There’s a moment in the new Batman movie The Dark Knight when the action—which relentlessly pounds, soars, twists and turns for a full two and a half hours—slows down for one brief and strangely beautiful instant. The Joker—certainly one of the more villainous, terrifying and electric characters to come our way in some time—speeds through Gotham’s sleek, gray streets, his head hanging out of a cop car window, eyes softly shut, mutilated face turned skyward, stringy and matted green hair flattened by wind. Chaos is under way, hope is dimming, the future looks grim … and the Joker is just enjoying the breeze.
The much-buzzed-over performance of the late Heath Ledger in this lead role has propelled anticipation for the July 18 opening of The Dark Knight from regular fanboy excitement into full-throated frenzy. Almost two weeks before the film was due to hit theaters came reports that opening-night tickets had sold out. (At press time, the entire first week of screenings had been booked at the IMAX at 68th Street.) Don’t be fooled by the PG-13 rating: The Dark Knight is no kids’ movie. Rather, it’s a terrifically bleak affair—as weighty, dark and complex as it is thrilling to watch. In fact, the film is a closer relation—and not just in running time—to last year’s feel-bad Best Picture nominees, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, than to fellow superhero summer blockbusters like Iron Man, Hellboy II or Hancock. Though the bad guy might wear purple pants and streaked clowny makeup, and our hero likes to don a bat mask and cape, the issues this film grapples with—identity, incomprehensible violence, a society living in terror—feel awfully familiar, and urgent.
“It’s been a long journey, and a dream of mine, to see Batman done in a dark and serious way,” said Michael E. Uslan, an executive producer of The Dark Knight who’s had a long association with DC Comics.
WITH THE DARK KNIGHT, director and co-writer Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins) has placed the fantastical firmly in reality: The assault weapons’ kickbacks make those who bear them shudder; deaths are gruesome; and Gotham has never looked so assuredly like a (barely) breathing American city. So, in the words of the Joker (and Warner Bros. marketing campaign), why so serious? Moreover, when you can’t pay people to sit through a documentary on Abu Ghraib, or entice even the most earnest viewers to watch even one of the countless Iraq films that’s tanked at the box office, why are we downright enthralled with the grim realities of our present day when they’re trussed up in a batsuit? What is it about Batman?
“The reason Batman is my favorite superhero is that he has no superpowers,” said Mr. Uslan, who has acted as an executive producer on practically all things Batman, from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and its sequel Batman Returns, as well as non-Burton follow-ups Batman Forever and (the much reviled nipple-suited) Batman & Robin, and all the animated Batman series. The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman, created by Bob Kane in 1939, was a hero born out of the desire for vengeance after witnessing the murder of his parents as a child. Without any preternatural skills (no outer-space-bestowed gifts, no science experiments gone wrong), Bruce Wayne turns himself into Batman through intelligence, hard work and a seemingly unlimited supply of funds.
“I can identify with this guy,” said Mr. Uslan, of the character’s appeal. “I can believe that if I study hard, work hard, I could be this guy.” But for a hero, Batman is an awfully brooding one, and The Dark Knight shows not the glamour of being a city’s savior, but the heaviness of it, as we witness the escalation in violence that occurs as a consequence of his actions. In Mr. Nolan’s incarnation, with American Psycho’s Christian Bale behind the mask, there’s nothing fun about being the Batman, no matter how cool the toys, or how heart-thumping the swoops off tall buildings. He’s a lonely hero of a city whose public distrusts him. There’s even a warrant out for his arrest. Batman’s real-life persona of Bruce Wayne—good-looking playboy billionaire—has become more of a disguise to struggle with than his Batsuit, and his few links to “normal” life are fading fast.
The casting of Michael Keaton as Batman in Tim Burton’s dark, majestically twisted vision is what Mr. Uslan credits as the first revolutionary step in showing Batman in a more serious, even human light. “It was more important who played Bruce Wayne than it was who played Batman,” Mr. Uslan said. Mr. Bale—reprising his role from Batman Begins—“is the definitive Bruce Wayne,” he said.
Mr. Bale, who tends not to come off as particularly gregarious in interviews, seems to have even dropped a few degrees in temperature for this role. (In a particularly memorable scene from Batman Begins, Mr. Bale as Bruce Wayne fakes being drunk and insults his birthday party guests in order to get them to leave his mansion; he knows they are in danger, they think he’s a rich jerk. With a stony stare that’s only intermittently relieved by a brittle laugh, Mr. Bale is as believable as a spoiled asshole as he is, with his massive pecs and biceps, as an effective vigilante.) Indeed, there’s a chill that emanates from the actor that pushes audiences occasionally to wonder, this is the good guy?
Still, Mr. Uslan said that, historically, the appeal of the comics (and the movies) actually arrives in the form of the bad guy: “Ask Stan Lee what the secret is, and he’ll tell you: It’s the super-villain.”
“I think if you look at narrative form in general—going back to theater and the novel and everything like that—film has been very interested in taking a walk on the dark side,” said film critic and historian David Thomson. “Think of Norman Bates, think of Hannibal Lecter. Are they really totally unlike you? Or is there a part of you that understands them? Batman is an interesting figure—he’s clearly always been worried by things like this. He’s basically a good character, but a very anxious and worried figure, tempted by these lurid villains to be like them.”
Mr. Thomson pointed to Daniel Day-Lewis’ enigmatic Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and the terrifying Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men to underscore Mr. Uslan’s point. “These movies were clearly working on, is this character outlandish, or do you get him?” he said. “I think it’s simply us gradually getting on better terms with the dark side of our nature. It’s not terribly comfortable or happy, but there you are.” He laugh
ed while pointing out the sad, dark truth: Regardless how heinous the actions of these characters, “you always want more of them, don’t you?”
Yes, we do, especially in The Dark Knight. Jack Nicholson’s charismatic Joker was wild, a bursting-with-color hilarious maniac. (Remember his shout: “This town needs an enema!”) But Heath Ledger seems to have burrowed down deep into some very cold, flat-eyed insanity. His Joker is terrible, terrifying and terrifically mesmerizing (perhaps the greatest testament to his performance is that you’ll forget the actor’s tragically early death while watching it). An agent of chaos, his unpredictable murdering and maiming all who might happen across his path just makes him all the more compelling. Bruce Wayne’s trusty confidant Alfred (Michael Caine) warns Bruce that he might not understand exactly what he’s up against. “Some men,” he says, “just want to watch the world burn.” Is it any wonder that Time’s Richard Corliss referred to the Joker as “the bin Laden of movie villains”?