It was Tim Burton who supposedly brought the darkness back to Gotham City, but in retrospect, Burton's 1989 Batman wasn't all that Stygian. Underneath those rubber ears, after all, was a callow-looking Michael Keaton, and even Jack Nicholson's Joker came across as a facetious neurotic, an unwelcome uncle playing inappropriately creepy tricks at a children's party. It didn't actually take that much slippage for the series to become the camp farrago Joel Schumacher presided over in his two episodes.
The franchise received a radical overhaul in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005): sombre and portentous, it stripped away the previous films' gothic expressionism and their cartoonishness, but was such a narrative crawl that it felt more like Batman Begins ... and Begins ... and Begins ...
Still, if you think that film burned the Bat-bridges, it was nothing compared with Nolan's follow-up. Note that the word Batman doesn't appear in the title. This is possibly because that might have attracted a pre-pubescent audience, and The Dark Knight is absolutely not a children's film. For that matter, I'm not sure it's strictly a Batman film. The rubber-caped vigilante is in it, for sure, more monolithic than ever. Played again by Christian Bale, he now speaks, when masked, in a gravelly synthetic bass; he also has an eerie habit of suddenly appearing out of and vanishing into shadows. But Nolan and his co-writer, brother Jonathan Nolan, don't seem that interested in Batman, still less in his alter ego Bruce Wayne, who registers as a glum, saturnine smoothie.
The film's real energies circulate around Batman's nemesis the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, and it's mainly Ledger's cranky and unsettling performance that makes the film worth seeing. This Joker is a ragged smiler with a faintly decrepit tremor in his swagger and a creepy little lip-smacking sound in his speech. His ratty hair looks mildewed; he wears peeling white face paint, with lipstick daubed on a razor-scarred mouth, looking as if he's stepped out of a Rob Zombie gore flick, or ghoul-metal band Slipknot. He's a coldly psychotic knife man, and in his quieter moments, his gently reasonable tone recalls Hannibal Lecter. This self-declared "agent of chaos" is not remotely comical, but he is genuinely scary: the one shot I'll remember from this film is a simple, chilling image of the Joker smirking jubilantly from a car window.
The Joker's career of terrorism for terrorism's sake holds the film together, unifying Nolan's compendium of thriller styles. A brisk and brutal heist at the start sets the tone for what, in large part, feels like a Michael Mann action movie. There's some airborne derring-do, set in Hong Kong, that seems more 007 than Batman; flying-glass action that's pure John Woo; a nod to The French Connection; a dash of courtroom drama in the Sidney Lumet vein. There's even, in the intricacies of the cops vs mob narrative, a hint that the Nolans have been studying TV's The Wire.
I suspect they've also been studying the Saw series. The Joker is forever setting people unbearable tests of character, designed to prove that supposedly good people will readily sacrifice innocents to save themselves or their loved ones. He resembles that series' arch-fiend Jigsaw, who tortures in the name of moral education – although the Joker is himself purely amoral and irrational, one of those who, as wise butler Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, "just wants to watch the world burn". (Nolan himself certainly likes to – just look at the apocalyptic hospital explosion he stages.)
The Joker's outlook is pretty much shared by the film, which proposes a bleak vision not normally associated with superhero films. (Spider-Man's black costume in SM3? Don't make me laugh.) Incorruptible DA Harvey Dent (a grimly charismatic Aaron Eckhart) suffers a gruesome and heavily signposted fate; before long, even he is muttering, "The only morality in a cruel world is chance," as he flips his coin.
Part and parcel of the film's overall grimness is a startling level of violence. While the Joker's party trick is to slam someone's face down on a pencil, Batman is no lily of the valley: his punches are the sort that break necks. We're a long way from the BIFF! BANG! POW! captions of the 1960s TV show. Here, the sound design's punches, blasts and gunshots are tuned for maximum realism, and pumped up to hit the viewer with full force in the solar plexus (and I didn't even see the film in an Imax cinema, so be warned).
The film's oppressive solemnity has been received by some critics as a mark of complex cerebral substance, but I can't buy that. All the cogitation on good and evil, chaos and order, civilisation and barbarism, is so earnest and laborious – not just made heavy weather of, but garlanded with looming storm clouds.
This is an impressive film in many ways, and Nolan directs with real confidence, yet the overall result feels cumbersome. The tenor is set by Nolan's conception of the Batmobile – a clanking all-terrain engine of war, a chunk of brutalist engineering that manifestly weighs tons. There's something comparably tank-like about the film, and despite several genuinely head-spinning moments, it all comes to feel grimly overwhelming, a vision of total war you fear will never end.
For goodness' sake, no one expected a return to Adam West and bad puns, but this cocktail of ultraviolence, artillery and pessimism makes for a gruelling, even depressing experience. Perhaps Warner Bros could offer the next episode to Werner Herzog, just to cheer things up a bit.
Need to know
From DIY tyro to Hollywood gun: London-born Nolan made his debut in 1998 with the resourceful no-budget 'Following', a film noir that he shot at weekends. He went to the US to make 'Memento' (2000), an ingenious backwards narrative about amnesia. Al Pacino vehicle 'Insomnia' (2002) was a remake of a Norwegian thriller, and 'The Prestige' (2006) was about two rival Victorian conjurers. But it was the Batman diptych – 'Batman Begins' (2005) and now 'The Dark Knight' – that put Nolan in the A-list, the latter already grossing $200m (£100m) in the US in less than a week.Reuse content