"The Dark Knight" is more than a sequel to "Batman Begins." It is an extension, a second chapter to the story, if you will. In the 2005 film, the groundwork is established for the characters, the relationships introduced and the world created. Here, aside from a very quick re-introduction to the players, the 152-minute running time is taken with briskly paced plot and rather little character development, as if writer/director Christopher Nolan is daring the audience to keep up with the action.
Gotham City is under siege. With the police and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) raiding banks for mob money, the underground leaders turn to a diabolical villain known as the Joker (Heath Ledger). He begins targeting Gotham for the express purpose of unmasking Batman (Christian Bale), the city's protector. But are there enough good guys to capture the new terrorist…or have they, too, been corrupted?
What Nolan did with "Batman Begins" is make an explicit promise to the audience. Stick with me for the backstory and a slower comic book film than you expect and you'll be rewarded in the second act with a grand and epic spectacle. And by god, he delivered. Whatever small deficiencies the first film had have been corrected, including more action, a more menacing antagonist and a confidence from everyone concerned about their individual role to play.
In essence, "The Dark Knight" is a continuation of its predecessor, more than "The Empire Strikes Back" or even "The Godfather part II," completing the Arkham Asylum escape storyline early on. And it's done with panache. I half expected flashbacks to the Scarecrow's plot to remind the audience what happened before. Not to be, as Nolan expects us to know the franchise's history. He also doesn't bother with long scenes of exposition designed to catch us up, so to speak. In their place, shortly after the opening action scene, the story drops in on the leads, just giving us enough information to see where they are now. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce Wayne (Bale). Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking the place of Katie Holmes) and Dent and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). It's at this point the editing and pacing of the film becomes evident. It's brisk and lively, never lumbering or belabored. Almost too fast, some may say.
Why too fast? Nolan never lets the story slow to a pace where the audience can catch its breath, regroup and come back again. He assaults our senses in every possible way at every possible moment. Small, character scenes are rapturous (a scene late in the film featuring Wayne and Fox under Wayne Enterprises, for instance), filled to the brim with information integral to the story. Nolan, his brother Jonathan (who also wrote the screenplay) and David S. Goyer (who shares story credit with Christopher) use dialogue and visuals to convey story information in a way most of Hollywood lacks the talent to replicate. Each frame is a small painting into the world of Gotham, even when the camera is simply flying by a building or two. The darkness, the scattered lights…they carry a sense of fear.
This film, rightly or wrongly, has been compared to the 1990's franchise headed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. In particular, how Batman was overshadowed by Catwoman and the Penguin in "Batman Returns." It's an apt analogy, considering Ledger's performance. He is second billed on the posters and in the credits, yet his is a magnetic personality we're simply drawn to. Even at his most wickedly deadly, it's impossible to turn away from the screen for fear we'd miss something. Ledger is ruthlessly maniacal in a way neither Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson could ever hope to be. The cackle is there, the make-up, the purple suit. This Joker, however, turns out to be more grounded in the real world. He's never overplayed and never a mockery. From the lip curl Ledger brings to every scene (the only word for it is unsettling) to the playful terror aspect he brings to the part so very well, he would outshine any hero.
Which isn't to say the rest of the cast sits on the sidelines, watching Ledger. This is, after all, a Batman movie. Whereas "Batman Begins" was about Bruce Wayne and becoming Batman, "Knight" focuses in on the hero himself, specifically the lengths he will go to in order to protect Gotham City. There is a fine line he must toe between becoming the Joker and being good. We catch glimpses of the battle within throughout the film, though it is brought forcefully onto the screen in the climax.
Any self-respecting comic book fan knows who Harvey Dent is and his alter-ego. For the purposes of this review, I won't spoil the character. Suffice to say he is one of the lackluster aspect to the production. His alter-ego is brought onto screen, runs around a bit and then…nothing. An ignominious end to a potentially new character for the inevitable sequel. As Dent, though, Eckhart doesn't disappoint. He is a fresh face (to the series) with a hope for the city not seen on anyone else's face. The character is a charmer in the vein of Wayne, but without the vanity. And Eckhart plays it well.
The one casting change from the first film is Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes. As much as audiences liked to rip on Katie Holmes in the character, for as much as Rachel gets to do here, would it have really mattered who played the part? Don't get me wrong: Gyllenhaal has a grace and elegance Holmes never could possess while being a more credible love interest for Wayne (Bale looks older than his age while Holmes considerably younger). The issues lies with the way the movie is plotted out, as I already mentioned. The relationships are already in place, leaving "The Dark Knight" to begin to pay them off. Gyllenhaal didn't get to do any of the heavy lifting in the first film and here seems a just a bit lost in what to do perhaps because she wasn't present before.
(That's not to leave out the contributions from Oldman, Freeman and Caine, or the smaller parts played by Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts and Anthon Michael Hall, but there are other aspects of the film to talk about.)
When Bale and Ledger share the screen, as in an intense interrogation room scene, the film crackles with excitement and potential. And when they end up debating the merits of humanity at the end, we're watching two people on the fringes of society ruminating on their futures. Oddly, everything the Joker predicts comes to pass at the end, providing this universe not with a hopeful outlook on the future, but one seemingly destined to be bleaker than it was before. (Not to mention leaving the audience clamoring for more.) There's a new direction for the series set up in a handful of minutes, one hinted at through the entire production. In a sadistic way, the Joker is able to kill hope and Batman in one fell swoop despite not winning the day in conventional terms.
Chris Nolan has gone on record saying as many effects as possible were done practically on set instead of with the use of computers. To be frank, it shows. There is a weight and substance CGI simply hasn't caught up with yet when it comes to action sequences. As good as the finale to "The Incredible Hulk" looked, it pales in comparison to any of the chases, fistfights, shoot outs or explosions here. We're always mindful someone could be hurt at any given moment because of the reality of the situation. When a hospital blows up, it is an actual building and not a construct. It has all the details an actual location would have without any of the computer gloss.
A very minor nitpick takes place in an early courtroom scene, eventually coming off as too quick, too easy, too polished and too rushed. It flies in the face of the rest of the movie and I can't help but wonder why. Is it deliberately structured like this for some reason? Did I simply become too used to the way the rest of the film was plotted? I'm not sure, but since the scene lasts less than five minutes, I'll overlook it. (There is also a traitor subplot which never gets any traction in the film. It's an important piece of the story and one glossed over too easily. Certain camera moves through the film do suggest something is happening, yet the story doesn't delve into it.)
Is this film perfect? No. To make a perfect film, the filmmakers would need to be infallible. But this is a damn good-dare I even say great-film. A masterful performance from Ledger, fantastic supporting turns by a big enough A-list cast to populate three movies, fantastic visual splendor and an engrossing story. As legendary as "Batman Begins" and "X2: X-Men United" and "Spider-Man 2" and even "Superman: The Movie" all turned out to be, this production takes the crown as best comic book movie to date. Not to mention possibly one of the five best movies so far this year and the best of the summer. Mr. Nolan, we are ready for the encore. An enthusiastic 9 out of 10, if only because a 10 out of 10 demands perfection.