fanboy content while updating the premise for a contemporary, general audience.

If comic book movies are not your 'thing', bear in mind that they have come a long way this past decade. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Brian Singer's take on X-Men proved that latex costumes and blockbuster spectacle can go hand-in-hand with serious character development and a compelling story.

And then there was Batman Begins, an epic character study (some quipped, half-seriously, that it was a $200 million art movie) which, in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, delved at length into the motives and relationships of millionaire Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego.

Batman/Bruce Wayne has always been a fascinating character. He has no superpowers, but his sheer rage in the face of injustice elevates him to the realm of 'superhero'. In contrast to Detective Comics' other great hero, patriotic golden boy Superman, Batman is dark and brutal, arguably a fascist, but certainly prone to soul-searching regarding his questionable methods.

Batman Begins was memorable, as it was the first Batman movie where the many dimensions of the conflicted hero were not overshadowed by the charisma of the villains. As a result, the relaunch of the franchise obliterated the memory of Joel Schumacher's cartoonish Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, recaptured the dark, serious tone of Tim Burton's 80s/early 90s offerings Batman and Batman Returns, and took it to a new level.

In all likelihood its legacy will now be that it laid the groundwork for The Dark Knight. Batman Begins established the complexity of the character. The sequel tests his mettle during a proverbial 'dark night of the soul'.

Exhibit A: the Joker. It seemed from the time 'our Heath' Ledger first stepped onto the Dark Knight set there were murmurs regarding the brilliance of his portrayal of the most infamous figure in the Batman rogues gallery.

The murmur of praise became a bellow after the 28-year-old actor died of an accidental drug overdose in January. Speculation that the abuse of pills which killed him was linked to his methodic immersion in the psychotic character added to the mystique.

Needless to say, Ledger is almost unrecognisable. Not just because of the heavy, scarified 'cut-smile' make-up. His voice is a villainous snarl. His walk is a Quasimodo slouch. His eyes are anarchic. Ledger's joker is a chaotic force of nature. The performance is as iconic as Jack Nicholson's very different take on the character in 1989.

Exhibit B: Harvey Dent. Chisel-jawed Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as the district attorney who teams up with Batman and good cop Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Oldman) to try to rid Gotham City of organised crime.

Dent represents the other side of the 'hero' coin — playing by the rules within a largely corrupt system, while Batman merely does whatever he deems necessary to attack the system from the outside. Bruce Wayne sees Dent as heir apparent to the mantle of 'protector of Gotham'.

Most audiences will be aware of what's in store for Dent in the film. He is destined to be overwhelmed by his dark side following a horrific run-in with the Joker. In The Dark Knight the tragedy of Harvey 'Two-Face' will affect Batman, and the way in which he is regarded by the people of Gotham, more than his epic battles with the Joker.

This is an action film, and its action sequences are indeed spectacular. For a case in point, see Batman base-jumping from a Hong Kong skyscraper. Or mounting his bat-bike and engaging in a high-speed chase with the Joker's semi-trailer.

The spectacle sweetens the experience, but it's the characters who linger, particularly the triumvirate of Batman/Joker/Dent, who define each other by contrast. Burton attempted something similar in 1992's Batman Returns with Batman, the Penguin and Catwoman. Nolan, in The Dark Knight, is more successful, with the result that this is not simply the best superhero movie ever. It may be the best film, of any genre, for 2008.

Official The Dark Knight website

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. Legend has it that 'Batman' was his first word. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film and the Brisbane Courier Mail. He is a contributor to American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty. Email Tim

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Dark Knight, sequel to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, A



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