Lo and behold, there actually are blockbusters that live up to their hype. When the PR juggernaut on The Dark Knight went into overtime after Heath Ledger's untimely death, I was certain it was simply the typical press agent hyperbole and that the film, while probably fine and exciting, was not going to be anything that special. I had enjoyed Batman Begins very much, especially appreciating both the dark and dank atmosphere that director Christopher Nolan gave it (without the jokey aspect that Tim Burton's darkness and dankness entailed in his Batman efforts), as well as Christian Bale's tamped down and kind of scary take on the Caped Crusader. But nothing prepared me for the two and a half hour thrill ride that is The Dark Knight. For those who thought the Spiderman films couldn't be topped, at least action sequence-wise, I have news for you: they have been.
If there's one thing that Nolan proved rather conclusively in Batman Begins, it's that he has a unique directorial vision, and one that is unusually suited to the most shadowy of superheroes. Nolan's Gotham City is like a slightly less surreal version of Dark City, an ink-black environment with boogey-men everywhere. If Batman Begins was slightly hampered by having to deal with backstory elements, as well as not having a really overwhelmingly evil central villain, The Dark Knight finds the franchise moving forward (at warp speed, to mix filmic metaphors) with few if any glances backward, literal or figurative, and with perhaps the most viscerally demented villain portrayal not only in the Batman franchise itself, but in superhero movies in general, Ledger's absolutely incredible Joker.
The film's setup is relatively simple, and starts with a bang. The Joker manages to steal some mob money (in an unbelievably exciting six minute "prelude," one of several sequences filmed for IMAX, with a mind-blowing sharpness and depth of field that will have you reaching for your dramamine in some dizzying overhead shots). That sets The Joker up both in league with and competing with Gotham's criminal "elite," headed by the smarmy Eric Roberts. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's attempts to put Batman behind him may be able to reach fruition if the ambitious goals of Gotham's new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are able to be realized. Dent is going gangbusters, literally, to put Gotham's criminal element behind bars, something that, with a little help from Batman, he manages to do, putting a mob bullseye squarely on him. Back from the first film are the always wonderful Michael Caine as Alfred, Wayne's butler, Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon, Batman's police ally, and Morgan Freeman as Wayne's R&D guru Lucius Fox. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel, Batman's former love interest who has moved on to a relationship with Dent.
This is epic action adventure filmmaking at its finest, and Nolan manages to glyph each character quickly enough that momentum is never lost. The Joker's manic unpredictability is established almost immediately in the opening sequence, something that is only built upon as the film progresses. Ledger is nothing less than a revelation in this role, with an unsettling lip-smacking, twitchy persona that makes him the best Joker, ever. Previous Jokers, whether they be Cesar Romero's buffoon from the 1960s television series, or Jack Nicholson's vaudeville cartoon from Burton's Batman, were simply one dimensional tropes (despite Burton's attempt to give The Joker a backstory), almost Commedia dell'Arte fools. Toss that concept goodbye in a hurry before you come to this Joker. While Nolan never really posits any reason for The Joker's insanity (and in fact a running gag has the character providing a different reason for his scars and his behavior with every new violent interaction he has), there's absolutely no doubt that this Joker is completely off his rocker, though with a very menacing method to his madness. Ledger makes this character fully alive and completely disturbing, and for once the character seems to have been built from the inside out, rather than resulting from makeup (although The Joker's makeup in this film is truly horrifying). The hype about this performance was not, in fact, overstated.
The Dark Knight is obviously drawing parallels between Batman's "mask" and The Joker's, something that's mirrored when a third character goes bad and acquires a sort of half-mask of his own (I'm trying not to include spoilers here, lest that not be obvious). This film is simultaneously Freudian and Jungian (whether intentionally or not), with obvious, though well-handled, references to both Psyche and Shadow. Batman is just as much a "victim" as The Joker in this film, at least in terms of a split-self and the donning of both a figurative and literal mask, though one of the film's central themes of response to crisis is admirably handled in the dichotomous answers that its hero and villain give to life's little turmoils. While these Nolan films are very black, again both figuratively and literally, they also explore those maddening shades of gray that color most everyone's morals, something that again is highlighted when Batman himself starts to go off the deep end as The Joker's exploits kill several innocent bystanders. If there's one very small motivational issue I had with The Dark Knight, it's the very lack of grayness when the aforementioned third character quite suddenly goes to the "dark side," as it were. Yes, this character has been through hell and suffered enormous loss, but there's no real reason given for the character's Joker-like response, rather than a Batman-like one.
The Dark Knight has so many incredibly exciting action sequences that it's impossible to single out one or two as being the most gripping. You know you're in for an unusually involving thrill ride from the opening heist sequence, and Nolan never really lets you catch your breath for very long after that overture. Nolan has an uniquely visceral style, with some near-perfect uses of both the IMAX camera and standard widescreen. This is a film that is really a sort of perpetual motion machine, with thrilling tracking shots as Batman rides his souped-up motorcycle through devastated Gotham streets, or some truly amazing aerial work for Batman's flying (actually, "falling with style," so to speak) moments. Though some may find the changes between aspect ratios a bit disconcerting (IMAX sequences are in 1.78:1, while the bulk of the film is in 2.40:1), if truth be told, it didn't really dawn on me what was happening until several minutes into the film, and that's testament to masterful technique that draws the viewer inescapably into its world.
I mentioned in my review of the recent Nolan-influenced anime feature Batman: Gotham Knight that the Caped Crusader has been one of the most malleable superheroes ever (while his DC counterpart Superman has always been the North Star, so to speak, of comic book good guys), something quite appropriate given his predilection for opaque environments. Nolan and Bale have done wonderful work molding Batman into something perhaps even more vaguely sinister than creator Bob Kane's original concept, but it's a reworking that charges the character and The Dark Knight with a kind of electric jolt that's rare in big budget blockbusters. This is a film with actual character and a surprisingly thoughtful screenplay, even as it delivers one knockout action sequence after another.
Disc Two contains "Batman Tech," an exhaustive television documentary that details the nuts and bolts of all the little gizmos the Caped Crusader gets to use; "Batman Unmasked," a bunch of psychobabble about Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego (as if my mention of Freud and Jung above wasn't bad enough); "Gotham Tonight," fake newscasts about our hero; and traditional Galleries and Trailers. BD Live content includes the ability to upload your own Commentary (Holy Pretentiousness, Batman!), as well as various BD Live Community options.
Disc Three contains a Digital Download version of the film for your portable player.