By now, after months and months of hype and anticipation, compounded with the shroud of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, people are probably expecting The Dark Knight to be practically the second coming of Jesus. It’s not quite that, of course, but it is a tremendously good piece of cinema. Bold, complex, gritty and unwaveringly intelligent, The Dark Knight may have just changed everything.
About a year after the events of Batman Begins, crime in Gotham has plummeted, thanks to the efforts of Lieutenant Jim Gordon, the Batman, and a fearless district attorney by the name of Harvey Dent. The three of them have the organized crime families on the run, and are on the verge of a breakthrough that could severely cripple the criminals’ operations. But a new player has entered the picture; a psychotic, remorseless killer who calls himself the Joker, whose brilliant schemes thwart the authorities at every turn. He issues a challenge to the Batman: reveal himself, or people die. As the body count grows, the Batman is faced with the reality that he may have met his match, and must make a difficult choice that could mean the end of his crimefighting days.
The story was a surprise. It is sprawling and ambitious, almost Shakespearean in scope. It is far more than what we’ve come to expect from superhero films. It is blindingly intelligent and darkly tragic, unafraid of leaving audiences with a bad taste in their mouths. The Nolans’ script is heady stuff, a meditation on crime and how order is achieved in a society. It is Batman and Joker as two extremes in the spectrum of order: the Joker as anarchy and the Batman as fascism. It is a story of how in a battle of extremes, it’s often the people in the middle who suffer the most. And it paints everything in a gorgeous palette composed mostly of shades of gray, sometimes giving you the terrible realization that the villains might be right, and Batman, for all his good intentions, may be wrong.
It’s good stuff. Maybe there are a few narrative shortcuts taken along the way, but Nolan builds his characters so well that you hardly notice. He establishes the threat of his villains so well that you just come to accept their ability to accomplish any of their goals. Nolan’s filmmaking holds up pretty well, too. Nolan fills his scenes with a sense of unease, making every sequence feel like a ticking time bomb. He wisely focuses on the characters, building his movie patiently as we get to know what defines these people. And when things do explode, Nolan offers up a satisfying rush. His fight sequences do get a little messy, but this movie isn’t about the fights.
It’s about people, and thankfully, the people in this film are great. Christian Bale’s Batman is much the same as in Batman Begins, except a little wearier, perhaps a little more unsure of his place in the city. He still employs the goofy scary voice as Batman, but it doesn’t really break the performance. Heath Ledger’s Joker is mesmerizing, a deadly combination of nervous energy, pure danger and unabated psychosis. It’s a landmark performance, one that the late Mr. Ledger will certainly be remembered for. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent will probably be glossed over by most people, but that would be a mistake, because he’s brilliant. Amazingly, Maggie Gyllenhaal might be better at being Katie Holmes than Katie Holmes herself. Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon is wonderfully subdued. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine bring so much to their small roles, and it’s greatly appreciated.
Since I didn’t just want to buy into the hype of the film, the first I did when the movie finished was list down all the things I didn’t like about it. I came up with a good number of things: it may have been ten minutes too long, maybe too many things were said out loud when they could have been implied, maybe we could have kept Batman attacking from the dark like in the first film, and maybe Edison Chen shouldn’t have been in it (even for just a little bit). Honestly, I could nitpick all day, because I’m trained to find these little flaws, but at the end of the day, that’s all they are: nitpicks. This is a fine film, one that may redefine our idea of what a superhero movie can be. It’s a wonderfully complex film that delivers on the action, but chooses not to stop there. Instead, it gives you more and more, never letting you turn your brain off. This is grand cinema, and it’s a proof positive that great movies are still being made.