In 1989, director Tim Burton’s Batman finished what Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie started a decade earlier- moving the superhero movie out of the domain of juvenilia and towards more sophisticated levels of storytelling through the injection of strong characterization and thematic underpinnings.
Now, Christopher Nolan has taken what has become the standard level for storytelling in the superhero action film and raised it a quantum level higher starting with 2005’s Batman Begins and its sequel, the just released The Dark Knight. The result is a film as gritty as the darkest noir, filled with raw power and drama. It could very well be the first great masterpiece to transcend the superhero film genre.
At the end of Batman Begins, police lieutenant Jim Gordon and Batman (Christian Bale) discuss the possibility that the criminal element in Gotham City will escalate their methods in order to be able to fight off Batman’s attacks on them. The Dark Knight picks that up idea, with the criminal underworld turning to the psychotic Joker (Heath Ledger) to take care of Gotham’s protectors. He does this through a series of taunts and challenges designed to ultimately undermine the moral high ground that Batman, Gordon and Gotham City’s newly elected District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt), have taken.
The Dark Knight is one of those sadly all too rare cinematic beasts – a sequel that build upon what its predecessor presented, not merely recycles. A sweeping tale of crime and corruption, The Dark Knight has no supervillains with crazed, grandiose plans to rule or destroy the world. Instead, it has gangsters and the Joker. As played by Ledger, the Joker is not so much a character, but a deadly force of nature. Cutting a swath through both Gotham City and the film itself, he tests the moral mettle of the city’s residents and protectors. The situations he forces them to confront and the decisions they make will scar them physically and emotionally. The damage and destruction he leaves in his wake is not confined to property.
An apt parallel could be made between what Nolan has done with these two films and what George Lucas did with his first two Star Wars films. In the original Star Wars, Lucas took some basic space opera tropes and welded them to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces universal story framework to create a piece that had universal resonance. In the follow up, The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas further plumbed the emotional relationships of his characters, expanding the scope of their external conflicts and having those relationships bounce off of the conflicts in surprising ways. Nolan works Dark Knight in a similar way, delving deeper into what makes his characters who they are, revealing the answers through their actions and reactions to the Joker’s machinations. And like Empire, Nolan manages to complete thematic, character and story arcs while still managing to leave audiences on something of a cliffhanger, wondering how certain characters will ultimately resolve the situations the film leaves them in.
To accomplish this leap in storytelling, Nolan makes some minor adjustments to the approach he used for Batman Begins. Gotham City is not quite the gothic creation it was in the previous film. Sure, there is a shot or two of the monorail that played a big part in that film’s finale. But location shooting in Chicago gives an extra level of verisimilitude that the previous film’s grunged-out, 1930s futurism lacked. That’s just one of the steps that Nolan takes to move the film closer to the real world. Within the film’s opening moments, Nolan has Batman apprehend the one villain who had made their escape at the end of the last film, the only other real acknowledgement of that film’s milieu of ninjas, terrorists and high concept villains.
The end result of this tinkering is a film where Batman and the Joker could be replaced with a rogue cop and a psychotic criminal mastermind character that didn’t wear makeup and it would essentially be the same movie. The characters would still face the same moral dilemmas that they face now. Nolan has elevated the story to be not so much about the superheroics themselves, but of the deeper ethical issues that anyone in law enforcement may at one time or another face.
That is to say though, that The Dark Knight is not all navel-gazing. Far from it, in fact. The action scenes pack a bigger wallop and punch then they did in Batman Begins. A high speed chase through Gotham’s streets featuring a police prisoner escort convey, the Joker armed with a variety of military hardware including a rocket launcher and the late arrival of Batman is so confidently built that Nolan eschews the use of score in the sequence, trusting that the audience doesn’t need musical counterpoint to accentuate the action beats. If anything, Nolan layers the scene with reactions from the various officers in the convoy, giving a bit of characterization to what would normally be cannon fodder in such a sequence.
True, not every comic book property is right for this kind of treatment. But hopefully now that Nolan has shown that such thoughtful and adult treatment is capable of succeeding, than perhaps more studios will be willing to let directors to tell more complex and layered stories about superheroes.