Dark Knight, The

Ledger’s Batman Legacy Entertains, But Doesn’t Match Hype

Main Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Director: Christopher Nolan

Sometimes a movie’s buzz can simply overwhelm expectations. George Lucas learned that painful lesson while resurrecting his Star Wars franchise with a trilogy of prequels after years away. The same might well end up being true of The Dark Knight, the movie that won’t end, the film haunted by the legacy of being Heath Ledger’s last role before his death.

The most anticipated movie of 2008, The Dark Knight is bigger, louder and more intense and certainly more enjoyable than the first film, Batman Begins. As with the two-decade-old Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, The Dark Knight has plenty of scenery-chewing cast members.

Aaron Eckhart, underrated since his turn in Thank You For Smoking, stakes his claim to leading-man status while Christian Bale finally begins living up to that role already conferred upon him. Dressed completely in makeup, Heath Ledger does his main acting with his eyes, his voice and the way he whips his body around. As with any accomplished Method actor, Ledger disappears into his Joker role, and The Dark Knight truly becomes his film. Cast members Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal add even more diversity and stuff an already full roster.

When Do Morality Plays End?

In movies about criminals and crime-fighting superheroes, Good and Evil should be raised up, explored and then resolved. One significant issue with The Dark Knight is a similar one that bedeviled the Star Trek franchise in later films — the movie simply won’t end.

Director Christopher Nolan barrels through multiple natural ending moments as he layers more interpersonal conflict, more soliloquies and more action scenes on top of a perfectly serviceable story. Sam Raimi did the same thing in Spider-Man 3, and the movie very nearly broke away from his control (some would say that it did). Nolan makes The Dark Knight into a giant banana split of a movie, focusing on multiple relationships and adding various ingredients until even diehard fans might not be hungry for the whole thing.

Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, The Dark Knight is elevated to saga status, when some judicious cutting and editing might have reduced the run time to around 110 minutes and made the movie taut with tension. Just as with any issue, good or bad, surrounding The Dark Knight, once the anticipation and cult of celebrity surrounding Ledger dissipates, this unwillingness to edit will ultimately be the movie’s defining characteristic.

Is This The Best Batman?

If The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie and worthy of your financial investment and time, then it likely beats the original by only a thin margin, and that due to the large and talented cast. The story is told in pell-mell fashion, and while lighting and costumes are excellent, the sound is absolutely awful, including the use of a vocoder when Bale is in his Batman suit.

The Dark Knight doesn’t get the lighthearted moments that lifted Keaton, Nicholson and Bassinger a generation ago, and may suffer from taking itself too seriously. Bale still banters with Sir Michael Caine, but there was more than enough of that relationship in Batman Begins. The banter seems forced now, more reminiscent of Sir John Gielgud’s turn as another rich man’s butler in Arthur.

There are certainly more explosions, more special effects and some interesting plot twists in The Dark Knight, but the film eventually caves under the weight of its always-on message tone and style. Ledger’s Joker is certainly interesting, in different ways from Jack Nicholson’s, and the part is a fine one for the young actor’s last complete film role. Oscar buzz aside, the role was interesting and will be talked about, but there have already been better dramatic performances only halfway through the year.

The Bottom Line, Popcorn Kernels and All

Sure, go see it. I was at the first midnight showing, watching the uber-fans clap for Ledger and reduce their volume from a roar during the previews to silence and sporadic applause throughout the movie. Any fan of the genre will want to watch Ledger, Bale and Eckhart on the big screen. Others who may be less interested in the series will find solid work from Oldman and Freeman and may even opt to wait until DVD, or heaven forbid, cable.

The Dark Knight is ultimately a great movie event, not a great movie.

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