In a particularly swell episode of South Park, Stan and Kenny come up against indignant outrage when they dare to suggest that they didn’t like Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, the notion being that its significance put it beyond critical evaluation. Having not seen The Dark Knight until now (quickly dons fire-proof flak jacket), it felt like a similar situation – as good a film as The Dark Knight may be, the sad and untimely death of Ledger has imbued it with a gravitas that has lifted it out of its rightful context; it has become the celluloid equivalent of the Turin Shroud, imprinted with a timeless and haunting reminder. It has become almost more than a movie.
Now the presence of Christopher Nolan on the poster adds its own value. Even if he never made a film after Memento, his reputation for striking, smart and atmospheric thrillers would be intact. And sure enough, it’s an exciting, well-worked, tense affair, from the blistering bank robbery intro that introduces us to Ledger’s take on The Joker. With Gotham’s criminal fraternity neutered by the Batman, with sleek District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) mopping up the dregs - while also providing Bruce Wayne with a rival for the affections for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel - the Joker eyes up the challenge of seizing control of the city’s crime scene, by making the mob come to heel in his own inimitable fashion, while savouring some sport with such a worthy adversary as the Dark Knight, who he sees as the equally psychotic yin to his yang.
Having done so much groundwork with Batman Begins, the path is clear for events to unfurl without too much of an exposition, and Dark Knight is a fluid slab of entertainment that allows characters to breathe naturally, as the pulpy tale takes hold. At its core, Bale’s Batman remains true to the original material – shadowy, brutal, yet heroically understated. While this may not lend itself to a Hollywood lead, there’s a blandness that serves to highlight the expansive flamboyance of the Joker.
My key point about Ledger is that the role was set-up for him to knock it out the park. This he does – he’s captivating, unsettling, hilarious and easily the strongest aspect of the whole film. But how much of that is due to Ledger? A great script helps, as does good production design, but for me, the work was done before he dyed his hair green – Ledger’s Joker is able to benefit from all the Jokers past. There’s the mondo charm of Cesar Romero in there, along with the unsettling wiliness of Jack Nicholson, but more importantly, the vision of Joker as a brutally twisted psycho is drawn from the seminal 80s Killing Joke graphic novel, while he also shares further elements with the Joker of the current comic books, which draws on the anarchic and uncomfortable spite of John Lydon.
It feels harsh, as there are some truly glorious Ledger moments – his behaviour as he totals a hospital is priceless, easily my favourite film moment of the year, and he frequently Godzillas all over the screen as his character flares up, twists and gradually swarms over everyone else around him. He just didn’t reinvent the Joker’s wheel – somebody gave him a new tire to put on it.
Ultimately he serves as a metaphor for our discomfort with the world today, epitomising the seemingly arbitrary savagery of modern crime, especially post-9/11, the feeling that atrocities can happen at any time, with seemingly no karmic basis. This feels a key theme for Nolan, as the notion of random acts of horror shapes Harvey Dent’s descent into madness, becoming another colourful villain Two Face, one who bases his lawless actions on the toss of a coin. Sadly, he feels too cartoony for Nolan’s grey-hued world, and is given short shrift.
Nolan steers proceedings with the atmospheric flair that he’s known for, and thanks to the colossal cast, dexterous script and ballistic and frenetic action sequences, this goes toe-to-toe with virtually any comic book film you could think of.
When it comes to extras, it's a mixed bag. On the one side you have a series of interesting featurettes and mini-documentaries virtually all in HD, but then lack any director or actor audio commentaries on the movie itself.
Commentaries are replaced instead with "Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene" where the key pivotal moments of the film are dissected in their own video. Accessed either on their own or via a spinning disk logo in the movie, they mostly revolve around how certain stunts were created. There is a good smattering of other topics like costume design and the trouble of filming in IMAX, for example, with plenty of different voices - everyone from the director to the editor - getting involved.
On the separate bonus disk in keeping with The Dark Knight theme there is "Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight" where the cheeseball American narrator looks at what makes Bruce Wayne want to be Batman. The show wheels out doctor after doctor to try and convince you that Batman could be real, and while it lacks any real impact, it will grasp your attention for 20 minutes.
Elsewhere there are six episodes of Gotham Cable's Premier News Program which is like watching a bad version of Entertainment Tonight or a Sky One entertainment show. There is also a feature on "Batman Tech" that looks at the gadgets and tools used by the masked crusader.
The Dark Knight is an action-packed, high-end, dark and brutal crime flick, riddled with a potent cast, tech to make Bond sick, with chase scenes par excellence and set pieces that would leave few wanting. But without Ledger, it’d be greatly diminished – but we should place that in context and say it’s just a great performance that benefits from a lot of expert groundwork by other people. To loosely borrow from the tune Thou Shalt Always Kill - The Dark Knight … is just a film.
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Extras: Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene , Batman Tech, Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight, Gotham Tonight, The Galleries
This Blu-ray was kindly loaned to us by Play.com, the UK’s favourite online entertainment retailer.
Additional content by Stuart Miles.