Seven years after the rubble has cleared, The Dark Knight feels like a fundamentally different, more elemental film than it did when it arrived in theaters as a sacrosanct mass of loose ends about the fate of the superhero genre and the death of a man who would go on to win an Oscar. Christopher Nolan has released three films in the ensuing years, his cryptic, somewhat belabored style has imposed itself a little more unambiguously onto the viewing public, and The Dark Knight feels like a legitimate product instead of simply a nebulous idea of how to save the comic book adaptation. It also feels, mercifully, like a work that exists on a human plane, and not some sort of holier-than-thou untouchable object, as it has frequently been touted to be by the fan-people of the world.
Admittedly, a sharp, incisive, pointed product when all is said and done, and if The Dark Knight doesn’t conclude the very idea of cinema, its veritable craft is pushed right up to the surface and wholly ready for the tasting. And it’s not all Heath Ledger for that matter, although his maelstrom-of-chaos performance as the evil Ferris wheel of social dislocation named the Joker approaches us more as the abstract idea of a villain than a specific villain. His performance is also, importantly, a marker for the true essence of The Dark Knight, and the crux of its move away from pure naturalism. We have thankfully moved from the idea that a film being more “realistic” is necessarily a compliment, rather than simply a fact of existence or a feature, and The Dark Knight is at its best when it exists as a parable of the modern age, or a fable, rather than a work of realism. Little about Ledger seems frightening in a naturalist way, because the film doesn’t aim for naturalism; it has much more frightening ideas about the thickets of human nature that can’t be captured in an ascetic commitment to pure realism.
Instead, Nolan adopts a tone of cataclysmic apocalypse, essaying a film that is the idea of chaos more than anything else, which goes a long way toward excusing some of the film’s pressing faults. The monumentally off-kilter, somewhat formless narrative, for one, doesn’t tell a stable tale, but it works as a tale about instability. When it careens from sequence to sequence and over-indulges in sub-plot upon sub-plot, its very messiness becomes a calling card for its explication of a messy society (unlike its follow-up film four years later, it manages to turn this detriment into a positive).
A positive afforded and backed-up by the filmmaking, I might add. This explication of chaos wouldn’t have held-through with more streamlined, safe filmmaking, but Nolan and his crew have crafted a work that feels more like a bundle of wound-up nerves than a conventional film. The skittish, excitable editing by Lee Smith doesn’t depict the film’s copious fights with any eye for complacency or composure; instead, the film shoots from shot to counter-intuitive shot and turning the fights themselves into a sort of high-strung collection of almost abstract images colliding with one another. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, meanwhile, creates an assemblage of hard lines and claustrophobic modern industrial spaces that feels more like a nightmare about corporate modern life than a real city.
Not that these benefits fully excuse the film at the level of craft or commentary. The story, boiled down to its bare essentials, is about a carnivorous puppet master, the Joker (Ledger), turning a city to its knees, tempting billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who moonlights as the titular caped crusader, by proving that he can show that darkness will always win out over the light. His increasingly monomaniacal, Machiavellian plot pursues various avenues for doing so, but the prime fixture is the soul of Wayne’s friend Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s “White Knight” district attorney who is transformed into the schizophrenic, tormented Two-Face, another foe for Wayne/ Batman to tangle with at multiple levels. The film’s one true escape from the doldrums and limits of the superhero genre is in positioning Dent as a work of nihilist Shakespearean tragedy torn down by the excess animalism of the human condition.
An animalism that Nolan is ultimately less tethered to than the film’s defenders may posit. In the end, The Dark Knight is interested in putting the superhero genre through the wringer, but not so that it can be taken to task. Rather, the goal is that it can be saved, so that it can emerge from the ashes of previous films in the genre and rise further still. A questionable impulse, one has to admit – The Dark Knight really doesn’t tackle Batman’s soul as much as, say, Batman Begins, or even the animated fable Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a much more primal and direct tale of personal loss with more pointed knives for the superhero mythos than The Dark Knight can muster. In the end, if The Dark Knight isn’t as openly traditionalist as, say, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman, and the ideological lexicon of individualist vigilante justice against crime he represents in the American mythos, still stands supreme at the end of this dark middle chapter.
Which is why The Dark Knight, ultimately, is just a movie. Not that there is anything wrong with being a movie, for The Dark Knight is a good, and in its better days, great, movie, but it is merely a pop tragedy nonetheless. It seems less open about its confused inability to deal with the violence of American history, and it is much more egotistical about its own innocence, assuming non-complicity when it is in fact deeply complicit in the conservatism of pop filmmaking. Which means that Nolan’s work is, in the end, craft to a somewhat everyday purpose, and not, as we may want to think, a stratosphere-breaking cultural icon of deconstructed and provocative filmmaking. But the craft still stands. The Dark Knight is a very strong outing. Not a game-changer, and not a work that meaningfully challenges our society in any substantive way. But accepting a few wrong-turns (the final act has the habit of becoming grossly saccharine and colossally out of tone with the rest of the film), it is impeccable at the level of pure filmmaking.