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The Dark Knight

(2008) **** Pg-13
152 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cillian Murphy, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell.


"It's all part of the plan," says the Joker. Coming from a homicidal maniac purporting to be "an engine of chaos," it's an ironic turn of phrase. So too is the Joker's assertion "I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Though psychotic and instinctive, this criminal genius does think ahead, scheming about how to prolong his dance of death with the Batman, Gotham's inspiring vigilante. In this manner, the Joker resembles his puppet-master, director Christopher Nolan. With The Dark Knight, a sequel to 2005's impressive Batman Begins, Nolan is again every inch the schemer, and he's thought through everything necessary to deliver on the promise of a summer blockbuster while elevating the form.

Batman Begins established the series' large-scale action, fascinating themes, and contemporary relevance, with a useful plot twist to keep even fanboys on their toes. But The Dark Knight deepens the experience in every way, abandoning most of the assumptions of comic-book escapism in favor of making a serious crime film with the ultimate in civil and personal high stakes. Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige), with David S. Goyer sharing story credit, have constructed the film and its publicity to keep even spoiler-hungry fans from the assurance that they know the story's parameters, particulars, and pacing.

/content/films/3132/21.jpgGotham in the wake of Batman (rock-strong Christian Bale) has new hope as well as a new set of problems, prefigured in the final moments of Batman Begins. Aside from the costumed criminal antics of the Joker (Heath Ledger, in his last completed performance), Batman copycats with inferior equipment and training are trying to help the genuine article to take back the night. In the bright light of day stands "Gotham's white knight," crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, excellent in the film's pivotal role). Determined to take down Gotham's mob bosses, Dent recruits Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman, better than ever) and then Batman himself to do what needs to be done and watch Dent's back.

Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter ego) paraphrases a lesson taught to him in Batman Begins: "Criminals aren't complicated." But the wild card is the Joker, a terrorist (complete with threatening videos) playing a citywide game with Batman. Demanding that Batman unmask and promising death-dealing if he doesn't, the Joker targets Gotham's best and brightest. His diabolical plans are rigged to test not only Batman's ideology, but the greater ethic of Gotham. True to his terrorist style, the Joker hopes the people will take him up on his invitation to self-destruct in the face of incomprehensible evil. Speaking as the voice of anarchy, the Joker articulates how his role dovetails with the central theme of Batman Begins: "You know, the thing about chaos--it's fear." The question the film poses repeatedly: how far is it permissible to go in fighting terrorism? The Dark Knight stares into that abyss, and says only, "I've seen now what I'd have to become to fight men like him."

Dent's reaction to the mob (personified by Eric Roberts' Sal Maroni and Ritchie Coster's The Chechen) is fearless application of justice. Though he's forced to play the mob's dirty game, he'll bend the rules to deliver a key witness. But having, like Batman, hit hard against the criminals, Dent should prepare for the blowback. It's unclear that he can protect himself, much less his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, ably assuming Katie Holmes' role), from criminal retribution. As an assistant district attorney, she incurs her own share of ire. As the lifelong friend and ex of Wayne, she also knows much more than most that Wayne can be trusted when times get rough.

/content/films/3132/31.jpgFor Batman, necessary transgressions are a walk in the park. He even employs a wireless "wire-tapping" method to listen in to all of Gotham, a cagily distressing evocation of the FISA debate branded "unethical and dangerous" by tech support Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). "This is too much power for one person," Fox adds. (As Kristine Kathryn Rusch argues in her essay "Batman in the Real World," "President George Walker Bush is the closest thing we've had to Batman in a long time...fortunately, Batman is always right.") Trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) warns Wayne, "Know your limits." Answer: "Batman has no limits." The film eventually confirms that comment to be delusional, though the moral and ethical tangles created by the Nolans don't always have easy answers (even Fox agrees to go against his ethics "just this once"). Certainly, though, being a masked vigilante has its costs, from the scars covering the Dark Knight's torso to the place he finds himself by story's end.

Batman has one hard, fast rule that he refuses to break: he will not kill (or take up a gun). Rooted in the gun slaying of Bruce Wayne's parents, this rule is sorely tested by the Joker, who makes it his mission in life to prove that anyone--even the ones in whom we put our trust--is capable of snapping and becoming a homicidal maniac. Whatever gave the Joker the scars that form a mocking smile on his face (and the details, Nolan and the Joker concur, are irrelevant), we can infer that he was once as sane as those upon whom he systematically preys. In messily applied clown makeup (referred to as "war paint"), Ledger makes a mesmerizing mad dog, his tongue flicking and smacking his lips with demented abandon and his raccoon eyes boring into his victims. It's a fearless, full-bodied incarnation of madness, one that achieves the actor's ultimate goal of spontaneity.

/content/films/3132/28.jpgThe greatest impression of The Dark Knight is its considerable intellectual interest. As the comic-book movie has evolved, it has teased themes and emotional depth to attain a pop-operatic quality. But if Batman Begins was among the very best of comic-book movies, The Dark Knight succeeds it in its darkness of tone and resistance to easy plot fixes. The comic book The Dark Knight most closely resembles is Batman: The Long Halloween (written by Jeph Loeb), but the Nolans take from it the Untouchables-like mob conflict (the good guys go after the mob's life savings) and the wary heroic triptych of Dent-Gordon-Batman. A lover of thematic symmetry, Nolan also draws a love triangle connecting Dent, Dawes, and Wayne and, in the film's very fabric, a subtextual comparison of the relative madnesses afflicting and fatalistically connecting Batman, the Joker, and another great villain from the Batman Rogue's Gallery: Two-Face.

The Dark Knight also contains echoes of the classic comic Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore. If The Long Halloween evoked The Untouchables (and The Godfather), The Killing Joke sends Nolan the territory of Heat and The Departed, but with an arguably greater level of thematic sophistication than either of those highly regarded films. One of The Dark Knight's best scenes pits Bale's Batman against Ledger's Joker in a philosophical battle of wills depicting "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object." "I don't want to kill you. What would I do without you?" the Joker asks. "You complete me." Jack Nicholson delivered a powerhouse star performance and a legitimate interpretation of the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. While taking nothing away from Nicholson, Ledger's work is of a piece with Nolan's reconception of the material. Ledger slips into the purple suit as if it were an animal skin for a primal, archetypal dance.

/content/films/3132/43.jpgWhether or not one finds The Dark Knight a great film is obviously a matter of taste. It's pitch-black in themes and somber in tone (though not without flashes of humor), and its complicated plot demands a structure some will find unwieldy and overlong (though Batman fans will be in hog heaven). As smart as he is, Nolan isn't as masterful with emotion and action as Steven Spielberg (cross-breeding the two would make the ultimate blockbuster film director). And taken in real-world terms, upon which Nolan insists, Batman is not a simple hero but an anti-hero disenchanted with a corrupt system and therefore living out on its edge; though he attempts an experiment in working with trusted authority figures, he'll never be Gotham's top cop, but always its lone wolf.

Despite its potentially polarizing qualities, I think most audiences will have to agree that The Dark Knight is among the smartest and most thought-provoking popcorn movies ever made. As cultural critics decry the dumbing down of popular culture, it's an achievement not to be sneezed upon. It's also a film filled with robust performances by many of the best film actors alive and unfortunately, in the case of Ledger, dead. To balance the film's intellectual musings, Nolan delivers epic helicopter shots of urban landscapes and action sequences that are often astonishing but crafted to be as horrifyingly plausible as they are explosive.

/content/films/3132/6.jpgIn a country on the brink of a major change, The Dark Knight thoroughly entertains even as it usefully asks us to consider our need to believe in an unimpeachable public "hero with a face" (Dent's white knight) and our own responsibility anonymously to better the world with what Dent calls "public service," as unconventionally symbolized by the Dark Knight. Batman concludes, "Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded," and Nolan's richly realized adaptation of a modern American mythology fulfills our faith in the material and its interpreters.

[Note: The Dark Knight will play in ordinary 35mm projection format as well as in IMAX format (only in IMAX theaters, of course). Upping the ante from the IMAX presentation of Batman Begins, Nolan shot 28 minutes of The Dark Knight with IMAX cameras: several complete sequences as well as a number of establishing shots and other fragments based on artistic whim and as time and practical production concerns allowed. The IMAX prints cut more than a dozen times between the film's primary 2.40:1 ratio and the IMAX ratio of 1.33:1, though seamlessly enough that one colleague with whom I saw the film was never conscious of the shifting ratios. The IMAX version is stunning and comes highly recommended; it literally and figuratively makes the experience larger than life.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1, 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1

Street date: 12/9/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner does a bang-up job in their first special edition of The Dark Knight on Blu-ray and DVD. Setting aside what's missing (extensive interviews with the cast; any interview footage of Ledger; a profile/tribute of Ledger; a new featurette on the Joker), what's here is awfully cool and enough to tide us over until an inevitable double-dip. The image quality is top notch, expertly rendering Pfister's sleek photography and rich hues; the IMAX sequences take a noticeable jump in detail and depth from what's already an impressive image. There's a rare touch of edge enhancement, but it's a nitpick in what's a very impressive transfer. A 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track likewise gets the job done; The Dark Knight has one of the most aggressive sonic soundscapes of this year's films, and to my ear, nothing of the track's impact is lost in this expert adaptation to home theater capabilities.

There's some vigorous debate on AV forums about framing, since the Blu-ray release switches aspect ratios: 1.78:1 for the IMAX sequences and 2.4:1 for the rest of the film. It was Nolan's intent from the beginning to do so for the Blu-ray release, offering more of the original IMAX frame for those sequences; however, some have noted that the cropping of the IMAX image may have required more exactitude. I'll just say that I disagree: to my eye, the transfer was carefully supervised to get the most out of the IMAX image within a widescreen TV frame.

On disc one is a feature one can sync to playback or view separately. Under the banner Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene are eighteen "Focus Point" segments in full HD: "The Prologue" (8:48), "The New Bat-Suit" (4:47), "Joker Theme" (6:18), "Hong Kong Jump" (3:05), "Judge's Car Blows Up" (1:09), "Challenges of the Chase, in IMAX" (4:04), "SWAT Van into River" (1:44), "Miniature Unit" (1:35), "Destruction of Batmobile" (2:08), "Bat-Pod" (6:06), "Helicopter Crash" (1:12), "Truck Flip" (4:02), "MCU Explosion" (1:12), "Lamborghini Crash" (1:54), "Hospital Explosion" (6:43), "Mob Car Flip" (:39), "String of Sausages Stunt" (2:08), and "Upping the Ante" (6:40). One can "Play Movie with Focus Points," select to view any number of the Focus Points directly from the menu, or "Play All Focus Points" (1:04:10), an option for which I'm grateful: it turns the focus points into an hour-long behind-the-scenes doc.

Director Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith, DP Wally Pfister, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, camera operator Bob Gorelick, camera assistant Bob Hall, IMAX consultant David Keighley, composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, producer Emma Thomas, executive producer Kevin De La Noy, producer Charles Roven, costumer Lindy Hemming, costume fx supervisor Graham Churchyard, stunt performers Buster Reeves and George Cottle, visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, stunt coordinator Paul Jennings, first assistant editor John Lee, sound designer Richard King, Controlled Demolition VP Doug Loizeaux, special effects prep supervisor Ian Lowe share the secrets of the filmmaking process.

Disc Two leads off with the slick, informative, and entertaining doc "Batman Tech" (45:59), presented in widescreen HD. The gadgets and vehicles of the Dark Knight are the focus of this special, which includes comments by Nolan, Bale, Crowley, Corbould, Hemming, Churchyard, Roven, Thomas, The Science of Superheroes co-author Lois H. Gresh, former DC senior editor & writer Len Wein, Motor Trend editor-at-large Arthur St. Antoine, DC senior VP/executive editor Dan DiDio, UC Irvine physics professor Michael Dennin, CIA Museum curator Toni Hiley, DC president & publisher Paul Levitz, Ceradyne founder & CEO Joel Moskowitz, Chapman University professor of Biological Sciences Frank Frisch, Atlas Devices co-founder & CTO Nathan Ball, and L.A. Times motorcycle journalist Susan Carpenter.

Next up is "Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight" (46:02), likewise presented in widescreen HD. The special executive produced by Kevin Burns delves into the motivation of the Darknight Detective, as well as his Rogues' Gallery. Participants include Nolan, Bale, Roven, Levitz, DiDio, Wein, The Psychology of Superheroes editor Robin S. Rosenberg, Wisdom from the Batcave author Rabbi Cary A. Friedman, Columbia University Chairman of Psychiatry Jeffrey Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of social psychology Benjamin R. Karney, Dr. Robert T.M. Phillips of Forensic Consultation Associates, former DC editor & writer Dennis O'Neil, and Superman on the Couch author Danny Fingeroth. Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit is the revelation that Nolan found inspiration for the character of Bruce Wayne in Teddy Roosevelt, a man motivated to aggressive accomplishment after personal tragedy.

All six episodes of the promotional series Gotham Tonight ("Gotham Cable's premier news program") are included here in widescreen HD: "Election Night," "Billionaire without a Cause," "Escalation," "Top Cop," "Cops and Mobsters," and "Gotham's White Knight." A "Play All" option (46:41) makes it easier to check out the entire series; each segment runs from seven to eight minutes. Mike Engel (Anthony Michael Hall) hosts four of the segments, while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) pop up in "Billionaire without a Cause"; James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Barbara Gordon (Melinda McGraw) and Police Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane) in "Top Cop"; Loeb and Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) in "Cops and Mobsters"; and Dent again in "Gotham's White Knight."

Galleries include Joker Cards, Concept Art, Poster Art, and Production Stills; we also get three Trailers and six TV Spots (8:48 with "Play All" option, HD). Lastly, the disc offers a Digital Copy on disc three, as well as the hookup to Warner Brothers BD Live, which offers the ability to record and share a video commentary, among other bonus content (including a planned live event with Nolan). Batman fans can queue up for this three-disc set without fear of disappointment.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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