Tomatometer Watch: Is The Dark Knight a Masterpiece?

The answer to that and more from our early Tomatometer reviews.

by | July 14, 2008 | Comments

With less than a week to go before Christopher Nolan‘s highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins barrels into theaters, fans are wondering: is The Dark Knight really that good? According to early reviews, it just might be.

At present time, Rotten Tomatoes has 22 early reviews in for TDK, giving it an 86 percent Tomatometer score. The year’s best film to date, WALL-E, sits at 97 percent; the film it took top honors from, Iron Man, is at 93 percent. (Nolan’s sequel had been sitting at an early Tomatometer of 100 percent until the first courageously negative reviews took it down a notch, courtesy of New Yorker critic David Denby, New York Magazine critic David Edelstein, and Star Magazine‘s Marshall Fine.)

But while critics argue over quibbles big (the 2 ½ hour runtime) and small (Christian Bale‘s gruff Batman whisper), larger talking points boil to the forefront. As early calls of “masterpiece” and “Oscar nomination” whisper their ways around the internet, we strip away the hyperbole to examine the critics’ most common critiques.

TDK is a great crime movie

While Batman Begins rebooted the flailing Batman franchise with an updated origin story, The Dark Knight is not your traditional comic book movie. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have scripted a Batman story that falls much closer in line with some of the best and grittiest crime thrillers we’ve seen.

“Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Michael Mann’s Heat. Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. And now, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight can join the ranks as one of the best crime dramas in modern movie history.” Staci Layne Wilson,

Batman Begins created a clear-cut origin for the comic book character based within the real world, and The Dark Knight takes that one step further, venturing further into the world of true crime dramas with a film that owes more to The Departed and Michael Mann’s Heat — admittedly an influence on Nolan — then any previous comic books or movies.” — Edward Douglas,

“How far we’ve come from the days when Joel Schumacher added nipples to the Batsuit.” — Geoff Berkshire,

Heath Ledger as the Joker

The tragic death of co-star Heath Ledger brought early attention to his performance as the Joker even before TDK was screened, but was that all just premature flattery? Absolutely not, say the critics; while opposing camps argue the film’s remaining merits, it seems Ledger’s transcendent take on the Joker — disturbed, controlled, unrelenting — is one nearly all agree will redefine the character and his legacy, and could become the defining way in which we remember him.

“By the third time he’s explained where [his scars] come from — each time telling a different tale — you realize that Ledger was a master of his craft, only in his final years finding roles that truly offered him the chance to explore that mastery. His is the definitive movie Joker, and he owns the role and achieves a level of abject insanity that is terrifying as it is irresistible.” — Todd Gilchrist, IGN Movies

“If there’s a movement to get him the first posthumous Oscar since Peter Finch won for 1976’s Network, sign me up.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

It’s way intense for PG-13

The Batman mythology has always been dark, but Nolan’s gone extremely sinister here. Despite plenty of off-screen death and violence, the level of on-screen terror leads many critics to question its PG-13 rating.

“The mayhem and torture wreaked here, by saint or scum, are so vivid and persistent that it’s a wonder, and a puzzle, why The Dark Knight snagged a PG-13 rating. (Don’t take your 9-year-old son unless you think he’d enjoy seeing a kid just like him tremble in fear while a gun is held to his head by a previously sympathetic character.)” — Richard Corliss, TIME

“…pitch black and undeniably inappropriate for any kid who isn’t over 12 or playing Grand Theft Auto with mom & dad’s blessing…” — David Poland, The Hot Blog

“Even without graphic on-screen blood-letting and a PG-13 rating, the film manages to portray menace and tension with far more power and effectiveness than many an R-rated horror film.” — Garth Franklin, Dark Horizons

Nolan’s direction and non-stop action

Although TDK aims admirably high in terms of character development and philosophical issues of identity, it necessarily also involves a multitude of chases, explosions, and dizzying plot turns. Where Batman Begins introduced audiences to the 21st century Batmobile — the Tumbler — The Dark Knight ups the ante by taking the Caped Crusader on a moonlit skydive, on an exhilarating car chase with a the new Batpod, and pits him in hand-to-hand combat against some of Gotham City’s worst. Seeing all this in IMAX, while breathtaking for its scenes shot for the extra-large format, may exhaust even more brainpower.

“With the film’s race-car pace, noise levels, throbbing music and density of stratagems, no one will follow all the plot points at first glance. Not that the story with its double crosses and ingenious plans isn’t clear, but to enjoy the full glory of these urban battlefield strategies, multiple viewings are required.” Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter

“Nolan directs the action more confidently than he did the first time out, orchestrating all manner of vertiginous mid-air escapes and virtuosic highway set pieces (and unleashing Batman’s latest ooh-ah contraption, the monster-truck-tire-equipped Bat-Pod).” — Justin Chang, Variety

Is it a masterpiece or not?

All of the above bring us to the final question: is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight a masterpiece? Critics have been split on the issue; some say it falls a small, but important, notch below perfect, while others see in it the future of comic book movies. Many critics name TDK better than its predecessor, Batman Begins. [At present the film has an average rating of 8/10; Batman Begins scored an average rating of 7.7/10.] The early consensus seems to be that The Dark Knight is a great film by many measures — comic book adaptation or otherwise — but thanks to a handful of unsatisfying ticks, and despite the hopes of the franchise’s fans, it’s not quite perfect.

“If Dark Knight gets anything less than an Oscar nomination it would be a great injustice to the world of cinema. Nolan has delivered an epic masterpiece that will literally take your breath away.” — Brad Miska,

“Dark, grim, haunting and visionary, The Dark Knight; is nothing short of brilliant, the best and scariest comic hero adaptation you are likely to see this summer season, and perhaps during the whole year.” — Emanuel Levy,

“If Nolan had the opportunity to have a more even balance between explosions and ideas, it could have been that masterpiece that was prayed for.” — David Poland, The Hot Blog

“I can’t rate The Dark Knight as an outstanding piece of craftsmanship. Batman Begins was grim and methodical, and this movie is grim and jammed together. The narrative isn’t shaped coherently to bring out contrasts and build toward a satisfying climax. The Dark Knight is constant climax; it’s always in a frenzy, and it goes on forever.” — David Denby, The New Yorker

“While one might hesitate to throw around overused words like masterpiece, it’s refreshing that The Dark Knight is not a movie that can be viewed and easily discarded like so much other summer fare.” — Edward Douglas,

Read more reviews of The Dark Knight at our movie page here, and check back for more updates this week as The Dark Knight approaches theaters on Friday.