You might not think it possible for a character that is pushing 80 years-old to have as much energy in his old bones as Batman does in his latest screen epic, The Dark Knight, but that is just not the case. In his follow-up the franchise re-energizing Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan takes the Caped Crusader to places never before explored in film, and seldom touched upon even within the comics. The result is a superhero film unlike most other superhero films--a grim, often unrelenting tale of moral ambiguity about men driven by convictions so intense it compromises their sanity.
With masked vigilante Batman (Christian Bale) striking fear into the hearts of criminal throughout Gotham City, it looks like there may actually be hope for the city that has been plagued by rampant crime and a corrupt police department. But despite his best efforts, Batman has not been able to stop all crime, especially those committed by a psychotic criminal who calls himself the Joker (Heath Ledger). Horribly scarred, and hiding behind poorly applied clown make-up, the Joker brings a wave of senseless terror to the streets of Gotham the likes of which have never been seen before. When he offers the leaders of all the crime syndicates his services in dealing with Batman, Joker sets the stage for a brutal war that will leave much of the city burning and in ruins.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is looking for a reason to retire from his career as Batman, so he can pursue the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But before he can give up fighting crime forever, Bruce Wayne must find a new hero to replace Batman. Wayne sees such a hero in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the crusading district attorney who also happens to be his rival for the love of Rachel. Romantic rivalry notwithstanding, Batman prepares to let Dent lead the charge in cleaning up the streets of Gotham City. Unfortunately, the Joker has other plans, and as he steps up his war to destroy Batman, he adds several others to his death list, including Dent, Rachel and James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman's closest ally on the police force. This leads to an epic showdown that is brutally violent both physically and mentally, that will take an incredible toll on all the key players.
Arguably one of the best comic book movies to date, The Dark Knight is certainly the best Batman movie to date. Just as Batman Begins drew from some of the best eras of Batman--primarily his early days in the late 1930s, his classic 1970s tales by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, and Frank Miller's seminal interpretations (both Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns)--so to does The Dark Knight take from the best interpretations of the Caped Crusader. When Batman ventures off to Hong Kong to retrieve a criminal who could help bring down Gotham's crime families, it recalls the re-invention the character underwent in the 70s with O'Neil and Adams. Likewise, Batman's bordering-on-insanity pursuit of justice owes much to Miller's work. But the film's crowning achievement--the Joker--comes straight from the character's most earlier exploits, when he was little more than a deadly enigma.
It is difficult to separate all of the hype surrounding the death of Heath Ledger, who died shortly after he finished filming, from the hype surrounding what truly is a stunning performance. In much the way Brandon Lee's overshadowed the initial release of The Crow, so too has Ledger's death threatened to overshadow The Dark Knight. But his performance simply refuses to be obscured by the tragedy that surrounds it. Ledger is, for lack of a better term, absolutely brilliant and almost unrecognizable, giving a stunning performance as "an agent of chaos" that sets the tone for the film, and helps put the "dark" in The Dark Knight. And make no mistake; this film is not only dark, it is depressing and disturbing as well. It is also bordering on brilliant.
Ledger's performance is the highpoint of The Dark Knight, but the film is filled with other great work by an incredible cast. Oldman is terrific as soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon, and both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman give solid performances as Alfred and Luscious Fox. Even Tiny Lister gives a great performance in what could have easily been a throwaway role. And of course there is Bale, who manages to give Bruce Wayne the depth that he lacked in the hands of George Clooney and Val Kilmer.
Having resurrected the franchise with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan has taken the series to new heights. Nolan has crafted a taut film noir that has disguised itself as an action thriller. Exploring the fine line that separates good and evil, The Dark Knight revolves around Batman as much as it does the Joker and Harvey Dent--who is destined to become a rather gruesome looking Two-Face--with a surprising amount of attention also paid to Jim Gordon. The result is an ensemble film that traverses rugged moral terrain, making The Dark Knight the comic book movie equivalent to L.A. Confidential.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]