The SmarK DVD Rant for The Dark Knight (2-Disc Special Edition)

"You’ve got a little bit of fight in you. I like that."

"Then you’re gonna love me."

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hype for this movie meant that it would have to be the greatest superhero movie ever made and gross over $500 million at the box office in order to live up to the expectations of fanboys the world over.

Done and done.

In fact, I had previously considered Batman Begins to be the best superhero movie I had ever seen, so even with those lofty standards it’s amazing that this movie not only surpassed it in quality, but almost made me forget about the first one entirely. It’s truly an extraordinary piece of film-making, not only the best superhero movie ever made, but one of the best MOVIES ever made and wholly deserving of a nomination and win for Best Picture at the Oscars. So I just wanted to get that out of the way.

The Dark Knight is really a deconstruction of the superhero world, but without the powers and fantastic elements that usually drag superhero stories down after a while. Think of Heroes, for example, which started out as a "real world" examination of what would happen to regular people thrust in extraordinary situations, but then got so bogged down by the "capes and tights" aspect of the storylines that it’s pretty much imploding on itself as we speak. The universe created by Chris Nolan, in contrast, could be one that is happening in a city near you. While no one in real life is going to get bitten by a radioactive spider and start crawling up walls, someone could be rich and crazy enough to develop a suit of armor and fight crime with his billions. That’s really the basic premise behind the Batman mythos in general, but Nolan’s films are the first ones to really grasp that concept to any great degree. By way of contrast, after I saw The Dark Knight in the theater a couple of times I went back and watched Batman to see how it held up, and it was an interesting experience. Back in 1989, people thought that Burton’s movie was the darkest and grittiest thing they’d ever seen, but compared to this vision of Gotham City it looks like a cartoon by comparison. Plus The Joker miraculously surviving a bath of acid required some serious suspension of disbelief.

Then you have The Dark Knight, which follows directly from Batman Begins and seems to fall into the trap of adding two villains where one will do. But while Heath Ledger’s star-making and amazing performance as the Joker is rightly the talk of the movie, the performance that really holds the movie together on a thematic level is, I submit, Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. The entire point of the movie is that Batman and Joker are two sides of the same coin, two guys defined by their own particular madness who have chosen to express it in different ways and with different masks. Then you have Harvey Dent, who literally embodies the heroic and stoic qualities of the crime-fighting Batman while simultaneously giving into the craziness and ugliness of the Joker. He’s both the hero and villain of the story and a catalyst for both Batman and Joker to play off. And you can relate and sympathize with him all the way through, as the character is so wonderfully written that there’s never a point where it’s difficult to understand his motivation in taking the actions he does.

And of course there’s the Joker. From the moment we saw the early shots of his interpretation of the character, you knew there was something special with him, and what appears on the screen delivers everything promised and then some. From the start he’s a bundle of twitching facial tics and psychoses, and he’s the most legitimately scary villain put on screen since Hannibal Lecter. Assisting is the creepy and incredibly effective score that accompanies him, as an ominous cello note follows him around like a personal soundtrack, alerting the viewer that Something Bad Is Going To Happen. And the great thing is that Ledger doesn’t even overplay it like Nicholson did, even though he could have easily done so. His understated meeting with the crime lords (which gives us the famous "magic trick") also contains my favorite little moment for the character, as he threatens to blow up everyone in the room and when asked if he thought he could just steal half of millions of dollars from them, he nervously replies "Yes…" like a little kid. It’s such an off-hand moment but it gets a big laugh every time.

Which leads to my next point: A few of the negative reviews of the movie I’d read have accused it of having no sense of humor about itself, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Christian Bale plays the public persona of Bruce Wayne for comic relief all the way, and little touches like the Batmobile going into "Loiter" mode or saying good-bye before self-destructing are like little Easter eggs for those paying attention. Not to mention the Joker in general…black humor is still humor.

The plot itself can be described as a tad hard to follow unless you’ve seen the movie three (or four or five…) times to really get everything going on, but the great thing with this movie is that it works on so many levels that the actual mechanics of the money-laundering schemes can take a back seat to being wowed by the Batpod chase or the cinematography or Heath Ledger’s acting job or watching for clues to the next villain. It’s truly a masterful piece of movie-making and hopefully will at least claim a Best Picture nomination, if not a win, in addition to the #2 spot on the domestic gross list. (Rating: *****+)

Audio & Video

…and then there’s this.

Maybe it was just my ridiculously high expectations for this DVD (although other reviews overwhelmingly agree with me on it, too) but this is one of the worst transfers of a major release I’ve seen in recent years. I mean, the video quality looks like, at best, a good quality Divx rip of someone’s DVD. Any large amount of black (which is everywhere in this movie) produces unacceptable amounts of macroblocking, plus the picture is distractingly grainy and fuzzy, and there’s edge enhancement everywhere. This kind of stuff might be OK for a second-tier family comedy, but this is a movie I want to use for home theater demos and frankly it looks like ass. But I guess they only care about the Blu-Ray market now. (Rating: **)

The sound fares better, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is surprisingly subdued for most of the way through, although it picks up steam by the middle of the movie and lends some nice thump to sequences like the Hong Kong tower dive and the Batpod chase. Surrounds are used effectively, but as usual the center channel is mixed too low. Good but disappointing again. (Rating: ***)

Bonus Features

Again, compared to Blu-Ray us poor DVD viewers get the shaft, even on the Special Edition that I was sent. The first disc only has the movie, with no commentary of any kind. C’MON! The second disc has a stripped-down version of the stuff found on the BD release, featuring two quick featurettes on the score and the redesigned Batsuit and gadgets, plus six "Gotham Tonight" episodes (which are surprisingly well-produced and written for throwaway background material), as well as the theatrical trailers and an interesting gallery of posters for the movie. The most baffling "extra" is the IMAX versions of key scenes, which are reduced to DVD resolution and framed in full-screen at that, thus robbing them completely of whatever point they might have had on Blu-Ray. Like, OK, it’s nice to see more of the top and bottom of the screen during the opening bank job, but so what? Why keep this pointless extra in a format that can’t take advantage of it, and delete the other extras? Sadly, we lose all the other bonus material included on Blu-Ray to make way for the stupid Digital Copy that no one but the movie studios give a shit about. My favorite treat, though, is the DVD case itself, as the normal-looking cardboard sleeve and summary on the back reveal an entirely different version underneath. Call me cynical, but the near-total lack of useful features on this release (the special edition at that) seems to indicate that they might release the "Deluxe Edition" or "Collector’s Edition" or "Oscar Winning Edition" next year, complete with commentary and documentary about Heath Ledger’s death. Call it a hunch. (Rating: **)

The Pulse:

Although The Dark Knight is a movie for the ages, this is a DVD for the bargain bin. I’d advise either picking up the bare-bones single-disc version or waiting for the super-deluxe release with fixed video and audio and a commentary track, because this release is a huge disappointment filled with pointless extras.

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