Dark Knight of the soul

It was Frank Miller’s great graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), that rescued the image of Batman from the 1960s TV series, a series that was a camp classic — or a laughing stock, depending on how you see such things. “Dark” was the keyword in Miller’s title, drawing on one of the Caped Crusader’s other epithets, and “dark” (along with “gritty”) is now also a keyword in the categorisation of certain American films, of which the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, is one. But we’ll come back to that.

Batman, or The Batman, as he was known in the early days of his comic-book legend, has undergone as many reinventions as Madonna (the pop star, not the Mother of Christ — though she went through a few reinventions too). Tim Burton applied his particular brand of Gothic Lite to the Batman story in two films in 1989 and 1992 with huge success; then the franchise was taken over by lesser talents and it began to decline back towards the campy 1960s version. What is best remembered about Batman and Robin (1997) is that the Batsuits suddenly got nipples. The fact that the two characters were played by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, respectively but not perhaps respectfully, undoubtedly also upped the homoerotica quotient.

In the early 2000s (or the zeroes, as I like to call them), it fell to British writer-director Christopher Nolan to revive and revision Batman once more. Nolan had made a name for himself with the twisty thriller Memento, which advertised his talent for gritty-and-dark, and he kicked off the renewed Caped Crusader franchise with Batman Begins in 2005. The title alone announced that we were back to Genesis and that we were being invited to forget all the other confusing Batbusiness of years gone by.

Nolan certainly managed to revive the myth, mostly by giving it a realistic gloss — read gritty-and-dark. What that indicates in moviespeak is that a film has a realistic feel, that it’s not your usual outright fantasy (which in fact covers most Hollywood films deemed “realistic”), and that it even sometimes entertains the notion that not everything in the narrative will turn out happily for everyone concerned. Movies for adults, in other words.

Batman Begins had the realistic style that another British director, Paul Greengrass, used so successfully in The Bourne Supremacy a year before that. The Dark Knight, er, returns to that style and Nolan makes a very decent fist of giving us a Batman with a realistic gloss, a Batman who could almost exist in the real world. This suits the figure of Batman himself, because he’s not really a superhero in the way Superman, say, is a superhero. Alone of the great comic-book heroes, Batman has no supernatural powers; his martial skills are painfully and laboriously acquired and then enhanced by some majorly futuristic technology.

Batman Begins and now The Dark Knight have some fun with using Morgan Freeman (is there any moment at which he is not on our screens in something?) as the Q figure to Batman’s Bond. Freeman’s Lucius Fox makes the ultra-hard-but-light suit and the extra-super-Batmobile-cum-Batbike; he deals with the Batcomputer’s super-surveillance program and so on. This sort of techno-gumf can be fun. It adds something that we don’t usually get in comic-book-hero movies, where we just have the mysteries of getting superpowers from radioactive spiders and the like, or start feeling weak from kryptonite poisoning. It makes Nolan’s Batman feel a bit more as though he lives in the real world and not in some mythical parallel universe.

What helps that sense of realism, too, is the picture of politicians and policemen fighting a desperate battle against crime in a vast urban conurbation. Even the Joker, a real pantomime villain if ever there was one (only the Penguin beats him at that), is transformed here into a convincing psychopath. The characterisation is helped considerably by the fact that he’s played by a real actor, Heath Ledger — and there’s talk of a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal. Ledger’s Joker isn’t funny in the way Jack Nicholson’s was: he is simply very scary.

In fact, Nolan has made sure that all the major roles in The Dark Knight go to real actors, rather than simply icons of the silver screen, and that helps a lot to give the film a sense of something more substantial going on beneath the surface. Christian Bale, of course, returns as Batman, plausibly butch without being a bonehead and with lips eloquent enough to allow him some expressiveness even under that overbearing mask.

Freeman, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal are likewise returnees (as techno-guy, cop, butler and love interest respectively), while formidable actors such as Ledger and Aaron Eckhardt get fresh roles to give a going-over. (Cillian Murphy pops up briefly; we’d been led to believe in Batman Begins that he might turn into Robin, but perhaps that’s being saved for Nolan’s third Batmovie.)

The Dark Knight, which has broken box-office records in the United States, is a tad overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but it zips along and does the action as competently as it does the character stuff. And, yes, it is indeed “dark”, filled with Batman’s own self-doubt and the harsh effects of his double existence — and the Joker’s madness — on others. There’s even loss of innocent life (though I dare say it will be restored in a future episode). This is a good way to give us a Batman as realistic as he can be. The movie is undoubtedly skilful in the highest degree, but it did make this reviewer at least long for a dose of full-on over-the-top fantasy. Roll on Hellboy II, I say.

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