The Batman franchises have long struggled to find the correct balance between good and evil. In the original Batman, Tim Burton's love for the visually (and emotionally) bizarre, combined with Jack Nicholson's apparent inability to control himself, produced a film whose focus quickly shifted from Michael Keaton's mildly-tormented title character to Nicholson's wildly over-acted Joker. As the franchise moved from Batman to Batman Returns, from Batman Forever to Batman and Robin, the villains began to play a larger and larger role in the creation and marketing of the films, while the plastic suit-filling hero grew increasingly bland. (Warner Brothers' inability to retain their stars throughout the series almost certainly contributed to this blandness; the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney tag-team sounded good on paper, I'm sure. But it failed miserably on celluloid.)
When English-born director Christopher Nolan was given the daunting task of restarting Warner Brothers' signature franchise, he produced the refreshing Batman Begins – a superhero flick that took its hero seriously, fleshing out Batman's motivations, emotions, and backstory in a compelling and convincing way. Yet in this cinematic version, a very different imbalance arose: Somehow, the villains got lost along the way. In the Burton and Schumacker films, they stole the show, but in Nolan's first attempt, they were either too insignificant in the overall scheme of things (Carmine Falcone), too effeminate to hold their own onscreen with Bale's growling menace (Dr. Jonathan Crane), or too absent for much of the film for the audience to care (the confusing Ra's Al Ghul/Henri Ducard combo). Despite the power and depth Christian Bale brought to the Bat Suit, the balance was still not right.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan has discovered the combination that eluded the franchise for so many years. In an interesting (and inspired) departure from Burton's original film, he gives us absolutely no account of the Joker's back story. There are no horrific factory accidents, radioactive insects, or otherworldly minerals to bring a measure of understanding to his condition, nothing that would cause the audience to feel sympathy. No, this Joker is as profoundly evil, and as terrifying as any villain that has ever graced the screen. His shocking brutality and violently unpredictable behavior captures the irrationality of evil in a way I have not experienced this side of Lewis's That Hideous Strength. At last, we have a villain malevolent enough to stand up to our hero.
This conflict between Batman and the Joker – between Gotham's Dark Knight and the self-proclaimed Bringer of Chaos – serves as the core of the film's story. As Batman Begins comes to a close, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Lieutenant James Gordon in his efforts to clean up the city of Gotham. And as The Dark Knight begins, they receive support in their undertaking from an unexpected quarter: the town's young, idealistic district attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent, whose constituents have dubbed him Gotham's White Knight – an unsubtle jab at Batman's secretive modus operandi – is not only an unwitting competitor for the hearts and minds of Gotham's citizens, but for the affections of Batman's life-long sweetheart as well, the charming (and prudently recast) Assistant DA Rachel Dawes. Wayne struggles to put this awkward little fact behind him during the planning of a coordinated attack on the few crime syndicates remaining in the city.
Feeling their hold on the city gradually slipping away, the mob bosses turn to a peculiar fellow who inexplicably arrives upon the scene: a man known only as The Joker, with "a taste for the theatrical," and a most unusual calling card. Desperate to stop the onslaught of Gotham's "knights," the syndicates promise him half of their entire fortune if he will simply find a way to halt the dreaded Batman, unwittingly opening a Pandora's box.
As one might expect from a work that deals so effectively with the ongoing struggle between Good and Evil, there are symbolic meanings aplenty. The finale, in particular, is packed with symbolism, and the way viewers interpret those final moments will have a profound impact on the way they understand the picture. That ending, as well as a number of other unexpected twists and turns, makes it a bit difficult to discuss the film's story without veering into spoiler-heavy territory. And this is a film that one should definitely see unspoiled.
Heath Ledger's untimely death has been the focal point of much of the public interest in the film, and that is a shame. His performance deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, no matter the circumstances that may surround it. It is truly a tour-de-force, and Ledger dominates every scene except for the ones he shares directly with Batman. In those moments, he and Bale play off one another beautifully, ratcheting the level of intensity up to an almost unbearable pitch. One sequence in particular, which takes place in the interrogation room of a Gotham police station, must be seen to be appreciated. I have no doubt that his Joker will be long remembered as the glue that holds The Dark Knight together. Without him, it would be a fine bit of cinematic craft; with him, it is unforgettable.
The technical aspects of the film are so well done as to be completely transparent. The fight scenes are breathtaking, and as critics of Batman Begins's fights will be glad to hear, Nolan appears to have found the proper blend of disorientation and information. The action sequences are every bit as spectacular as the original, and the supporting performances are universally superb. Unlike Nolan's first Batman effort, which seemed to bog down as it neared the finish line – gradually descending into a confusing, clichéd, action-heavy finale – this one will keep you riveted until the final bitter-sweet moment. The film is just short of two and a half hours, but don't bother to bring a watch. You won't be needing it.
A word of warning: the movie lives up to its title. It is very, very dark – at times viciously so. The tension is as relentless as any film in recent memory. This is not easy viewing, by any means, but the reward is well worth the effort. (The fairly obvious double-meaning of the title would make for a fascinating discussion, as well. At one point, the Joker mocks Batman's stubborn insistence on the basic goodness of humanity, saying: "We battle for the soul of Gotham, and I'm not ready to give it up yet." Not quite the meaning intended by St. John of the Cross, perhaps, but not unconnected, either.)
With The Dark Knight, Nolan has worked a miracle, successfully combining two things nearly always found separately in the world of film: the complex themes and messages present in the finest indie films, and the sheer cinematic power and exuberance displayed in the best of Hollywood's tent-pole offerings. This is not an art house film masquerading as a superhero flick. Nor is it a summer blockbuster hiding behind a facade of pseudo-seriousness. This is a great story, pure and simple – wonderfully written, confidently directed, artfully shot, and masterfully performed. It is truly a delight to watch, and an experience that will leave you wondering what Nolan can possibly do to top it.