(this review reveals no details about the movie's plot)
When Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989, it was lauded as a dark, serious take on the mythos of Batman. But watch it now, after Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, and that movie is barely above an episode of the old Adam West tv show. It's campy, self-consciously over-designed and verges on parody, but it took Batman Begins to really show us that.
All the more impressive, then, that The Dark Knight seems to take a huge step up from Batman Begins.
Where to begin with this movie? The plot, the acting, the directing, the effects... everything's superb. I know it will sound overly fanboyish to say that Dark Knight is one of the best films of 2008, but I truly mean it. This isn't a good Batman movie, it's a good movie, period.
Christian Bale returns as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and he seems to have an easier time with both halves of his dual role this time around. The script provides complex characterization for both Bruce and Batman, giving this talented actor room to work. All the important members of the supporting cast return, as well: Michael Caine provides deadpan humor and a harsh voice of reason as Alfred, and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is both a staunch supporter and an unflinching critic for Batman. Gary Oldman delivers a conflicted Jim Gordon - here's a man with a strict by-the-book mentality, finding himself skirting the edge of the law by not only associating with a vigilante, but actively helping and relying on him.
Katie Holmes has been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, and it is absolutely a change for the better. Holmes was the weakest part of Batman Begins, and Gyllenhaal shows us a character we can believe Bruce Wayne would fall for. Of course, she's also caught the eye of Harvey Dent, played here by Aaron Eckhart with an affability and drive that hides a darker side.
But the star of the show is Heath Ledger as the Joker. When Ledger died a few months ago, the gossip was that he was having trouble divesting himself from the character he'd created for this film. If that's the truth, it's not hard to see why. There isn't a frame of this film where you even imagine there's an actor portraying the Joker; Ledger disappears entirely, inhabiting his character so fully that you believe his existence. There is a real reason that people have been talking about an Oscar nomination for this role.
Even better, though, the plot suits the characters. In Batman Begins, we saw the beginning of a social change: Batman coming to Gotham to clean up the streets. In this film, we find ourselves surrounded by the results. We see how people on both sides of the law react when the batsignal shines, and it's entirely organic. This isn't a new situation that the audience has to become accustomed to, it's the natural growth of the situation we were left with at the end of the last movie.
The story is great. It balances all the characters, rather than just focusing on the villains the way Burton's films did. The opening wastes no time in grabbing the audience, dropping us into a daring and well-executed bank heist that sets the tone for the film: smart and unforgiving. We see the down-side of the influence Batman is having on the city, and even meet an unexpected old friend. We get to see Batman at his "Batmaniest," willing to go to the ends of the earth if that's what it takes to bring a criminal to justice.
The Dark Knight runs over two and a half hours long, but it's so fast-paced that you never find yourself checking your watch. The story has several "false endings," moments when you think we're entering the finale, only to realize we're far from the end. But this isn't a case like Return of the King, which just kept ending and ending and ending: no, this is a result of good storytelling, and a way of keeping the audience hooked. We're conditioned to expect the rhythm of a movie, and by playing with that, Nolan keeps us unsettled... in a good way. The Dark Knight never lets you get complacent.
Re-watching Jack Nicholson playing the Joker, his interpretation of the character was barely different than Cesar Romero's: a bit more violent, of course, but still very tame. He was just about being mean with his humor. The Joker in this film is much more anarchic, trying to tear down society for the same reason some men climb mountains: because it's there. He's a psychotic sociopath, not a kidder, and a pathological liar. What he finds funny sane people find terrifying. And make no mistake, he is a terrorist: videotaped statements and demands sent to television stations? Random bombings with no goal other than to make people afraid? We see that sort of thing on the nightly news. He just wears clown makeup instead of a concealing bandana. And the thing is, his skewed mentality is presented so well, by the end you might just find yourself understanding it.
The fight choreography benefits from an increased clarity: when we see Batman beating down some thug, we can tell what he's doing. Batman Begins relied too much on frenetic jump-cuts, but this time we tend to stay with the fight a bit longer. The Tumbler (Nolan's version of the Batmobile) returns for some exhilarating chase scenes, and we're also introduced to the Bat-Pod, an odd motorcycle contraption, because sometimes it turns out you do have to change horses in mid-stream.
Many superhero movies suffer from trying to showcase an ever-increasing number of villains, but The Dark Knight avoids that problem - oh, not by not having the villains, but by employing good storytelling sense to put them in the story where they belong. There's more here than just the Joker and an army of mobsters, with at least one major threat not rearing his ugly heads until more than halfway through. But everything (and everyone) is balanced well, and it keeps our heroes running all over town trying to deal with the threats.
Parents will definitely want to think twice about taking kids to see this one. The Dark Knight is rated PG-13 for a reason, and it's not because someone says "damn." Despite what the merchandising would have you believe, Batman isn't a character for kids, and there are some things in here that will be pure nightmare fuel for youngsters. Though there's pervasive violence, there isn't really any gore shown on-screen: you won't just be able to shield little Johnny's eyes from a quick blood spray or something, because the blood isn't there. The movie is brutal, upsetting and just a little bit gross, but not in the typical Hollywood way. If the kids can't drive themselves to the movie theatre, think twice about taking them until you know what you're in for.
If Batman Begins was to Tim Burton's Batman what Tim Burton's Batman was to the Adam West Batman, what is The Dark Knight? It's not on par with Begins - it's far above it, but also entirely in keeping with it. It's a supremely well-crafted film that deserves big recognition.
I've gone back and forth about what to rate this one: I didn't want to give it five stars, because people will just look at that as typical "ZOMG I loved its tihs movie am teh best lol" silliness. But as I think about it, The Dark Knight is so good that it has to overcome the arbitrary "rating limitation" that exists in my own mind.
Yes, The Dark Knight is one of the best films of the year.
Yes, when it comes right down to it, The Dark Knight may be the best film of the year. May have the best actor, too.
The fanboy in me says "rate this four," because people will believe that number easier. But the movie says "I deserve five," and that's what I have to go with.
Pros: it's even better in Imax!
Cons: people who haven't seen it yet will probably think that five-star rating is inflated
The Bottom Line: The Dark Knight - go see it as soon as you can.