When a genre is still in it’s infancy, it becomes problematic to identify any film as a benchmark especially given the fact that for a genre to produce exemplary cinema, it must constantly evolve and invent a new set of conventions. The comic book genre has had a troubled relationship with fans and critics alike because of its notoriously superficial nature and wafer thin critical reputation, but ever since Hollywood started to lure artistically inclined filmmakers working outside the mainstream like Ang Lee, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan to oversee the launch of potentially lucrative comic book franchises, audiences have been assaulted with films that have been able to offer a degree of intelligent filmmaking which is both commercially rewarding and faithful to the original source material. Admittedly, filmmakers like Ang Lee who refuse to compromise or dilute their art-house authorial instinct have been rejected by Hollywood studios and his adaptation of ‘The Hulk’ was much loved by film critics but hated by audiences.
The second film in the new Batman series, ‘The Dark Knight’, has gone on to make box office history by becoming the film with the all time biggest opening weekend, and the unanimous critical response and deep adoration by fans of the comic book soon pushed the film to occupy the number one position in the IMDB chart, eclipsing ‘The Godfather’. Last week, the Guardian newspaper printed a feature specifically about whether the industry and critics should take such a chart as the top 250 films on the IMDB website seriously as film buffs do. I am sure the industry will and already do take such a chart quite seriously as it allows them to carry out demographic analysis that is useful for marketing their tent pole summer blockbusters. Much hype surrounded the release of ‘The Dark Knight’, and Warner Bros aggressively promoted the film with a fearsome marketing campaign that has really pushed the film into new audience groups who normally would stay away from such nerdy dark fantasy role-playing. Many of the films released this summer have not met my expectations and have often been over hyped, but British director, Christopher Nolan’s follow up to ‘Batman Begins’ is clearly without any doubt the best summer film of 2008, and is perhaps the best comic book film that has yet been made by a Hollywood studio.
The primary reason why ‘The Dark Knight’ is such a breathtaking piece of mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking is because the film exceeds expectations and delivers on the promise of surpassing the first film with such an air of confidence that the film ends up transcending genre limitations, becoming much more than just great a comic book film. Nolan has said that Michael Mann’s epic crime opus, ‘Heat’, was the inspiration for ‘The Dark Knight’, and though Nolan was never going to be able to surpass the brilliance of Mann’s definitive crime film, what he does offer us is an emotionally operatic and tragic mainstream crime thriller that succeeds in balancing interesting characterisation with impressive visceral action sequences.
David Goyer and Nolan had initially entertained the possibility of introducing Harvey Dent’s character in the first film but they felt that they could not do him justice, and on reflection, this was a bold step, as ‘The Dark Knight’ is a film that is not about Batman, but about Harvey Dent’s fall from grace, and it is due to Nolan’s gift as a scriptwriter that this compelling comic book film never once compromises characterisation in favour of pointless narrative momentum. Harvey Dent’s promise of a new future of civil law and order is what Gotham has been waiting for, but the appearance of ‘The Joker’ (Heath Ledger) creates absolute chaos and anarchy, leading to the corruption of Dent’s values, and eventually turning him into a vengeful figure of uncontrollable rage and pathos. Both Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon refer to Dent as Gotham’s ‘White Knight’, and interestingly enough, his closest ally and inadvertent alter ego is Batman, a vigilante who exists to serve the immoral impulses of a society that has lost the will to faces its own enemies. The real coup was being able to get Heath Ledger to take on the role of 'The Joker', and his final performance is superbly executed and his portrayal is twisted, demented and full of energy. Nolan was instrumental in playing down an origins story for 'The Joker', and this really leaves the character with an ambiguous back story that will probably be explored in another film.
The Gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton have almost become a thing of the past, and Nolan’s radical reworking of the mythology of Batman returned to the true darkness of the original comic book, creating a morally ambivalent figure that is strangely empathetic and revolutionary. Nolan’s choice of casting is both inspired and brilliant, securing the acting talents of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhardt and Gary Oldman, all who are exceptionally talented actors and help to elevate the credibility of the film. Supported by a beautifully orchestrated musical score composed by the pairing of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, and shot with a real eye for urban architecture, ‘The Dark Knight’ ends on a magnificently poised moment as Batman is transformed into the villain and is forced to go on the run.
Only a filmmaker like Nolan could pull of such an audacious ending as we are denied closure, and such unconventional narrative approach is indicative of world cinema, but the fact that Nolan applies such a principle to a populist blockbuster is perhaps the reason why ‘The Dark Knight’ is such a bold, daring and fascinating example of what is possible within the constraints of a genre that is routinely ridiculed by film criticism. For now, Nolan reigns supreme in the arena of blockbuster cinema.