Special Effects: A
Okay, let's talk about Heath Ledger. Anyone in their right mind will see The Dark Knight, the sixth in a series of live-action Batman films over the past two decades that went from greatness to total shit and back again, and recognize that all the so-called "Oscar buzz" is overblown, a transparent byproduct of sympathy for a man who suffered a recent, tragic death.
That's not to say that Ledger was not an Oscar-worthy actor. He was. He simply deserved it for his performance in Ang Lee's 2005 masterpiece Brokeback Mountain -- an award that ultimately went to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man admittedly just as skilled in the art of acting -- and not for this. The fact remains that superhero movies are not made to be Oscar-bait; the Academy does not give them serious consideration, and they typically have no need to. The Dark Knight, in spite of featuring a performance by an actor that does indeed give a bittersweet glimpse of incredible career achievements that could have been but will never be, is no exception.
The truth is, the only thing that makes Ledger stand out is his recent death. Because just like director Christopher Nolan's fantastic 2005 franchise re-boot, Batman Begins, the performances are equally great across the board. If, by some miracle, Heath Ledger actually does gain an Academy Award nomination, it will be exclusively out of sympathy this time, not out of justification.
In a way, it's truly unfortunate for Ledger's co-stars in this film. In his second film acting the part, Christian Bale continues to prove himself easily the best Batman since Michael Keaton played him in Tim Burton's original two comic-book-movie masterpieces, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Bale is unparalleled in his talent at depicting Batman's seething anger, Bruce Wayne's cool confidence, and both characters' inner conflict with duality. The villains always get the showier, meatier parts, but only in the hands of Christopher Nolan does Wayne/Batman get to be every bit as compelling.
Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) does an uncharacteristic turn as a mad man, ultimately playing the part of Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, a villain every bit as important here as The Joker, but overshadowed by Ledger's posthumous press. Nolan does a fantastic job with him as well, easily making up for the scattered, misguided, day-glow performance Joel Schumacher -- the man who sparked the beginning of the franchise's mid-nineties downward spiral -- elicited out of Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever. This time, we easily empathize with Two-Face, even as he's gone mad; he's human, not just a cartoon villain. His genuinely horrifying scars are almost identical to those of the character in the comic books, and he even gets the most poignant line in the movie: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
It's a choice every major character in the movie has to make, right down to Commissioner Gordan (again played by the amazing chameleon Gary Oldman) and Wayne's technical right-hand man Lucius Fox (again played by the reliably competent Morgan Freeman). Thematically, it's this -- not just Heath Ledger, who is indeed great in it -- that makes The Dark Knight great, and elevates it above other superhero movies.
And yet, there is something missing here: spectacle. Is this not what most of us want from our superhero movies? Is it not precisely what Tim Burton delivered, in an even mix with adult themes and humor, when he was at the helm? Seeing Batman Returns on an IMAX theatre screen sounds like a hell of a good time, but it's kind of a mystery what the appeal would be of seeing The Dark Knight, a movie that has opened on a record number of screens, that way.
True, there are a couple of action set pieces nifty enough to get theatre crowds cheering. But most of the time The Dark Knight is spent on character development, and more specifically, on characters exploring -- either gleefully or tentatively -- their darker natures. Tim Burton delivered Batman movies whose purpose was to be fun. Joel Schumacher delivered Batman movies that tried to be fun but ended up being woefully stupid. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies appear to have one goal in mind: to be bleak. Yes, they contain some humor, but even the humor gets swallowed up almost instantaneously by the overtone of bleakness, making The Dark Knight more of a heavy movie than an entertaining one, even while remaining an unmistakable superhero flick. But what need is there to see such bleakness on a seven-story screen, in the absence of comparable amounts of spectacle?
And, yes, if there's any character that most embodies this aspect, it's the Joker. Heath Ledger takes a character that Jack Nicholson made iconic -- and therefore, arguably, more memorable -- and makes him patently creepy. As the most recognizable of all Batman villains, the Joker, and the fact of the late Heath Ledger playing him, is unmistakably the biggest driving force behind the predictions of huge box office returns for this movie. And to Ledger's credit, he truly makes the character his own; deciding whether he or Jack Nicholson are "better" would be futile and irrelevant.
Like Batman Begins before it, The Dark Knight takes the Caped Crusader to a place of gritty realism that in turn becomes a surprising showcase for great acting. Christopher Nolan infuses these comic book characters, hero or villain (and often both at once), with previously unrecognized humanity. In the context of its goals -- however much the well-executed fun spectacle of the past might be missed -- it is wildly successful.