The Movie (4.5/5)
I was planning on doing The Prestige next in this series of Christopher Nolan movies, but my HD DVD copy has unfortunately become defective. Grr. Onwards and upwards I guess.
The year is now 2006. Christopher Nolan has now cemented himself and his creative team as one of the more reliable teams, with one major blockbuster success and 3 other mid-budget films under his belt that demonstrated his ability to craft excellent performances out of A-list actors and create movies that have strong themes and interesting visual styles. Following the completion of The Prestige, Nolan found himself ready to return to Gotham City to create the follow up to Batman Begins. Looking to various classic Batman comics, such as the Joker’s first appearances in the 1940s, comics from the 1970s such as The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, and Batman: The Killing Joke for inspiration, screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer began to craft the sequel, The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight picks up shortly after the conclusion of Batman Begins, where we find the Batman continuing his work with Lieutenant Jim Gordon in tracking down the mob families of Gotham, and the escaped criminals from the Narrows. As the Batman and Gordon’s special police unit close in on the remaining mobsters’ banks, they turn to a relatively new player in the Gotham City game, the mysterious Joker. A psychopath without any strong attachment to any of the warring factions in the city, he stops at nothing to not just kill the Batman, but also corrupt the city’s new District Attorney Harvey Dent, whose idealism has brought a glimpse of hope back to Gotham amidst all of the escalating chaos and violence on the streets. Together, the three of them must band together to save the city, not just from the Joker, but the city itself.
I commented in my review of Batman Begins that I felt The Dark Knight was a better constructed, more engaging movie than its predecessor, but far less of a comic book movie in terms of its storytelling techniques and visual style. After rewatching the film, I still feel that much of that analysis holds true. The Dark Knight sacrifices a lot of the comic book color timing and Gothic elements that made Begins feel so true to its graphic novel origins and non-linear editing. Instead, we return to Gotham and find that is has become a cold, sterilized place in its absence on the screen, and that Nolan and his editor Lee Smith have opted for a more straightforward approach to telling the story of the Joker’s rampage across Gotham. As a result of this altered approach to the story of the Batman and Bruce Wayne, the world of The Dark Knight feels like one that has been brutalized and pushed to its very limits.
In trading style and fun for a brutal, more realistic approach to crafting the second Batman movie in his trilogy, Nolan and his creative team got to present a version of the Joker, played by Heath Ledger who won an Academy Award for his performance, that is not only the most chaotic, nihilistic, and terrifying vision of the Joker ever presented in the Batman franchise, but perhaps the greatest comic book villain of all time. Ledger’s Joker is unhinged and unpredictable from frame one. He orchestrates robberies where the team’s betrayal of one another is baked in the plan, deliberately abuses the vulnerable nature of those suffering from mental disabilities, and uses deductive reasoning to design a plan that will shake the very moral fiber of both Batman and Harvey Dent in parallel to one another. He holds and executes hostages, blows up hospitals full of the sick and feeble, and does so with a smile on his face. Previous iterations of the Joker presented him as a man driven by vengeance to do battle with the Batman; The Dark Knight side steps such an easy motivation and refuses to provide one at all. Thanks in part to the unreliable nature of how he presents his own story, we don’t know how the Joker became who he is today, or why he wants to tear Gotham apart. He just does, and that’s what makes him so terrifying.
The Dark Knight also presents a different manifesto in terms of how we are to view the dual characters of Bruce Wayne and his Batman alter-ego. Whereas in Batman Begins there is a balance between the two, this sequel is very much a Batman centered story, with Bruce being pushed to the background. He’s reduced simply to his romantic feelings for Rachel Dawes, which in the context of the film seems to work out alright. This movie is very much a study of how the Batman is held in the eyes of the citizens of Gotham, and how his presence has worsened things dramatically for their well-being. The symbol that Bruce had hoped to craft out of the Batman in Begins has now been corrupted by the mechanisms laid down by the Joker and his men, and much of the film focuses on how Batman can use that to his advantage to try and save the face of Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, in the film’s third act. In the process of trying to put the Joker behind bars Bruce is lost in the shuffle, but so is the idealism the Batman was supposed to represent. It makes things far more nuanced and interesting in terms of character development overall. All of this of course, is carried on the shoulders of another excellent performance by Christian Bale, who refines his growl into a much more understandable, engaging sound this time around.
The other two members of the Gotham City trifecta, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon, played by Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman respectively, play a significant role in trying to defeat the mobsters and the Joker through the more traditional channels. They respect the Batman’s ability to go anywhere and do anything, but at the end of the day they’re the straight men of this story. They’re the ones who get to clean up the Bat’s messes, and more than once take the fall in order to give Batman the freedom to carry out his advanced form of vigilante justice. Because the film is constructed in a way that I feel allows us to easily identify with these two, the misfortune that falls upon them during the film, such as the death of the woman Dent loves, or having Gordon’s family held hostage late in the film is so much more heartbreaking and tangible. Batman takes losses in this film as well, but he’s wearing a million dollars worth of equipment, and still gets to return to the safety of his Batcave and Alfred as the credits role. It’s one of the few comic book qualities that this film retains: Batman/Bruce Wayne is still very much untouchable in his quest to bring justice to Gotham.
The rest of the supporting cast gets their day in the sun as well; Michael Caine delivers a poignant performance as Bruce’s father-surrogate and butler Alfred, spending much of the film advising Bruce on how to use the Batman and think about the Joker’s psyche. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox in a more limited role than in the first film, but takes charge as a man of principle during the film’s climactic battle to stop the Joker, and Maggie Ghyllenhaal takes over from Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, and while she acts the part well, Rachel’s character is more or less reduced to character motivations for Bruce and Harvey, rather than given any real time to make her own mark on the picture.
The Dark Knight also is a great display of Nolan’s now refined ambitions when it comes to blockbuster film making. With all of the knowledge and confidence gained from his previous large scale movies, he really kicks things up a notch, going as far as using IMAX large format film cameras to enhance the action sequences with larger aspect ratio images and increased details to create huge action sequences. The action, especially during the armored truck chase sequence and the final battle in the unfinished building with the Joker just feels more ambitious. It moves faster and carries more weight than the epic action sequences in Batman Begins, especially since Nolan attempted to rely less and less on CGI laden set pieces in this film. You really get the sense that between his direction, and editing and Wally Pfister’s cinematography that this creative team had a well defined idea of how they wanted to make their follow up even bigger, and then went out and achieved it with style.
Everything about The Dark Knight feels bigger, more confident, and honestly more terrifying and revealing than any previous attempt at bringing the Caped Crusader to the silver screen. I know it’s common for people to praise this movie as one of the greatest ever made, and while I’m not sure I’d put it that high on my list, it certainly is the greatest comic book movie crafted to date. Everything about it feels evolved in all the right ways, with great performances across the board from all the major players, a strong script, and excellent technical production values that make it nearly impenetrable of serious criticism. I fell in love with it in 2008 on its initial release, and I find myself just as captivated with it today as I was nearly ten years ago in that dark cinema. Its intense, engaging, and immensely satisfying. It’s the definitive Batman.
The Video (4/5)
The Dark Knight was shot primarily on 4-perf 35mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses, but select sequences were captured on 15-perf 65mm IMAX format film, the first ever in a feature film production to do so. The final projected image when show via an IMAX 15-perf 70mm print would alternate between the 2.35:1 anamorphic image and a native 1.44:1 IMAX aspect ratio image. IMAX footage has been cropped and reframed for this 1080p presentation to 1.78:1, interchanging with the standard letterboxed 2.35:1 image.
There were initial complaints when this Blu-ray first dropped in 2008 that there was some distracting edge enhancement and artifacting as well as noise reduction during the standard 35mm sourced sequences, and I wholeheartedly agree with that consensus – it mostly like can be traced back to the IMAX DMR processing that all films shot on 35mm were subjected to before they were blown up to large format IMAX 70mm prints. It’s likely that the IMAX processed image was used as the source for this 1080p presentation. I’ve always cut them some slack – this was, after all, uncharted territory for home video mastering at the time.
Underneath the somewhat noticeable filtering and processing however is a great 1080p image that still manages to hold its own when viewed nearly ten years later. The IMAX footage is incredibly sharp and detailed, even in the film’s darkest moments such as when Batman leaps off of a building in Hong Kong. Due to the low resolution 1080p image when compared to the native resolution of the IMAX film cameras, grain is imperceptible during these 1.78:1 framed shots. The 35mm footage generally looks great as well, especially during bright daytime sequences where detail is typically maximized regardless of production. Wide shots and nighttime exposures are typically sharp, but suffer a little as a result of the filtering – what was necessary to blow up 35mm footage to 15/70mm sizes doesn’t always translate as well to the small screen. Color is excellent, even if half the color spectrum gets dropped in favor of inky blacks and steely blues and grays, bolstered by great contrast and black levels. I look forward to the 4K UHD release of The Dark Knight, but what we currently have is still more than passable.
The Audio (5/5)
The Dark Knight was released to theaters with a 5.1 discrete soundtrack on film prints. That presentation has been preserved here with a lovely 5.1 Dolby TrueHD surround sound track.
Right from the opening scenes of the Joker’s well orchestrated bank heist, The Dark Knight presents a concise, but busy aural experience. Subwoofer use is booming, but feels sharp and accurate to the needs of the film without becoming overpowering. Sound effects and the excellent musical score come at you from all corners of the room, filling the soundscape with plenty of intense action and emotional compositions. Dialogue is locked to the center channel, but never feels overwhelmed in the heat of the insanity. This was a great track on its initial release, and is still a personal favorite of mine today.
Special Features/Packaging (4/5)
The Dark Knight has been released to home video by Warner Home Video in both a standard Blu-ray release, a Gift Set, a steelbook, and even as part of a Dark Knight Trilogy boxed set. Reviewed here is the standard Blu-ray release of the film, which features artwork from one of the preview posters of the Joker surrounded by sparks and a dark vision of the city being destroyed behind him. The back features an artistic redesign of the scene in which Batman interrogates the Joker with goofy Joker thoughts drawn on top. Next to that is the technical specs for the release, a critic quote, a paragraph about the film, and a list of special features. Below all of this is theatrical credits for the release, and other legal info for the release. It’s a good looking standard case design. It gets the job done.
Onto the features, which are spread across two disks:
Focus Points – 18 clips that can be played while watching the film, or outside of the film like a traditional special feature. These clips cover a wide variety of content, from using IMAX cameras to film action sequences to writing the Joker’s Theme, integrating visual effects, and designing different props and stunts that were used in the final film. There is a wealth of content to dig into here, with each clip lasting roughly about 4-6 minutes each in length.
Behind the Story: Batman Tech – a 45 minute documentary that explores the tech used in The Dark Knight as well as Batman Begins. They explore how it was designed for the film, and the realistic aspects of the devices used, such as his suit and the Bat Tumbler.
Behind the Story: Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight – a 46 minute documentary that examines the psychology behind Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, and the villains of the movies through the lenses of psychoanalysts and psychologists.
Gotham Tonight – 6 episodes of a mock cable news program from the world of the film. They discuss themes from the movie from the perspective of actual Gotham City citizens with multiple views and anchors discussing relevant events from the film over 45 minutes of content. It’s a little cheesy, but generally works pretty well.
The Galleries – a massive collection of stills and production artwork
Trailers and More – a collection of the 3 theatrical trailers and 6 TV spots issued as advertising for the film in the time leading up to its much anticipated 2008 theatrical release.
There is a truckload of not just insight into the production, but legitimate world building content included here as extras for the Blu-ray release of The Dark Knight. There should be more than enough here to please any fans of the film who want to know a little more about this movie.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1/1.78:1
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, and Spanish)
Runtime: 153 minutes
When I left the theater on that fated day in 2008 when I saw The Dark Knight for the first time, I knew this was a different kind of movie, even as young as I was back then. I got the feeling that people might approach the comic book movie a little differently after seeing how brutally intense the Joker’s terrorizing of Gotham City was, and how close to the edge the Batman had to push himself in order to save the city he loves. Nearly ten years later, I find myself just as captivated in many ways I was during that screening. It’s a mature, refined production that has been brought to Blu-ray with great style. It features a decent video transfer, great audio, and a boatload of extras. You probably already own this Blu-ray, but if you don’t, now might be the time to grab it in order to prepare for Nolan’s newest blockbuster, which hits theaters this Friday. Recommended.