First Impressions: The Dark Knight

I don’t know if I fully enjoyed The Dark Knight. At a longish 2 hours and 30 minutes, I thought it could have benefited from tighter editing. But maybe it was just because I saw it after a long day at the office and was already pooped by time the credits rolled. All this despite the fact that The Batman (with an emphasis on “the”) has been my favorite superhero since the Denny O’ Neil / Neal Adams reinvention of the character in the seventies, when the long pointy ears and billowing capes and scowling demeanor of the original character of the 30’s made their comeback. This was way before the Frank Miller Dark Knight” graphic novel of the mid-80’s.

With enough of a comic geek subtext, how could I not have looked forward to the film?

The occasion was an advance screening of the film, courtesy of distributor Warner Brother and mobile content provider Information Gateway (“IG” as we call it in the telco biz). I was giddy with anticipation from the moment I saw the tickets lying on my desk. I even sent a photo of the tickets to my Twitter friends via the mobile photo sharing service Twitpic.

So off I went, psyched to the gills, when I drove up to Greenbelt (a place in a land called Makati for you overseas readers) on a rainy, traffic-clogged “payday” evening – Wedneday, July 15. Or two days before the North American opening.

Arriving at the theater, the first thing that struck us was an inconvenience brought about by the digital age. Absolutely no electronic devices allowed in the theater. Apparently, no one was taking a chance that your super-duper mobile phone might have enoough video smarts to produce a screen copy to be uploaded on Bit Torrent or mass produced on a DVD available on the streets of Beijing – or Quiapo – the very next day.

To be fair, the invitation laid it out quite plainly:


Please note that all mobile phones and other electronic hand held devices will not be permitted in the theater for any pre-release of The Dark Knight. Please leave such devices in the car and/or at home. Any one found using mobile phones or other electronic hand held devices will be asked to leave the the theater.

So there we were, checking in our very expensive phones, having them wrapped up in sandwich bags, with only a little laminated cardboard tag to identify them with. Enough to cause a little anxiety on my part as I am rarely separated from my phone.

Given the fact the screening was sponsored by a mobile content provider and most of the people attending were from a mobile operator (SMART), I’m pretty sure that 100% of the attendees felt the same way! With the value of today’s high-end handsets, that must have been easily a million bucks worth of phones stashed away in a flimsy cardboard box outside the theater.

The first thing that crossed my mind: Dammit, I won’t get to Twitter while the movie is in progress.

The security check over with, we hustled inside, helped ourselves to the free popcorn and iced tea, and hunkered down for some serious Bat action.

The film opens with Gotham in broad daylight – an uncharacteristic mood in Batman films. A gang of clowns (hoods in clown masks) pull off a heist on a bank apparently owned by The Mob. They are violent and cruel and show no reservation when it comes to killing. Under orders from the Joker, they end up shooting each other (to lessen the number of clowns who need to share the loot). In the end, the last man standing is The Joker, face all white in greasepaint, lips smeared in rouge, with some mysterious scars on the side of his mouth, tilted upward to give him a ghastly perpetual grin. The Joker escapes in a school bus – after killing the driver of course.

Two words best define The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger. he is the heart and soul of the movie. As the most homicidal, maniacal Joker yet, his depiction wipes out all preconceived notions – derived from camp TV shows, from Jack Nicholson, from the comics – as comic relief. The “Clown Prince of Crime” as portrayed by a hooting Ceasar Romero in the campy TV show.

Ledger’s Joker is slime, with a dialogue full of witty barbs. He kills without remorse and is truly criminally insane – in a murderous, Arkham Asylum sort of way. There’s no mistaking him for a denizen of a circus. He can easily be a terrorist, an anarchist, a gang rapist, or a serial killer.

He’s a perfect foil for the two other insane characters in the film: The obsessed Batman – and the crusading district attorney with a hidden sadistic streak – Harvey Dent, who as we all know will eventually get half his face burned off to become Two Face.

The characters are all played solidly. Gary Oldman as Gotham PD Lt. Jim Gordon – later promoted to Commissioner – whose stoic dedication to his city gnaws at his marriage. Indie fave Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Rachel Dawes – replacing the vapid scientologist Katie Holmes. And Sir Michael Caine reprises the very cockney, very loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth, the pillar of stately Wayne Manor.

(Wayne Manor was burned down in a battle with Ra’s Al Ghul in the last film. In the second installment Bruce Wayne has a luxury penthouse apartment in a Gotham high-rise.)

And to keep up the theme of the stars and the studs, there’s Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises CEO and resident gadget whiz Lucius Fox.

The Dark Knight is often a roller coaster ride. The chases and fight scenes are incredibly shot (since there supposedly shot in IMAX, they make me want to revisit the film through an IMAX experience).

But there’s no mistaking that this is a real Dark piece. Plenty of violence – and not the outlandish superhero movie sort of violence either. There is bone crunching, realistic violence and plenty of cussing. Don’t think about bringing your little rugrats to see this film, It is no Spiderman or Fantastic Four.

The theme involves the Joker – a single but most effective madman – holding the city of Gotham hostage with his terrorist acts (one of which involves blowing up hospitals), striking fear in both the citizenry, and the criminal element. And driving good men like The Batman and Harvey Dent to question themselves – and ultimately drive them to the edge of sanity and reason.

My main complaint is that all the philosophizing between the characters leads to long swaths of meandering dialogue when there should be more action. Or at least, the film could’ve benefited from tighter editing to lop off thirty minutes of running time.

Heath Ledger turns in an Oscar-worthy performance. But after two hours of his brilliance, even I wanted to blow this Joker off the screen. It was just… too…. intense.

8 thoughts on “First Impressions: The Dark Knight

  1. I was told that the animated film “The Gotham Knight” is a good one. It’s supposed to bridge the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It was like the Animatrix and contains really violent scenes.

  2. Great article Jim. As a Batman fan, I didn’t mind thought the 2 and 1/2 hour length as long as it kept the interest up. Yup Heath Ledger was spectacular as the Joker. The movie did justice to the reinvention of Batman as the Dark Knight by Frank Miller and continued on by a lot of other great graphic novelists like Grant Morisson (Arkham Asylum), and Alan Moore (The Killing Joke, from which I think Heath Ledger’s Joker and symbiosis with The Batman was based on).

  3. I don’t think it should have had tighter editing. I think the movie actually needed to slow down in parts. Every scene, every line of dialogue was perfect, IMHO.

    With its density, one shouldnt be really tired when watching TDK. In the same way I don’t feel like watching Kurosawa after a tiring day.

  4. Hi Jim, after having just seen it on the first regular screening day, I’ll have to agree with Jerome above. It was everything I expected from this installation of the Batman franchise, as dark as it should be with a villain as twisted as the Joker, considering how dark the first movie Batman Begins was. Also as expected, Heath Ledger’s final performance before his untimely death was almost overwhelming in its force and intensity, indeed Oscar-worthy. I think his best scene (at least for me) somewhat ironically was when he wasn’t even on the screen, but only when his voice is heard speaking over the phone or broadcast on the airwaves over Gotham TV.

    But I tend to disagree about your complaint over the philosophy…if anything, that was the point of the entire movie, as well as the 3 main characters themselves. It also shows, as these superhero film trilogies in the past few years have tried to do, the progressive evolution of the hero’s character through each installment. And nowhere is this perhaps deepest and most fascinating in the character of Bruce Wayne, who is always depicted as the real character in this series, Batman being just his resulting alter-ego after his parents’ deaths and the subsequent events in the first film. At the end of this movie, I have to admit it was a satisfying conclusion, justifying the title of this piece as the Dark Knight in its own literary, quasi-poetic manner.

  5. I saw it last night on IMAX. Spectacular. But I’m with you with the philosophizing blah blah blah. I actually was left sort of unsatisfied, but I guess I have to wait for the next installment. Or watch it again.

    By the way, Chicago as Gotham never looked so gooooood. It’s the other character that you’ve failed to mention :-).

  6. i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted…

  7. Ok, I have a serious question regarding the cell phone issue. I understand you work in the tech industry, but here’s a thought – maybe, possibly, you could have actually left your cell phone at home. Wow. Especially since they went to the trouble of warning you beforehand. And really, how many people were there? How could the worth of their cell phones been even close to “easily a million bucks” ? C’mon. Really. A little perspective, please.

  8. Heheheh, such is the global nature of the Internet.

    @Steve – I was writing a review for a Philippine audience. “A million bucks” in the context for my audience is a million pesos – which is roughly about $20,000.

    Considering the number of high-end phones among that audience, with price tags ranging from $500 to close to $1000 a pop, a million pesos might have even been undervalued. For your reference, an iPhone 3G here costs around $700.

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