Sometimes I wonder what comic book Batman thinks about his feature film incarnations. The stylishly noir-ish pulp crime-fighter was all about flourishes and billowing capes as he swung down mean streets with only a utility belt and the mind of a rich, slightly obsessive detective. In films, however, he’s always more. Either campy-like the 1930s serial and 1960s television-spawned Masked Avenger-or grotesquely contorted into a fist of barely repressed rage, like Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney. And now he’s culminated in this gruff-voiced Christian Bale incarnation-he’s meaner yet progressively more introspective. So, where did DC’s Art Deco Caped Crusader go? In the movies, he’s getting lost in his own mind.
People will tell you that Heath Ledger’s Joker steals the movie from Bale’s Batman. That’s only partly true. Ledger’s Joker is savagely funny and brutal-more like a villain from David Lynch than Tim Burton. But everybody else steals the film from Batman, too. That’s because this massive, awesome, flawed, but generally riveting set of great characterizations is busy rushing the audience to ingest both fisticuffs and a brief history of philosophy. The Joker, a Nietzschean superman, is obsessed with chaos, living beyond good and evil, while Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhhart) offers a world ruled by pure chance. Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) almost heartless pragmatism bounces of butler Alfred’s (Michael Caine) sturdy Colonial positivism. In the center of all this, Batman seems weak and deluded. “I just wanted to inspire,” he keeps saying. (It takes Alfred to enable his idealism, by continually protecting Bruce Wayne from the truth.) Gotham itself is unsparing and it eats hopes alive. Though one brilliant episode featuring boats, criminals, and bombs works like an advanced psychology experiment and implies that some good lingers in humanity-maybe.
Occasionally confusing, and littered with jump cuts and weird rhythms, The Dark Knight is nonetheless enormous in its achievement. It seems inordinately long, yet it stays with you all day, from cliche to icon to tragic hero. Like a certain Prince of Denmark, it’s the story of a tormented avenger who can’t help but think too much.