Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Dark Knight trilogy

Casts: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway

Director: Christopher Nolan  

439 minutes (15) 2005/8/12
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner 4K Ultra HD

Rating: 10/10
Reviews by Christopher Geary

Comic-book fans might grumble about how much Batman Begins (2005), effectively a prequel to Warner’s existing franchise, as launched by Tim Burton’s monstrously flawed Batman (1989), draws upon Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns characterisation of the ‘caped crusader’, without crediting the authority of that revisionist version. However, I think the value of Miller’s influence upon this origin story has been grossly overstated. 

The only important screen credit that’s deserved by, and prominently given to, a writer not directly connected with this cinema offering is that of Bob Kane. Creativity is not the same thing as originality. Batman’s genre lineage has been traced elsewhere. I’d rather not get into nit-picking. The fact is that Christopher Nolan’s laudable, and exceptionally ‘practical’, action drama rejects the peculiar daftness that is more usually imposed upon superhero adventures (especially on media adaptations from the DC comics stable), and centres its generally downbeat narrative with a shrewd exploration of the psychological depths of its title character’s mortal fears, and lingering guilt (the young Bruce Wayne blames himself for the death of his parents), that’s twisted into an unhealthy obsession with revenge.

Christian Bale (American Psycho, Reign Of Fire, Equilibrium, The Machinist) brilliantly portrays the adult Bruce Wayne as a tragically haunted heir, embarking upon a fiercely existential journey into the mountains of China, after finding himself unable to remain in Gotham while burdened with painful memories. Bruce’s spiritual attempt to expose and fully comprehend the workings of the criminal psyche is a bitter struggle to understand his own nature, and find new purpose and meaning in life. Rarely have the motivations for a costumed crime-fighter to wear a disguise been examined so deeply or illustrated so well in a Hollywood product. Bravely, the director and star allow us to peer ‘behind the mask’ even while Batman’s wearing it. Batman Begins is an exemplary deconstruction of a vigilante crime-fighter in a master-class of superhero cinema that’s unmatched by the likes of The Punisher (either version), or the over-flashy Daredevil, and is certainly more illuminating, especially in terms of solid characterisation, than Sam Raimi’s over-praised Spider-Man movies.

Tutored in various martial arts by stony-faced guru Ducard (Liam Neeson - much better here, as a mentor figure, than in his Star Wars episode), but refusing to agree with the coldly extreme policy of elitism openly espoused by the well meaning but fascistic League of Shadows, Bruce confronts ninja death squads and strives to formulate his philosophy of justice as one suitable for maintaining order in the grimy hell of Gotham’s underworld. He’s aided by the righteous cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in a surprisingly restrained, yet nonetheless magnetic performance), obviously the beleaguered city’s future police commissioner, and the pioneering industrial scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, wry as ever), an admirably Q-like techie, while Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel (Katie Holmes, who also played a Rachel in Disturbing Behaviour, 1998), now a district attorney in Gotham, tries to provide the disillusioned hero with moral guidance, and love interest.

Neeson brings a much needed weight to early scenes, as Nolan’s non-linear story-telling format (which worked so perfectly in Memento), switching between Bruce’s childhood traumas and mental vacuity as an adult, threatens to derail the main plot before the intriguing narrative takes hold. Michael Caine makes for a splendid butler, and his aged Alfred is one of the thespian highlights of this drama. The secondary villain of the piece is deranged headshrinker Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes the Scarecrow, armed with a potent hallucinogenic gas to confuse and terrify his opponents. Apart from Batman’s ninja tactics, The Scarecrow’s actions help to provide the mystery with its best, and most inspired, moments of eerie gothic horror, and yet even the movie’s shocks and frights are understated. This is in keeping with Nolan’s familiar directorial style, as used to good effect in his remake of mystery thriller 
Insomnia. Batman the caped superhero is presented as a nearly mythic symbol of fear who’s just as scary as the vicious gangsters, hoodlums, and psychos that he sets out to destroy. In the wretched slums and perilous alleyways of Gotham, the dark knight is out to make sure everyone is afraid of walking the streets at night.

Batman Begins remains one of the finest comic-book adaptations of the current century’s superhero cinema cycle, and it delivers exciting chases, impressive widescreen spectacle, and plenty of assured character development. If nothing else, when you see the rugged new bat-mobile hit the streets, you will chortle at Gordon’s reaction: “I gotta get me one of those!”

Like its predecessor, The Dark Knight (2008) has no intro credits, just the famous Bat symbol emerging from a blue firestorm and then it jumps into an action scene. The Joker unmasks himself, bringing an unpredictable end to a tightly choreographed bank robbery, declaring, “Whatever doesn’t kill you... makes you stranger.”

What can a billionaire-playboy turned night-stalker vigilante do when a radical psycho clown threatens people in the city that the protagonist has sworn to protect? Operating so far beyond any traditional criminal’s code of ‘honour’ that rationality seems just a lost memory in a world gone bonkers, the Joker aims to make Batman understand that any genuine victory against calculated wickedness is merely a wishful dream that vanishes in broad daylight.

In this engagingly revisionist big-screen adaptation of Batman comics, what else can the lone hero do except simply endure the worst excesses of brutal anarchy and nightmarish chaos, as perpetrated by his new archenemy the Joker? It’s possible that his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman is now a Hollywood career-defining one for Welsh-born star Christian Bale. But Australian actor Heath Ledger is certain of a place in the history of comic-book movies due to his tragic death, shortly after the filming of his remarkable scene-stealing turn as the Joker was completed. Oddly enough, there was nothing to be found in Ledger’s merely average co-starring appearance, opposite the typically wooden Matt Damon in Terry Gilliam’s unfortunately flawed The Brothers Grimm, to suggest that Ledger was even capable of such a powerfully dramatic and savagely comic profundity of thespian brilliance as demonstrated here.

With garish clown makeup concealing his ‘mask’ on the inside (we’re not given any facts about the Joker’s past, because he tells eerily disturbing lies about his - probably awful - life story), the Joker is obviously the dark side of an already sinister Batman. Perhaps Ledger’s characterisation was influenced by the similarly-scarred hit-man Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s extremely violent Ichi The Killer, more than the gypsy clown Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), reputedly the primary inspiration for the comic-book’s original Joker.

Furthermore, in the torture video played by Gotham TV news, Ledger’s quirkily amusing tone of voice (“Are you the real Batman?”), pays homage to Cesar Romero’s fondly remembered Joker - in the 1966 film and subsequent TV series. And yet, leaving no doubts about the impact of his definitive performance, and adding yet another layer of complexity to his role, Ledger turns the camcorder on himself, dragging attention back from nostalgic whimsy, now speaking directly to camera, ominously, “See, this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.” The Joker parodies the face of contemporary terrorism. He’s off-the-wall mad, typically bad, and extremely dangerous to know. He’s a mockingly defiant critical response to Batman’s crusade against mob rule.

Aaron Eckhart follows a string of solid but largely undistinguished roles - in murder mystery The Black Dahlia, the confusing Suspect Zero, and sci-fi chase thriller Paycheck - with a tour de force performance as Gotham city’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent, a legal ‘white knight’ eventually traumatised into becoming amoral gambler Two-Face, a bitterly vengeful, psychologically twisted combination of both Joker and Batman, who casually decides victims’ fates by the flip of a coin. It’s worth noting that our costumed hero’s moral confidence and combative superiority has advanced from Batman Begins, so that villain Dr Jonathan Crane, alias Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who seemed a powerful menace for 2005’s Batman, is dealt with more easily here, and dismissed as a petty nuisance. Also returning to their supporting-cast roles in the previous movie, there is Michael Caine - as Wayne’s formidably deadpan butler and supportive confidant Alfred Pennyworth; Gary Oldman - admirably understated and quietly dignified again as a police lieutenant (soon-to-be commissioner) James Gordon; and Morgan Freeman - as Lucius Fox, serenely competent CEO of Wayne’s corporate and technical interests.

Setting new box-office records, and breaking the mould for any blockbuster sequel that astutely melds the fantastical antics of comic-book super-heroism with the gritty realism of mainstream action cinema, The Dark Knight is certainly one of this decade’s top ‘event’ movies. The success of Nolan’s classic as Hollywood product is hardly important, though. As the Joker asserts: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.” That message seems to be that a clever filmmaker really can have his cake and eat it. Nolan achieves varied technical and aesthetic ambitions, developing ‘Steadicam’ devices for hand-held usage of bulky IMAX equipment, which enables a dazzling and impressive picture to benefit from such detailed image capturing of key action scenes. Stunts are spectacular, and more convincing than in most comparable Hollywood thrillers. But how can the filmmakers top a lengthy road chase sequence, particularly one that’s climaxed by crashing a helicopter and flipping over a lorry? Well, how about demolishing an entire hospital block?

Although this epic sequel continues the narrative of Batman Begins, that movie’s superbly gothic visuals and architectural styling are abandoned in favour of Chicago locations, used here to create a more realistic universe for all the comic-book notions and tricks, much like Paul Verhoeven shot the ‘futuristic’ sky-line of Dallas to represent a re-developed Detroit for RoboCop (1987). Batman’s hi-tech gadgets aside, the jolting dynamic of action scenes in The Dark Knight has been accurately judged as equal to shoot-outs and chases and in Michael Mann’s powder-keg classic Heat (1995), where clashes between Al Pacino’s manic cop and Robert De Niro’s wily crook produced quite electrifying consequences of a similar nature.

The creative and precisely controlled use of sound cranks up tension and suspense during many confrontation scenes, which makes up for the cleverly hidden fact that Nolan has fashioned a terrifyingly sadistic crime thriller, oozing danger, dilemmas, and bone-crunching violence, yet distinctly lacking in bloody splatter. If compared to David Cronenberg’s gory Eastern Promises (another hard-hitting drama with a lone hero tackling a criminal conspiracy), it’s clear that, however bold its attempts to reformulate comic-book adventure in a down-to-earth manner, The Dark Knight inhabits a different universe to genre horror. As the Joker’s restless psychosis shifts into a fatally demented overdrive, it’s interesting to contrast his intimidating qualities with those of Dr Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter - one of the greatest screen villains of the previous decade. Despite Lecter’s penchant for meticulously planned outrage and eruptions of wild blood-lust, we are left feeling that Ledger’s ultimately chilling interpretation of the Joker as “an agent of chaos” has raised the bar for any such fascinatingly unpredictable murderous evil-doing in popular cinema, showing us a curious model of villainy that’s more astonishing than Lecter’s slasher antics because a troubling sense of peril, and our horrified reaction to it, is accomplished with keenly theatrical skill, without spraying pints of red stuff across the scenery.

But Nolan’s greatest achievement is the assured handling of ambivalent character developments in a cold light and a serious context, granting this peerless variation of Bob Kane’s now 70-year-old champion detective an immeasurably cool gravitas, one that blots out persistent memories of previous cinema or television adaptations, whether they were campy or not. The Dark Knight affirms its links to much original DC comics’ material, and skilfully integrates story-arcs and variant characters from Batman graphic novels in a uniquely persuasive and resonant manner where all the earlier works were comparatively unsuccessful or wholly inadequate in their attempts to realise a cinematic drama that clearly transcends the milieu’s inescapably juvenile origins.

For the greatest lone urban vigilante movie of 2012, in contrast to the heroic teamwork of Josh Whedon’s mega-hit Avengers Assemble, we need look no further than Nolan’s breathtaking The Dark Knight Rises. This hugely anticipated closer to the revisionist trilogy, pits a technologically futuristic protagonist against the super terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), who eventually turns out to be a brutish talking golem for the long-con vengeance plot that springs up from Wayne’s shadowy past. In his sheer physical strength, monstrous brawler Bane is a superior opponent for Batman. Bane is very different to the cult leadership of Ra’s al Ghul, the gothic insanities of Scarecrow, psycho anarchy of the Joker, or the homicidal gambling of Two-Face. Bane is more beastly and yet coldly dynamic. He strides or swaggers around Gotham city, much like Godzilla stomps over miniature Tokyo sets; his amplified voice like the giant lizard’s fiery roar. Bane’s animalistic cunning exposes all of Batman’s weaknesses, and his prowess in unarmed combat makes the fearsome ‘night hunter’ mere prey in chilling scenes of well orchestrated mayhem that unfold with militaristic precision. Once he acquires control of the fusion bomb, Bane blurs the lines between powerhouse mercenary and revolutionary.

In a wholly impressive story-arc, Nolan’s trilogy shifted from gothic fairytale, with its climactic assault on the symbolic citadel, to an expansive film noir, complicated by two femme fatales. If Batman Begins concerned reclamation of the night from evil, and The Dark Knight was more about losing the day (and so becoming an outlaw), this finale to the trilogy focuses upon a hero who fails in a battle, but then wins the war. It shows Bane’s emergence from a gloomy underground lair into daylight conquest, then has the broken hero re-enact the villain’s escape from a hell-hole into victory. Whereas Batman Begins showed how Bruce became adept at compassionate valour, trained by the far less chivalrous League of Shadows, he becomes the symbol of fear tarnished by failure in The Dark Knight, but that’s only as a prelude to crushing defeat when the seemingly unstoppable Bane trounces him, ushering in an ‘Occupational’ winter of discontent, before the dire situation goes nuclear with the returning hero’s desperate act of self–sacrifice.

Although it may be argued that a mid-air hijacking alludes to Bond stunts (specifically, the pre-credits sequence of my favourite 007 movie, Licence To Kill), this epic thriller offers more than just up-scale espionage thrills. There are greater mythic dimensions underlying the superhero and ultimate nemesis characterisations - as Wayne learns the difference between cliché aphorisms ‘suffering builds character’ and ‘poverty breeds criminals’ - plus a medley of themes covering war drama, edgily satirical political commentary, disaster movie, and romantic adventure, with gritty action again filmed in the glorious IMAX format.

Re-watching these fantastic movies, now released in a premier 4K Ultra HD edition, with the stunning picture quality of HDR, firmly establishes The Dark Knight Trilogy as the greatest achievement so far in superhero cinema for a singular character’s story-arc. Not even the franchised Iron Man or Captain America trilogies, from DC's rival stable Marvel, come close to matching the seriously imaginative verve of Nolan’s astonishingly exciting directorial vision.  

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