"Now, take this guy: armed robbery,
double homicide. Got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card." Before the casting rumours, the trailers, the endless posters, the death of Heath Ledger, the internet virals... before all that, way back in 2005, in the final moments of Batman Begins
- that's when the frenzied anticipation for a sequel began. Audiences had just witnessed the revival of one of the most enduring heroes in comic-book mythology and they wanted more - the tantalising promise of Batman going toe-to-toe with his most weird and wonderful foe was too strong to resist. And here, now, after three years, one tragic death and a tsunami of fanboy hype, The Dark Knight has landed. And it's every bit as good as you'd hoped.
The hero, the villain, the gadgets, the vehicles - and indeed the 12A rating - all scream 'just another comic-book movie'. But you needn't worry: The Dark Knight is an adult film for Bat-fans with discerning tastes. Continuing the themes he instigated in his first movie, director Christopher Nolan plays it straight as an arrow throughout: apart from a few fanciful uses of technology (and the inherent ridiculousness of the entire premise, naturally) there is little in this movie that doesn't ring true to reality. Those theatrics that Lt. Jim Gordon spoke of? All but drained down the Gotham sewers. The Dark Knight is more like a compelling crime drama than a superhero saga - those comparisons to Michael Mann's Heat you've read about aren't wide of the mark at all.
In one corner, you have the Dark Knight himself. With the motivations and the methodology of the man behind the mask covered in the last movie, we buy the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman without question. He's still doing what he does best: cleaning the scum from Gotham's streets. In the other corner, you have The Joker. He has no background and his origins remain a mystery. He is an anomaly. The Joker does what he does best: causing chaos and destruction on a massive scale. These two freakish pillars of right and wrong make it their mission to bring one another down, with the people of Gotham caught in the crossfire.
It's this constant struggle that forms the crux of The Dark Knight. Call it good versus evil, call it order versus chaos, call it society versus the forces of terrorism - call it whatever you want. But whichever way you look at it, this is an absolutely thrilling battle of wills that's more complex and more intense than any other black and white superhero confrontation - this dark knight's tale is swathed in shades of grey. Just another comic-book movie? Not by a long shot: this one genuinely transcends the genre.
Characters go through real transformations; both emotional and physical. The title isn't kidding, this is dark stuff. Bruce Wayne all but gives up on his hope for a normal life as he's forced to face an enemy that he can't defeat: how can he get inside the head of a man who's lost his mind? Aaron Eckhart's ace attorney Harvey Dent starts the movie as Gotham's "white knight" but ends up scarred, broken and hopeless. Even Gotham's citizens resort to mass panic, puppets on a string, dancing to the tune of a madman. The only constant is The Joker: crazy as fuck, anarchic and reliably unreliable. "When the chips are down," he reasons in that creepy cartoon voice of his, "these civilized people will eat each other."
Heath Ledger's Joker is far and away the most effective representation of the character yet seen on screen: it really is the stuff of nightmares. Even beneath layers of make-up, Ledger is magnetic, funny, scary and absolutely enthralling throughout - you daren't take your eyes off him. It's all in the tics: the irregular elongated pronunciation, the reptilian licking of his lips, that horrid manic laugh and those black, shark's eyes. He's a horribly fascinating psycho, a sado-masochist through and through (watch him crease up with laughter as Batman gives him a thorough kicking) and he proves that the best enemies are those without reason. "I'm like a dog chasing a car," he reveals excitedly. "I just don't know what I'd do if I ever caught one!
Is it an Oscar-worthy role? Not by traditional standards perhaps, but if there's been a more engaging performance by a supporting actor so far this year, it's passed me by. Tempting as it is to dismiss the calls for Ledger's posthumous nomination as predictable, watch the movie then make your call. See him hold the attention of a room full of gangsters; watch him gaily slide down a huge pile of money before burning it; marvel at his 'magic trick' and terminally unfunny jokes. This is sterling work from a fine actor who completely loses himself in the role; put simply, Ledger is just electric. An odd epitaph it may be, but damn - what a way to go out.
Ledger is so entertaining, he almost overshadows the Dark Knight himself. Bale puts in another solid lead performance, filtering Bruce Wayne through Patrick Bateman and playing Batman like a rabid dog - snarling, gnashing and off the leash. He's in danger of being swallowed by the scale of it all - Wally Pfister's jaw-dropping cinematography is spectacular and one can only assume it's even more incredible in IMAX - but Bale has a weighty screen presence and the Bat man still cuts an enormously imposing figure. It certainly helps that Nolan's direction is less jagged and disorientating this time around, giving Bale room to breathe (literally, with his new suit and all) during the brutal fight scenes.
Indeed, for all of the fine work from his leads, it's Nolan who's the real superstar here. This is grade-A professional stuff from beginning to end. There are action scenes - natural high points, of course - but the rest of the movie's sub-plots and story threads are just as well executed. Just look at the quality of otherwise throwaway scenes like the opening bank heist, the interrogation room showdown, the thrilling car chase through Gotham's network of tunnels. There are no dips in quality and few scarce moments of down-time. The Dark Knight maintains a high energy level from start to finish and never lets up; it sure doesn't feel like it's two and a half hours long.
There aren't enough hours in the day to discuss The Dark Knight's finer points. Aaron Eckhart is wonderful as both Dent and Two-Face; Gary Oldman is the movie's emotional core as the unbreakable Commissioner Gordon; Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are typically fantastic as expected. There's the Batpod; the Hong Kong switcheroo; the Easter Eggs (cats?); the Joker's many tricks and traps; that unforgettable ending. The Dark Knight is filled with so many moments of sheer glee that one watch will not be enough to appreciate it. There are flaws, as there are in any film. The editing is ruthless at times, while the age rating robs the movie of any blood or real violence. And maybe we don't care quite as much about Maggie Gyllenhaal's character as everyone else seems to. But these tiny blips shouldn't register on your radar: if you're unable to enjoy this film then sorry friend, God help you.
It's not just the best Batman film ever. It's not just the best 'superhero' movie ever. It's more than just a money-spinner, a franchise, a comic-book cash-in. The Dark Knight is a stunning piece of work that deserves every word of praise spoken about it - consummate filmmaking in every respect. It's the best film of the year so far and the Batman film fans have been waiting their whole lives for. See it, love it, see it again. The excitement for part III begins here, but Holy Hell it'll have to be good to top this. Ali