Origin stories are a staple of the superhero genre, and they’re often how we are introduced to a new character in a filmic sense. When Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale rebooted the Batman film franchise with the acclaimed Batman Begins, we saw what drives Bruce Wayne and inspired him to become the caped crusader. In the upcoming Wolverine, we’ll see the origin of everyone’s favourite immortal regenerative canuck; origin stories are as important to the superhero genre as the three-act framework was to early drama writers.
So, then, when we find a character without an origin, with no seeming past at all, it’s a jarring event. It’s that disconnectedness that makes The Dark Knight so compelling, and at the heart of that disconnect is one insane man...
In many ways ‘The Joker’ could easily have been the name of this film. In some ways it should have been – certainly, Heath Ledger’s performance is worthy of star billing. But this film is very much about not only the Joker, but his relationship to Batman. It explores – though possibly not as deeply as the first film – Batman’s own dark psyche, and sets up that exploration for many films to come.
The film opens with a frenetic bank robbery that quickly turns into a whirlwind of betrayal. From there we cut back and forth across Gotham in a series of scenes intercut with such pace that in any other film would be considered the climax. As the action mounts, we’re re-introduced to old friends and new characters – Lieutenant Gordon, now heading up Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, Lucius Fox, still heading up day to day operations for Bruce Wayne, and of course Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new District Attorney and a staunch foe of the crime and corruption that has plagued the city.
Also present is a new face on an old character. One of the few low points of Batman Begins was Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes; her fresh wholesomeness just didn’t seem to belong in Gotham, let alone as Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Maggie Gyllenhal, on the other hand, is an excellent foil, and her Dawes is as hardnosed about pursuing crime as any of her male counterparts. She’s also a far better actress.
But stealing the entire show, as we’ve said, is Heath Ledger, giving what is easily the most intense performance of his sadly foreshortened career. His Joker is never easy to pin down, never easy to simply explain away as the product of some catastrophic encounter. Batman does what he does because of the violent death of his parents; the Joker, though... well, he has his reasons, but they’re simply not to be understood by sane minds. Each time we see the Joker it’s impossible not to feel uncomfortable in his disconcerting presence. For our mind you can take your Freddies, your Jasons and other screen screamers; Ledger’s Joker is easily one of the most terrifying antagonists the screen has ever seen.
Everyone in the film is great, from Gary Oldman as the embittered but passionate Gordon to Aaron Eckhardt as the tragic Dent. Christian Bale isn’t quite the presence he was in the first film, but then he has less to work with this time around. There are a number of scenes towards the film’s end, however, where he is at his best, and the film’s conclusion leaves you in no doubt that the Batman is truly the dark mirror of the Joker, with just as much a will to do what he believes in, what he believes is right.
It is a long film, though, and some may get a touch of ‘climax fatigue’ towards the end, but there’s no doubting that The Dark Knight raises the bar for superhero films almost impossibly high.