So there’s this guy, right? He dresses up in a costume like a bat–well, it’s more inspired by a bat, I guess–and dives around in these supercool cars and motorcycles and stuff and he beats up criminals. Or perhaps you’re already familiar with this character. Years ago, David Kroll famous deemed Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining “the first epic horror film.” Nearly three decades later, it may be fair to borrow that phrasing to describe Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and proclaim that the first epic superhero movie has arrived. It has the large scope familiar from any number of highly budgeted fare slotted into a summer release date, but that’s the least of its credentials in affixing that “epic” descriptor. It’s thematically bold and complicated, so nuanced and conflicted in its depiction of the caped crusader’s methods that it launched a thousand debates about the film’s embedded politics. Nolan’s point refutes the notion of simple answers. No matter what we might expect about stark lines drawn between good guys and bad guys in films like this, Nolan seems to argue, it’s simply not that easy. We can easily wind up fearing the good guy and being drawn to the bad guy. And in that notion resides one more characteristic that can be described as epic: one notable performance. Bale continues to bring a finely wrought tortured gravity to his superheroic role and Gary Oldman betters his previous work as Commissioner James Gordon by finding the inner rhythms of a bemused honest man in a corrupt world, reliant on the unpredictable actions of a disjointed vigilante to achieve some level of justice and safety. It is, of course, another feat of acting that reaches heights of splendid excess. Regardless of the tragedy that inevitably shadows and shades it, Heath Ledger’s turn as the murderous, maniacal Joker is the stuff of grim legend. Marked by the warped grace of his physicality, the deadening spark in his eye, the serpentine calisthenics of his tongue as he surveys a world that just not gone quite mad enough for his tastes, the shattering ingenuity of his every moment on screen, Ledger is nothing short of astonishing. Bale’s Batman remains the clear lead, but Ledger’s Joker is more representative of the film it resides within: grimly jovial, sharply conceived, and, most notably, buoyed by an abundance of ideas.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)