After a hellish few months, I’m finally back writing.
The good news: I’m going to college, and I’m getting good grades for the first time. The bad news: I am an adult human with bills and responsibilities and a social life, so much as I would love to spend my days watching movies and writing about them, I have a job and homework.
For the next month, however, I have a break from school, and can use the time to write whatever I will. Until some new writing, here’s a piece I wrote for my spring semester film class, which was really rewarding in terms of learning about film thematics and whatnot. I hope it will inspire better analysis from me here.
I have edited it slightly from its original.
Batman is not a new superhero. He’s one of the oldest, best known, and most well represented heroes in cinema. But he seems like a brand new person in Christopher Nolan’s landmark film, The Dark Knight (2010). It’s a classic tale of good and evil, as Bruce Wayne must work to protect the people he loves while chasing The Joker, attempting to end his reign of chaos. The quest has successes and failures, and along the way he must grapple with morality and the consequences of power and heroism. The idea of good versus evil abounds, with the lines blurring about who counts as what, and what true good looks like. Christian Bale’s stellar performance as Batman, opposite Heath Ledger’s final performance as The Joker, ground this movie. But where it goes from great to all time best is in other parts of its construction. From the mounting suspense, starting at frame one, to the role of lighting and the overall cinematography of the movie, the film is a tribute to the brilliance of the more technical aspects of film making.
The driving narrative pulse under this film is its suspense. Having a character like The Joker, a villain intent on anarchy and driving people mad, is a gift to the movie that needs the suspense to push the two and a half hour runtime. ]The film gives us this from the very open, which doesn’t involve the eponymous character at all. The film goes on for nine seemingly indeterminable minutes before we see Batman. Instead we see the villain first, and this time Batman never comes to save the day. The Joker, and his henchman, start the movie off by pulling off an Ocean’s Eleven grade heist. This coup, pulled off flawlessly, puts you in a state of nerves immediately. Already, from the high body count in the film’s first scene, you know that no one and nothing is safe, and the methods of chaos will be unpredictable. It sets the tone for the rest of the film and makes it clear Nolan will not be holding back. Within fifteen minutes, he has clearly laid out the protagonist, antagonist, and, with beautiful sweeping shots, established the gritty, urban setting of a fed up city on edge, and in a state of flux. He gives us all the elements of a powder keg with the fuse ready to be lit. No one is who they say they are, and no one does what anyone thinks they’ll do. Promises are kept and broken. Heroic saves are made, and some saves come too late. One minute, Batman’s close friend and ally Gordon is dead; the next minute, he’s back, revealing it was all a ruse to capture Joker. But soon, the Joker is escaped again, and the world is back in turmoil. Joker’s victims range from fleeing ferry passengers, to the city’s largest hospital. With no one and nothing safe, and nothing as it seems, you’re constantly on edge. You never know what might happen next, and even one right guess leads to a wrong one. You know what happens, but the twists and turns are pulled off so masterfully, you have to watch at least twice to catch the hints and warnings you missed before. Even repeat viewings are rewarding. It’s a thrill to rewatch a scene and gain so much more context and insight into a movie, where all sorts of little pieces begin to string together and make more sense as part of the whole. Long lasting suspense is even more elevated by the music and sound, featuring lots of speeding car sounds and harsh violins. The gunshots and explosions are louder, and the silence quieter. The movie won an Oscar for its sound mixing, a well deserved honor as the sound provides an important part of the movie’s restlessness. It puts you into more of a sense of anxiety, and heightens the whole film’s atmosphere.
But none of these elements would be possible, or have as much impact, without Nolan’s expert direction, and the incredible camera choreography of Wally Pfister. The sweeping camera movements give the movie a sense of motion, and when the camera is still, which it is quite often, it leads to a sense of uneasiness. So, while the camera is moving rapidly, following all the action as SWAT teams move in on the Joker’s location, the camera is relatively still on the ferry boats, deciding whether to kill the other boat, and provides a stark contrast. When shooting the Joker, the camera work becomes even more pronounced. In moments of victory, we see Joker from ground level, where we feel inferior to him and intimidated by his villainry. When we think he’s about to be foiled, at so many different moments, he is shown from above, or straight on. And at the end, when he’s dangling from a building, with Gotham’s residents having proved that good prevails, the camera spins and flips, as if attached from a string itself. The camera is at its most lawless with Joker, accompanying him as he trounces away in a dress from an exploding hospital, and as he escapes from jail, showing him through the jail bars as he frees his fellow criminals.
The cinematography is even more elevated by its lighting. The film has some scenes in the beginning that take place in daylight, and of course the incredible hospital scenes take place in day. But the movie is best at night, when the lighting gives room for interpretation and experimentation not provided by natural light. Nolan literally plays with fire in his shooting, and he does it with absolute deftness. From burned out fire trucks causing obstructions on roads, to pyramids of money being lit ablaze, to face disfiguring explosions, fire lights the movie throughout. “Some men just want to watch the world burn” is one of the movie’s most famous lines, but I didn’t realize just how much it plays into the actual shots of the film before watching. The element of using fire as a light source, and a plot device, is one of the movie’s greatest talents. But the lighting is at its best and most metaphorical with debates about good versus evil. Harvey Dent, who transforms into one of Batman’s most notorious villains Two-Face, loses one half of his face in a fire. Half of him still looks like the hero, but half of him is exposed, teeth bared and eyeball bulging, skin melted off. When presenting this new visage to old friends, he is lit, hero half in the light, the disfigured half in the dark. His evil persona is hiding in the shadows. Batman is often half lit as well. As he debates the validity of what he’s doing, he’s often shown shadowy, as a man conflicted about the morality of his position. He’s lit from above or below, which also helps to illustrate his dual role as both a playboy billionaire to the world, and as a vigilante hero to the few who know his secret. In one scene, there’s no shadows at all. When Batman is interrogating Joker at the precinct, they’re both shown in stark light. It strips them both of anywhere to hide. There’s no shadows, no way to hide tricks. But with the light shining off the Joker’s white, made up face, and Batman’s matte black suit, the lighting still manages to tell a story. Neither of them are truly right or wrong. There’s no just world that drives men into the lives they live. The lights bares all of that out. So much symbolic imagery is contained in these subtle lighting moments. It’s truly the work of a mastermind.
Of course, you can’t leave this movie without discussing its acting. You don’t realize, before watching this film, the sheer amount of talent in this film. Everyone always talks about the brilliance of Heath Ledger (rightfully, don’t get me wrong) and everyone always copies Christian Bale’s Batman interpretation. But there’s a deep, rich bench of acting talent backing these two up. You can forget that Morgan Freeman is even in the movie, overshadowed is he by Aaron Eckhardt, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gary Oldman. They all deliver some of the most instantly iconic lines in cinema: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” “some men just want to watch the world burn” are all three iconic lines, delivered by three separate actors in the same film. Few movies can claim to have so many rounded characters, done so well. It’s an astounding display of filmmaking prowess to make all these moving parts fit together, from the cinematography, to the sound, to the rich dialogue. The actors are what grounds it all. They’re the glue that strings this film together.
We take superhero movies for granted today. There’s so many of them (22 Marvel movies in ten years, culminating only in April,) that we forget how much of a rare event it was at The Dark Knight’s release. Even better, so many of the elements found in the Dark Knight films are replicated today. The urban settings, the “gritty” and “dark” undertones that DC has been trying to recreate, with no success, since. But The Dark Knight is not a movie that can be recreated easily. No one can take themes as glaringly obvious as “good and evil” and turn them into something to dissect or interpret through lighting, sound, and narrative. It’s a masterclass in movie making, one that everyone who loves movies needs to see at least once in their lives. In fact, I would recommend it be watched by DC filmmakers now. Not for replication, but for an idea of how far they’ve fallen from when Batman movies were actually good.