To be sure, I have been openly critical of the fact that the Joker portrayed in this film is most assuredly NOT the Joker of the source material (that being the comic books). Yes, the character is open to interpretation, but the choices made here deviate so far from the comics that the resulting character hardly resembles the original in any way (in spite of what the writers, producers and marketers of this film will tell you). Still, Ledger was a great actor, so I fully expected to find his performance to be excellent, even if it wasn't "The Joker" he was portraying.
Sadly, I can't say that. Save your hate mail and defense of the movie, Ledger and all the rest involved, I can predict what's going to be said already and I've probably said it to myself.
The truth is, Christopher Nolan's sequel to 2005's Batman Begins is an interesting and challenging story about the rise of Harvey Dent and the origin of Two Face, one of Batman's most famous enemies. Nolan's screenplay (with his brother Jonathan) is based on a story created with David S. Goyer and manages to dig deeply into the personality of Bruce Wayne and those of his inner circle. The question of escalation is written all over this movie. Is Batman Gotham City's Guardian, or is he the inspiration for a new class of Villain that strives to take him down? For much of the first half of the story I wasn't just watching a good Batman movie... I was watching an excellent film.
This interesting, thought-provoking story is interrupted by the main villain here, the supposed product of this escalation... the Joker. I've no doubt that Ledger's performance will be lauded as excellent by most and that it would have been even had he lived. I can't join in this praise however, and not only because the character deviates so greatly from the comic book.
Ledger's Joker has been described (pre-release) as Disturbing, Scary, reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Punk Rock and his incessant lip-licking was described as reptilian.
Ledger's Joker isn't scary, he's gross. Ledger's Joker isn't disturbing, he's annoying. He comes off a lot less like Alex from A Clockwork Orange than Nixon shaking his jowls and bellowing out "I am not a crook". The closest to "punk rock" that he ever gets is in his smeared makeup and dyed hair (characteristics unique to this film, the original Joker was deformed by chemicals, not wearing makeup). His incessant lip-licking never comes off as that of a snake, but that of George Burns doing a stand up routine with a cigar. At some point the Joker becomes so irritating that it's fun to watch Batman beat the crap out of him and repeatedly outwit him.
But that's not to say he doesn't pose a challenge. Batman (still very well played by Christian Bale) has all but won his war on crime, leaving the mob bosses (most notably Eric Roberts' Boss Maroni) scrambling. Further dogging them is the efficiency of the Gotham City Police Department's Major Crimes Unit, led by the intrepid Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Office of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who does a very fine job) and his ADA Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal's good thetans). If that's not enough the Mayor is played by Nestor Carbonell, making me wonder if The Others were secretly in control of Gotham, or if the real hero might be The Tick's Bat Manuel.
In light of the opposition, the Crime Families agree to accept the aid of a madman in makeup, seeing as how the Batman has even successfully jailed The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) in the first few minutes of this film. The Joker starts out interesting enough, but soon milks his one trick to such an excess that his actions become predictable. Growl something sarcastic, lick lips, kill someone, taunt someone, rinse, repeat, smear uncharacteristic makeup.
As Batman (along with his alter ego Bruce Wayne) organizes his few inside allies (specifically Michael Caine's Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox) to chase down the Mob's Money (a trick that takes Batman all the way to Hong Kong and back), the Mob and their new Jackanapes Malefactor up the ante with a series of kidnappings and killings. This causes Batman to embrace newer, flashier technologies (along with a cool new variation on the 90s Batsuit ľ still nipple-free), which prompts the Joker to up his ante of destruction. It all spirals out of control in the story, though it maintains a certain cohesion under Christopher Nolan's guidance.
That is, it does for a while. At some point The Dark Knight comes very close to collapsing under its own weight and (clocking in at two hours and thirty-two minutes) it's just about a half-hour too long. It remains exciting, however, and the actors are almost uniformly good. Still, about the third time a gun was put to someone's head only to be a fake moment and around the fourth unbeatable ultimatum, even a hard-core Batman fan like myself wondered how many more Turtles Nolan wanted to put under Yertle.
The special effects are fantastic and the new bat-gadgets are a treat, somehow never seeming to owe their presence to toy tie-ins (thank you). The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer mirrors the excesses of the picture itself with these two big-name composers seeming to pile on more and more as the film climbs to new, dark heights. The Art-Direction and Sets, however, do manage to come off as real-world instead of the ridiculous Gotham Caricature that we were smeared with in the mid 1990s. Filmed primarily in Chicago, The Dark Knight looks like a film about a real city with a real need for an unreal guardian. The actors also seem to take this seriously and to never (well, almost never) delve into camp. Bale continues to show what a great Bruce Wayne he is, both the public, playboy version and the private serious version. His Batman is possibly the best ever (though his gruff monotone gets corny in more than one key point). Eckhart is just about perfect as Harvey Dent and remains credible even as the character's true face shows. Oldman, Caine and Freeman similarly expand their quality roles from the first film, feeling more comfortable in their parts and making them even more their own. Gyllenhaal is realistic and spritely, at once professional, sexy and vulnerable (surprisingly, though they do meet, The Joker never confesses to Rachel that he had sex with her Brother). This is one reason that Nolan manages to milk so much pathos out of the film. We care about the characters, we believe in Harvey Dent, we see why Rachel has captured two hearts and we worry about Bruce Wayne along with Alfred and Lucius every time he rockets away to save the day.
But in many areas it simply manages to be too much, with Ledger's considerable talents seeming to compete with the film on the whole for the most layers. Sadly, with the Joker, each layer is exactly like the one beneath it. The claim that this Joker is based on his first two appearances in 1940's Batman Number 1, seems to revolve around the repeated line "I'm a man of my word." and The Joker's offering of almost Riddler-like impossible challenges to his enemies. I've got the same reprints Chris, David and Jon picked up and read the first few pages of and I can tell you, the similarities stop there. Though there are elements from Loeb and Sale's The Long Halloween, the film is most assuredly Elseworlds in its depiction of The Joker. The fact that his erroneous clown makeup is there to help cover up the scars of his "Glasgow Smile" further separates this Joker from his comic-book inspiration. Nolan claims that they left out the Origin story of The Joker to show him as fully formed, suggesting the Joker didn't evolve he is absolute. I can get behind that, sure. But the emphasis placed on the fact that This Joker is wearing makeup and the "Glasgow Smile" scars it's there to both hide and emphasize adds in part of an implied origin story that is, unquestionably, divergent from the character. Yes, this is all open to interpretation, but it's all part of a disregard of context that led to the very mispronunciation of the major villain's name in 2005's Batman Begins.
The result is still a good movie that misses out on being great. In their goal to make an INCREDIBLE movie, the Nolans have sacrificed credibility and have helped a wonderful actor create a villain that is less credible for the effort. And that's the real shame of this. Legendary Ledger's performance will still be lauded as visionary and the Oscar Buzz may just continue to be heard. He deserves it, for all his accomplishments. Here, however, his character is as one-dimensional as Anthony Michael-Hall's and Senator Patrick Leahy's bit parts. I'm not any happier to say it than you are to read it. The film is good, but not the Earth-Shaking Masterpiece that other reviewers will almost certainly call it. The film will make a mint, Ledger will be praised (anything less would be disrespectful to the dead, right?), other versions of the Joker will be compared to him and this will be a popular, talked about film for generations to come. Perhaps I'm the epitome of comic book geek snobbery, but I may just know too much about the source material and have too much invested in the characters to ever view it objectively.
Three and One Half Stars out of Five for The Dark Knight. It's a good Batman film and it's a good film in its own right. Is it worthy of the hype? Time will tell. The tagline "Welcome to a world without rules." Seems to especially apply here. The talent both in front of and behind the camera were decidedly unbounded and they've made a movie that will work for most people. But, like Gotham's Underworld, perhaps it could have stood for just a little reigning in.