Christian Bale in The Dark Knight deserves more praise 15 years later

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Fifteen years ago this week, Christopher Nolan released a little film called The Dark Knight who delivered what I consider to be the best comic book movie to date. It’s a rare example of a highly anticipated Hollywood feature film that lives up to the hype, a fantastic piece of filmmaking that has only gotten better with age.

Click on everything here. Nolan’s tight direction, the thunderous score of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, the wild action sequences and interesting psychological themes, the dynamic between our hero and our villain – The Dark Knight shines more than ten years after its initial release.

Of course, we remember the picture for Heath Ledger’s amazing portrayal of the Oscar-winning Joker. By all accounts, the late actor excels in the role, stealing every scene he appears in and redefining the classic villain for today. While other actors have portrayed the Joker and gained fame, Ledger’s interpretation remains the most memorable. This Clown Prince of Gotham is crazy, cruel, and completely pointless. You can’t take your eyes off it.

Christian Bale is a great Bruce Wayne

But, all these years later, I couldn’t help but wonder Christian Bale, whose performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman is strong enough to warrant its own list of awards. Ostensibly serving as the straight man to Ledger’s manic clown, Bale’s portrayal here is quiet, reserved, but with an emotional feel. He carries so much, even while hidden inside that big suit. A tilt of the head here, a sharp expression there, all combine to deliver one of the most incriminating performances of the past two decades.

Ironically, Bale later won an Oscar for The Fighter, where he enjoys a starring role opposite Mark Wahlberg’s straight man. Wahlberg, likewise, was overlooked for his quiet but effective performance because (for whatever reason) the Academy hates subtlety.

And that’s really the name of the game here: subtlety. Bale’s Bruce Wayne harbors demons that still torment his soul. You see it in his eyes, the way he puts on a Patrick Bateman-esque smile and attends decadent parties, the way he throws a glass of champagne over a balcony after delivering a speech to a room full of guests, the way he quietly watches the Joker and desperately tries to figure out his next move. In this scene, he interrogates Sal Maroni, but can’t shake any information from him, pulling a not-so-tired rant:

At one point, the Joker visits a news station and threatens the life of Coleman Reese over a live TV broadcast. Nolan cuts to Bruce, watching the nightmare unfold, a look of almost contempt on his face. Quietly, he listens to the Joker’s requests before picking himself up, buttoning his jacket, and going out to work. Again, his acting is subtle, but you understand what the poor guy is dealing with – a survivor he doesn’t understand, the loss of his friend, Rachel, and the weight of Gotham City hanging on his shoulders.

As Batman, he is even more controversial. The Dark Knight seems tired when we first see him in a sequence involving the Scarecrow early in the film. He takes the opportunity to permanently deal with the criminals during the extraordinary Hong Kong series, does the job diligently and captures Lau. There is no sense of pleasure or excitement in Batman’s actions. He’s just trying to tie up loose ends so he can move on with his life.

At the end of the film, however, Batman hits his motorcycle – tired and broken but enthusiastic about the life he has chosen. When Harvey asks why he was the only one who lost everything, Bruce breaks character and whispers, especially to himself, “No.” Gah. That is heartbreaking.

Earlier, after capturing the Joker, Batman expresses how Gotham has shown its willingness to believe in something good. In response, the clown says, “Until the spirit breaks completely.” Batman leans over, exhausted, perhaps discouraged by the enemy’s refusal to pay attention to reason. This subtle act is a stark contrast to Ledger’s wild nature. Batman longs to find a reason to continue the struggle, an end to the resistance, and Bale skillfully portrays the character’s unwavering determination while gradually revealing a hint of vulnerability. Even it is uncertain how this story will develop.

I also love the classic interrogation scene where we see Batman snap for the first time after the Joker goes too far with his revelation that Rachel and Harvey are going to die. It takes everything in Batman’s power not to crush the enemy’s face. We see the rage, the pain, the distress and the frustration. Ledger deserves high praise for his incredible performance here, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if Bale hadn’t hit the right shots.

I appreciate the quiet nuance in Bale’s portrayal of Batman. It’s easy to overlook, but the actor shows why he was a good choice for the character. Without him, the Dark Knight ceases to exist. It sets the mood on the screen and helps elevate a great movie to a classic.

Interestingly, Bale recently said he was disappointed with his performance, telling, “I didn’t quite manage what I hoped I would through the trilogy. Chris did, but my own feeling is like, ‘I didn’t insult him.'”

He continued: “Heath turned up, and he just ruined all my plans,” Bale said. “Because I went, ‘He’s way more interesting than me and what I’m doing.'”

Hogwash. Bale is fascinating as The Dark Knight and one of the main reasons the picture still kicks ass 15 years later. It is a masterpiece.

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