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Fear and Frights in the Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is a direct sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, which is widely regarded as the greatest adaptation of the comic book hero in history. I agree with this sentiment and unfortunately hold it to still be true even after seeing The Dark Knight.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the action and spectacle of The Dark Knight – and will certainly be pre-purchasing the DVD – my critical side is concerned. After the complex depths with which director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan delved into Bruce Wayne’s psyche and made Batman believable in the previous film, I can’t help but feel that the Caped Crusader was cut short this time around. I can summarize Batman/Bruce Wayne’s character development over the course of The Dark Knight in the following sentence: Batman upgraded his suit to turn heads. And it is done . . . Seriously.
The mistake the film makes, in my opinion, is that it repeats the sins of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies that Warner Bros. so it tried hard to deny with this recent rebirth of the franchise: The Dark Knight focuses too much on the antagonist and secondary characters rather than the development of Batman as a hero. Cramming two arch-villains into one movie only exacerbates this problem and further reduces Christian Bale’s screen time.
On the plus side, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is undoubtedly the best we’ve ever seen. The film effectively depicts the Joker’s mysterious ability to get under Batman’s skin. Gone are the swimming at Disneyland and the poison gas attacks from the sleeve as seen in the Tim Burton movie. While Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a pompous prince and easily forgettable rapscallion with little impact, Nolan’s Joker is much more disturbing. He is fully believable as a practical murderer, arsonist and wrecker with a penchant for doing the exact opposite of what rationing criminals and crime fighters would consider logical. But beneath the facial scars and clown paint, he honestly seems human. Ledger makes full use of what’s left of the Joker’s twisted humanity in the few quiet moments throughout the film when he talks to other characters. Ledger takes character traits that we usually find endearing in normal people and uses them to portray a villain who does crazy things but isn’t necessarily crazy. The only times I found myself disagreeing with Nolan and Ledger’s Joker were when the character begged to be killed. Understanding that the Joker approaches crime and mayhem with a clear sense of his own purpose (to divide society), a character undertaking his actions out of a suicidal tendency will not stand. Still, I’m glad to finally see the Joker done mostly right and in keeping with writer Alan Moore’s memorable The Killing Joke take on the character. However, the movie’s intense focus on the villain and his actions makes me wonder why they named it “The Dark Knight” and not “The Joker.”
The second villain in the film is Two-Face, a madman whose face is half handsome, half hideous, presumably as a challenge to amateur comic artists. To me, Two-Face has always been one of the most chilling Batman villains. The guy flips a coin and you have a 50% chance of leaving the room alive regardless of your guilt or innocence. There is nothing cooler than letting someone’s fate be a coin toss. For most of the film, Two-Face is Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent. . . and a hero. Dent’s physical transformation into a villain as depicted in the film is probably one of the best scripts to date. (In the comics, Sal Maroni just threw sulfuric acid on the left half of Dent’s face during the trial. Not as effective.) In terms of visual effects, Two-Face’s visage in this film is absolutely shocking and disturbing, much more so than the Joker. But unfortunately, I feel like we’re getting a Cliff’s Notes version of Two-Face’s transformation using a hackneyed romantic revenge scenario. Batman fans understand that the portrayal of Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne as hopeful buddies is just right. However, Harvey becoming a crazed lunatic because the Joker “talks him into it” is highly unlikely. Since Sal Maroni’s character is readily available in the film, I feel that something may have been messed up in the rewrite of the script. At least we learn from the comics that Harvey Dent is the abused son of an alcoholic who secretly suffers from schizophrenia and multiple personalities before his physical transformation into a supervillain. So his personality schism is somewhat more believable in light of his accident. As promoted in the film, Two-Face feels strapped in at the last minute, when he could just as easily have slipped all the way to the apparently upcoming third film in the franchise.
Between Harvey Dent and the Joker, there’s little time to catch up with Bruce Wayne or Batman. While I enjoyed the easily obvious metaphor of Bruce Wayne becoming scarred while his alter ego remains an unstoppable vigilante, his fleeting reunion with Rachel Dawes provided little opportunity for his character to progress. And with so little real focus on Batman and what the actions of the Joker and Two-Face mean for his crime-fighting career, I can’t help but feel that the film left me wanting a protagonist. Maybe it was the influence of having seen the trailer for Watchmen before the movie, but several scenes made me wonder if there was some heavily buried message in the game that Batman is a fascist symbol and unnecessary hero.
And so, considering the script and story organization, I have to declare The Dark Knight a great mess. The action scenes are spectacular and the villains are diabolical, but the message is ultimately muddled as it focuses on the villains’ acts of terrorism rather than the heroes’ solutions. It’s a 180° turn from the previous film, and the ending seems to foreshadow more of the same in the next film. But as far as spectacle and summer fun go, there’s probably nothing better this summer.
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