A friend of mine called me on Thursday to tell me that he’d just come out of the DC preview showing for The Dark Knight. He’s currently a writer, but at one time he was an up and coming film director. So he wasn’t just excited about the story, he was also thrilled by the cinematography. He kept talking about the depth of field, and how effective it was at making this a different kind of Batman movie.
And having seen the IMax version of the film myself, I have to say I agree with him. Along with all the other elements that make this a great movie, there’s a dizzying sense of vertigo; emotional and physical. You’ll find yourself gripping your arm-rests as you hang high above the streets. But even when it’s just two characters going face to face, you’ll never quite lose that sense that you’re constantly on edge, and about to fall into the yawning abyss at your feet. But what makes our hero heroic, is that he chooses to jump, and then discover if he has the strength he needs to survive the fall.
The Dark Knight is all about the abyss: The urban abyss, the depths of a man’s soul, the precipice of civilization, the edge of trust, the brink of belief… The characters in the film live in a world with superheroes and super-villains, but none of them sure exactly which side of the line they’re standing on, and how far they’ll fall once they’ve dropped over it. Well, none of them expect for the Joker.
And Heath Ledger’s version of the character is as amazing as you’ve heard. As iconic villains go the Joker has always been a bit undefined. Yes, he’s maniacally murderous, and dangerously insane. But at the same time it’s hard to communicate just what makes him so dangerous, and it often seems that it’s more the other characters fear of him that makes him a true threat. After all he’s not a physical challenge for Batman, nor is he really all that smart, so if the Batman is still afraid of him there must be something really scary about him, right? I mean, there are people in the world who do genuinely horrific things each and every day. What makes this clown so special?
But in this film he’s a not just an intimidating psychopath, he’s a disease, and he wants to spread. He ignores all the rules, and it isn’t just a way for him to do evil things. Instead he wants to bend everyone to his madness, so that he can prove that he’s more than crazy, he’s pure. And what makes the film work is how well it layers and communicates that. Gotham City is a place where every inhabitant is corrupt to some degree, everyone is constantly making choices that put them into compromising positions. There’s barely a scene in the move that doesn’t acknowledge the impurity of of the people on the screen. And it forces us to confront the difficulty of looking up to the light when the darkness is yawning below our feet. And somehow everything becomes a metaphor for everything else, and that makes this movie tick.
I’ve long believed that one of the greatest strengths of genre fiction is its ability to throw the audience into a completely crafted reality. In science-fiction and fantasy there is no way to know what lies beyond the edges of the story that’s being told. That’s what drives us seek out more of the story; the desire to uncover the larger reality. And in The Dark Knight don’t just want to know more about the characters, we want to learn about the world they inhabit, and be sure that this isn’t quite the same as our world, because as bad as our world is, Gotham is worse.
But Nolan is smart enough to play with that tension. On a physical level this version of Gotham City is a much more real place than any incarnation we’ve seen before. But what happens inside of it isn’t. It’s an opera of sorts. Driven by real emotions, but still with larger than life situations, and incredible consequences. The choices the characters make will determine their future, and the fabric of their reality, and they know it. They truly believe that it’s what they decide to do that makes the difference. It may not be real, but it isn’t exactly a fantasy either.
There are already some people who are claiming that the film is over-hyped. And while it’s not a perfect movie, it’s an obvious masterpiece of genre fiction, blending together storytelling and action in a way that elevates both to a new level. The fact that it’s going to be a box office monster is proof that comic-book movies are changing the game. They are, when they work, dragging cinema back from the brink of pure spectacle. They are telling great stories: allowing blockbusters to move beyond the empty cliches that ironically, comic books have usually been associated with.