The Dark Knight Was Murky, Manic and Maddening

Yesterday I saw The Dark Knight. And I’ve gotta tell you, I was disappointed. Maybe I’d believed the hype (note to self: always heed the advice of Flavor Flav), maybe it was the creepy promise of Heath Ledger’s penultimate film, or maybe it was my affection for Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan’s previous films (in particular, The Prestige). Regardless, the film didn’t deliver.

It’s a murky, manic movie with a cast of thousands. It’s at least twenty minutes too long, and yet never spends enough time with the right scenes. This is partially due to its remarkable roster of characters. Among the supporting roles with speaking parts are a ridiculous hierarchy of bureaucrats–assistant district attorney, district attorney, Jim Gordon, police commissioner and mayor–and a precinct’s worth of cops. It’s also because of a needless sub-plot involving D.A. Harvey Dent, which only distracts from the film’s central inertia.

Heath Ledger is extraordinary as The Joker, and you should see the movie to see his performance. He’s a jangly-limbed rag doll, capable of anything and slave to his own mad whims. He makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker from the 1986 Batman look, well, like Alfred.

Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of Ledger. And that’s where I was most disappointed. I’d hoped that the film would be a much more intimate examination of the conflicted relationship between these two outcasts who live beyond the law. That is, more like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (though clearly that was an influence).

Instead, we got a big-ass superhero movie. The stunts were impressive, though totally muddled. Nolan could take lessons on directing action scenes from, say, Doug Lyman or Martin Scorsese. David Edelstein puts it well in his New York Magazine review:

Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action. He got away with the chopped-up fights in Batman Begins because his hero was a barely glimpsed ninja, coming at villains from all angles in stroboscopic flashes. There are more variables here, which means more opportunities to say “What the f— just happened?” I defy you to make spatial sense of the early scene in which Batman battles faux Batmen, gangsters, and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy in a cameo that comes to nothing). If you can, move on to Level 2, diagramming the “Bat-tank versus Joker-truck versus cop car” chase. Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens.

Speaking of Scorsese, compare The Dark Knight to The Departed. Both are crime epics full of violence and betrayal, yet Nolan’s work pales in comparison. Not only does Scorsese handle the large cast effortlessly, but you always have a clear grip on what’s going on in the action sequences.

In short, The Dark Knight is an average superhero movie with one extraordinary performance. It wasn’t awful, but it sure wasn’t the masterpiece I hoped for.

On an unrelated note, the movie was preceded by a teaser trailer for Terminator 4. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as an adult, robot-slaying John Connor. I really hope this film redeems the franchise after the dreck that was Terminator 3.


  1. i loved the movie, though thought they would explore a bit more of joker.

    according to imdb, christopher nolan and co-writers “decided not to explore the origins of the Joker in order to portray the character as “absolute.”

  2. Good writeup. Yours is the first review I’ve read that didn’t take to the movie as well, so it’s nice to see some balance. I’m still looking forward to seeing it, but already suspect it won’t hold up to the high bar set by Batman Begins. It sounds like the same fatal error of the Burton line of movies is being made, where the focus drifts across multiple characters who might be interesting, but aren’t given a unifying context in the story.

  3. I just saw this, too, and I thought they could have hacked about 40 minutes off it. That was my only real beef, though. I otherwise thought it was impressive.

  4. I’m not surprised you didn’t like it. I once dared say in your presence that I thought Batman Begins was a very, very, very good movie, and you scoffed that such utterances were not allowed. One could only give such praise to **The**Godfather**.

  5. Jan: Heh, sorry for the scoffing. I actually think that ‘Batman Begins’ is a pretty good movie. Not ‘very, very, very good’ in my estimation, but better than average. It had a lot of the qualities–both positive and negative–of this film. That is, decent acting and direction on the one hand, but overly large cast, too many villains and too long on the other.

  6. I didn’t care that the action sequences were choppy, because I think that they add to the frenetic emotion of the piece. I was in awe of Ledger’s performance and would watch the whole thing again in a heartbeat.

  7. Darren..

    The Dark Knight was excellent. Ledger had ample screen time. As much as you’d expect from a villian. I agree he was extraordinary in it. But Nolan too pretty much lived up to expectations contrary to what you say above.

  8. I completely agree with your take on Dark Knight, and (while sitting in the theater last night) also found myself comparing this movie to the Departed. That this movie compels some to make a comparison is something of a compliment in itself, even if it does come up short (or in this case, long)

  9. I’ve seen the dark knight 3 times since its release an obvious indication that I love the film, and everytime that I watched I always seemed to like it more for different reasons the first tme I saw it I kind of thought that it was long also and that nolan could maybe work harder on translating the action however the fact of the matter is this film has something that is special a perfect balance of action and substance something that I think many legendary directors of our tme could not achieve in the way that nolan did this film despite some dislikes here and there is nothing less than superb and it will be a long tme before any other movie in any genre comes close to being half the movie this is.

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