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Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight

But Ledger’s triumph overrides every other element of the film. Anarchy and death: blockbuster entertainment can be successfully tailored to these forces, but such attempts should be morally complicated, or at the least ironically subversive, to earn the right to do so. For all of Batman’s romantic despair over the burden of responsibility, The Dark Knight can’t pull off either of the above. Once firmly established, the bludgeoning pace of one Joker rampage after another pounds the film’s carefully detailed collaboration — the struggle between Wayne, Gordon and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney who becomes the villain Two Face — into mush. By the end of the film it’s not clear what distinguishes Batman’s dilemma from any of the other “dark” treatments he’s received over the years, nor where the energy or confidence has gone in the abbreviated scenes that were supposed to make it uniquely Nolan’s. He’s a mirror image to a freak like the Joker. He’s brought on more violence than stopped it (copycat Batmen?). But we know that already, we’ve seen it before, and none of it registers anyway amidst the parallel-edited cacophony of truck flips, bazooka explosions, kidnapping tragedies, and hostage dramas.

The problem isn’t anything outrageously off-the-wall this time — the overwhelmingly multi-planed action is still tethered to spectacle somehow both anally procedural and sloppily kinetic — but a failure to follow through on the main premise. The idea of a realistically brutal Batman film is an intriguing one, and Nolan pulls off that conceit with several set pieces (the opening bank robbery, for one), Ledger’s performance and his crucial imagining of Gotham as Anycity. Yet there’s no such care taken in fleshing out Wayne’s identity (Bale’s laughable lower-pitched Batman voice does hilariously humanize Wayne’s need to disguise his real accent, but whether that’s intentional is open to question). Nor does Nolan find a narrative correlative to Dent’s chillingly melted-bare half-skull, which accompanies his fall from “White Knight” to enraged destroyer after the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his and Wayne’s love interest.

If realism counts in style, it also has to count in story, and Nolan doesn’t work enough with his characters to sell The Dark Knight’s final attempt at plaintive gloom when it ends on a note of resignation and Pyrrhic victory: the idea that Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs. Not only artificial, comic-book style can lack depth — so can realism. And even as Nolan arrests our attention by bringing Gotham as close as possible to our actual world, and for the first time disallowing a hint of cartoonishness that could laugh Batman away, he refuses to expand its parameters beyond those of the flatly obvious. With a thrillingly tangible sense of place as the site of its “uncontrollable force” of its madman’s schemes but also with a disappointingly pinched sense of the enveloping drama, The Dark Knight ends up fulfilling its mantra — Batman is the comic-book world we deserve, but not the one we need.





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