Before I get to that, though, I'll address in a pithy way other movies I've been asked about. And, as always, comments are encouraged.
THE DEPARTED: Great, bloody, fun movie. Just a little too sloppy, and the love triangle part of the story is a bit too contrived and dull. Jack Nicholson, while entertaining as always, overacts in some scenes to the point where it seems like he thinks he's in another movie.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS: I started watching this the other day and was reminded of its near-perfection. I regret leaving this out of my Top 50 and possibly my Top 25.
DR. STRANGELOVE: OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB: I swear, I love this movie to death. If I had made a Top 60 list, it would be there.
THE DARK KNIGHT: Okay, deep breath. And ... here ... we ... go!
"The Dark Knight" left me buzzing the first time I saw it. It was an exhilarating big-screen experience. I just had to see it again, which I did on an even bigger, "IMAX-approved" screen, whatever that means. As with most movies, its power waned a bit on the second viewing, but I still loved it. Alas, it was not a love that would last forever.
The more I watched "The Dark Knight" at home on DVD or HBO, the more its flaws, which had been somewhat apparent to me from the beginning, really started to bug me. Most notably, the plot. For a movie so driven by its plot and the plots of its characters, who are depicted as plotting plotters, there's an awful lot of plot left off the screen and then explained in expository lines that suggest the writers covering their continuity asses.
Take the Joker's pursuit of Harvey Dent, who had earlier falsely outed himself as "the Batman." At that point, the villain is under the impression that Dent is indeed Batman, as he says later, but then Batman shows up and the Joker seizes his opportunity to unmask and kill the caped crusader. He is thwarted at the very last moment by Lieut. Gordon, who, even though he was shot in front of the whole city, had faked his death with apparently nobody's help (this is explained away by the mayor later telling him that he "really plays his cards close to his vest") just so he could spring up at this exact moment to stop the Joker from killing Batman. Oh but then later on, when it becomes clear that everyone is caught in yet another Joker trap, Gordon says definitively that the clown prince of crime actually meant to be caught so he could implement the rest of his nefarious plan. The Joker is not two steps ahead of the good guys, he's 27 steps ahead of them. His true advantage over everybody is not his desire to "see the world burn." It's that he's read the screenplay.
I'd also like to point out two pretty important moments that disregard the movie's own established sense of physics and space:
1. When the Joker has Rachel at knifepoint in the party at Bruce Wayne's penthouse, the camera circles them, showing the partygoers assembled in a ring around them. If anything, especially an enraged man dressed as a bat, is coming at them, we should know just by hearing or seeing the response of the gathered crowd. But no, Batman is just there, by the grace of editing, ready with a growling quip and a punch. At least show him swooping in from a vent in the ceiling or bursting through the crowd.
2. The Joker throws Rachel out of the penthouse, which is clearly dozens of stories above the street. Batman plunges after her. His cape, which we know can act as sort of a parachute, is never fully deployed, but they both land on a car at seemingly high impact but with little or no apparent injury.
"But it's a comic book movie." Yes, I've heard this retort several times. Some friends threw this at me the other night when I astonished (annoyed?) them by revealing my changed attitude toward "The Dark Knight." I know it's a comic book movie. My disbelief is appropriately suspended. Remember, I bought tickets to see a movie about a billionaire who dresses as a bat at night to fight evildoers who wear masks and clown makeup. But "The Dark Knight," other than the fact that the central conflict is between costumed heroes and deformed criminal masterminds, makes it clear throughout most of the movie that it's taking place in something that approximates our reality, a reality that obeys the laws of physics ... except when it's inconvenient to the plot or the action. A director as good and detail-oriented as Christopher Nolan (see "Memento" and "The Prestige") should know these things, but he takes the easy way out time and time again in "The Dark Knight" even when he doesn't need to. It's almost as if he's thinking to himself, "but it's just a comic book movie." Did he take this "comic book movie" less seriously than his other works? Did he just see it as a way to earn money and clout so he can make the kinds of movies he actually wants to make? I'm inclined to say yes.
That disappoints me because Nolan's considerable talents are certainly on display in "The Dark Knight." I don't begrudge him the paycheck or Hollywood influence this movie won him, I just wish he'd take the material more seriously. I'm with critic Jim Emerson on this, I think filmmakers and audiences alike should take superhero and comic book movies as seriously as they would horror films, science fiction flicks, westerns or gritty urban dramas. There's nothing wrong with escapism, alternative realities or surrealism. Just look at my Top 25. It's full of movies with ridiculous premises, and even some plot holes, although not as pervasive as the ones in "The Dark Knight." (Examples: How is the crew of the Venture able to keep Kong sedated and shackled as they ferry him halfway around the world? And how the Hell does Indy get on that sub in "Raiders"?) I'm willing to believe the premise of any movie, even if it's one that winks at its B-movie roots through stylistic choices (i.e., Quentin Tarantino's entire filmography). "The Dark Knight," though, doesn't wink and nod at its roots, it broods. It's serious, but not in all the right places.
Compare "The Empire Strikes Back" with "Lost in Space," or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with those Brendan Fraser "Mummy" movies. "Empire" and "Lost in Space" are both science fiction action movies set in outer space, but which one's the classic? "Raiders" and Fraser's "Mummy" are both adventure romps featuring supernatural forces and mystical relics, but which one is better? Neither "Raiders" nor "Empire" sacrifice quality even as they embrace their goofy, pulpy, genre roots. Now, I don't think "The Dark Knight" is anything close to as awful as "Lost in Space" or "The Mummy" series, but, despite its depiction of a comic book hero and villains, it spends much of its time repudiating its genre roots through "realistic" posturing. But then it relies on structurally implausible plot tricks and fudged action-scene physics, which are in turn defended as mere conceits of a "comic book movie." Since when do aesthetic and narrative inconsistencies define the "comic book" genre? "A History of Violence" is a movie based on a comic, er, "graphic novel." If it were rife with implausibilities, such as non-supernatural characters who pop out of nowhere, would you defend it by saying it's just a comic book movie?
Wow, I've made it seem like I really don't like "The Dark Knight." That's not the case at all. I still like it a lot. Despite its faults, it is still a very good, entertaining, albeit flawed movie I can rewatch every now and then like, say, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" or "Avatar." It's got a high "awesomeness" quotient, and it's such an intense experience -- due in great part to its atmospheric score, sterling production values and its narrative momentum -- that I can get caught up in it without paying much mind to its serious narrative and aesthetic lapses. It also tackles some pretty weighty themes, such as the conflict between security and civil liberties in times of terror, the battle between self-interest and community, and how we perceive heroes. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Heath Ledger delivers an immortal performance as the Joker.
"The Dark Knight" is better than the sum of its parts. But, for me, a movie can only be great if it holds up when I'm thinking about it later. "The Dark Knight" has plenty to savor, but it doesn't hold up for me, not anymore. It amounts to an elaborate magic trick that relies on some very expensive smoke and mirrors, as one of my colleagues said recently. There is greatness in this movie. It's just not as great as I once wanted to believe.