The first film of the rebooted Batman franchise, 2005's "Batman Begins," was leisurely, methodical, and exacting in its establishment and exploration of the origins of its nocturnal hero--and it is a masterpiece. The sequel, last summer's "The Dark Knight" (out on DVD this week) is cacophonous, convoluted, and scattershot in its advancement of Batman's story and its attempt to establish Batman as a (to use NY Times critic Manohla Dargis' term) "postheroic" vigilante--and it is not a masterpiece.
It is perhaps unfair to judge "The Dark Knight" by the high standard that director Christopher Nolan set for himself with "Batman Begins," but I don't think it is out of bounds to remark upon the new film's violation of many of its predecessor's tonal and dramaturgical tenets. This is not all bad: "The Dark Knight" works effectively in many respects as a manic, schizophrenic, morally ambivalent, and apocalyptic counterpoint to the painstakingly-constructed, character-building, world-establishing "Batman Begins." The problem is that "The Dark Knight" attempts to cram too much mania, moral ambivalence, and apocalypse into its nearly two and a half hour running time while insufficiently developing its potentially powerful themes of the chaos of a society held captive by terror and the schizophrenia (the two-facedness, if you will) required to survive amongst such chaos.
At the center of all of this, of course, is Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that is undeniably strong and virtuosic, but that seems to be colored by the real-life tragedy of the actor's death this past January. Visually, aurally, bodily, Ledger inhabits and interprets the Joker in a way that no other actor has--as a greasy, truly psychotic, unpalatable, and mentally unhinged terrorist trickster. Much of the performance's effectiveness derives from the inevitable intertextual comparison that nearly every viewer must make between Ledger and the suave, bright, cartoonish Joker of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989). The Joker of "The Dark Knight," though, quite separate from Ledger's skilled portrayal, is as unhinged dramatically as he is mentally. The only glimpses of backstory or psychological motivation we get for the Joker are the bogus explanations he gives of how he got his hideous trademark smile scars and crumbs of personal details that turn out to be red herrings for directing the police to his next scene of mayhem.
The inscrutability of the Joker's characterization by Nolan and his screenwriting partner brother Jonathan is meant to establish the clown's potency as a figure of terror. The fact that we know not what makes the Joker tick supposedly makes his ticking bombs that much more terrifying. But by obscuring the origins of the Joker's psychosis and of his clownish modus operandi, the filmmakers abdicate what could have been an even more powerful exploration of the nature of terrorist acts and of the motivations for their criminal application. Instead, we get with the Joker a dramaturgical thrust that is wildly uneven, at times lurching, and hard to reconcile with any recognizable motivations.
The absence of any treatment of Joker's origins in "The Dark Knight" is important because the exploration of origins has otherwise been such a strong component of Nolan's Batman films. (It is also, of course, a central conceit of superhero comics in general and the movies adapted from them.) Virtually all of "Batman Begins" was dedicated to establishing the psychological and personal motivations that led Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne to become a caped crusader, as well as to the acquisition of the specific skills and tools required for the success of such an endeavor. "The Dark Knight" itself contains a mostly successful such origin story in the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into the villain Two-Face.
Indeed, as much as anything else, "The Dark Knight" could be considered to be the story of the rise and fall of Eckhart's Two-Face. This is a story in which a powerful and righteous figure (the crusading D.A. even briefly manages to bring Bruce Wayne under his thrall) suffers a horrific loss (the death of fiancee Rachel Dawes, here played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and undergoes a physical transformation (the catastrophic burning of half his face) that makes concrete his pain and suffering. Two-Face's story is a powerful and effective one because the psychological underpinnings of the character's transformation are made clear. In contrast, the story involving the Joker suffers because of the opacity of the character's motivations and the ultimately directionless course upon which it takes the movie as a whole. Because of these issues, "The Dark Knight" fails in large part to accomplish progressing the powerful story set in motion by Nolan in "Batman Begins."