The Dark Knight is a frustrating film. It features a tremendously unsettling performance from the late Heath Ledger, and an atrociously overwrought performance from Zeus jawline Aaron Eckhart. It features a brilliantly tense second act, and a scatterbrained finale. It features Maggie Gyllenhaal, thankfully, in place of Katie Holmes.
Like The Empire Strikes Back, Nolan's The Dark Knight is the favorite middle film of a generally beloved trilogy. Nolan's Dark Knight isn't nearly as grand as Lucas' Empire, however. And if we're being honest, truly: The Dark Knight is a fucking mess.
To be fair, I should immediately concede that The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final film of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, is the silliest of the bunch. The story is shot full of plot holes that undermine that film's climax, in which Bruce Wayne quietly returns to Gotham despite (1) the city's being under siege, geographically isolated and physically unreachable; (2) his back having been broken; and (3) his presumably having left his wallet, passport, and other key resources in El Segundo—or whatever the hell that sandworm prison was called.
I will further concede that each stage of Bane's grand, catastrophic scheme—the C.I.A. plane hijacking, the R&D heist at Wayne Enterprises, the Great Gotham Lockdown—is exponentially preposterous. But it's all fun to watch. It isn't a waste of time.
Where The Dark Knight Rises strains suspension of disbelief, The Dark Knight strains patience, common sense, and certain pain receptors in my brain.
There are two crucial lapses that, in sum, amount to about 30 minutes of The Dark Knight's runtime.
The first lapse is the well-documented catastrophe that is The Dark Knight's three-party S.W.A.T. chase, which sends Harvey Dent's fortified escort, the Joker's heist crew, and Batman all racing through an evacuated underpass straight into midtown, where Batman and Gordon corner the Joker. Indiewire's film-crit video series, Press Play, famously regarded The Dark Knight's marquee chase sequence as a faulty work of "chaos cinema;" the website's extensive breakdown of that scene's odd, jarring visual grammar helped explain why the S.W.A.T. chase induces a headache every single time I revisit this movie. The chase isn't just confusing—it's disorienting and stressful, like trying to read a Magic Eye on a speedboat, or watching that one episode of Pokémon that gave 700 children seizures.
But even though The Dark Knight's S.W.A.T. chase is incoherent, at least it's vaguely, successfully thrilling. What's hardly so exciting, however, is The Dark Knight's 20-minute Hong Kong sidequest. Bruce and Lucius are in pursuit of the corrupt accountant Lau, who has transferred $86 million in deposits from a Mob-run bank to foreign coffers as a preemptive countermeasure to Lt. Gordon's racketeering warrant. Discreetly, Batman must capture Lau and return him to Gotham so that prosecutor Harvey Dent can finish building the city's case against Mob figurehead Sal Marone and his many co-conspirators.
Mind you, all of this is quickly rendered moot by the corruption of Harvey Dent. After Batman returns Lau to local police custody, where he's interrogated by Dent and ADA Rachel Dawes, you don't hear anything from or about him for the rest of the movie. The subject of what was possibly The Dark Knight's most extravagant segment—it was filmed on location in Hong Kong, stunts and all—is, ultimately, a footnote. You could cut every frame from Lucious' mission briefing and tech overview through Batman's leaving Lau bound and gagged on the courthouse steps, and you'd be left with a remarkably more focused story.
The Dark Knight's Lau subplot is so extraneous and forgettable that Christopher Nolan literally forgot to edit Lau's demise into the film's final cut. (In a deleted scene, Lau burns to death atop the $86 million in cash that the Joker incinerates in a shady warehouse. Lau's death is briefly hinted but not shown in the final cut.) Such omissions are understandable, I suppose, considering that, as it stands, The Dark Knight is a two-hour action flick with forty minutes of expensive, exhausting digressions. Never mind that the climactic action is Batman's resolution of a goofy boat paradox that only a stoned utilitarian whose student loans have yet to enter repayment could find compelling.
Why is it that no one talks about Batman Begins anymore? This week marks ten years since that first film's debut, and it's still the best movie of Nolan's trilogy. Batman Begins is a timeless success: it's got Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy as principal villains, it's got white boy samurai montages, it's got the most inspiration quotes from Christian Bale, and its climatic showdown between Batman and Ra's al-Ghul takes place on a hijacked, unstoppable train. What more could you want of a superhero flick in which everyone grunts and whispers as if they're in a Die Hard flick instead?
Meanwhile, The Dark Knight offers a preposterous love triangle, nauseous camerawork, and totalitarian ethics. In reality, it's just a much messier film than Heath Ledger's performance will allow us to remember. But before all of Murray Hill comes for me, let me just finish by saying: I love all three of these films, however, and regard the imminent Batman v Superman mash-up with nothing but the appropriate disdain.