One only has to stack up Batman Begins and now The Dark Knight against the previous slate of Batman films to see where director Christopher Nolan and crew are taking the series. Those first movies were fun in their own right -- well, two of them, at least -- but considering where comic-based films in general are heading now, Nolan has really put the Caped Crusader at the head of this cinematic renaissance. The Dark Knight spends more than two-and-a-half hours showing Batman in feats of derring-do, but there are deeper machinations at work here. The marvel about the whole thing involves how Nolan gets the audience to think while having tons of fun. This is a film that's all about breaking the rules and taking the usual comic book staple of having the good guy fight the bad guy while blurring the lines between the two.
The Dark Knight picks up sometime after the events of Batman Begins. Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has settled into his role as Batman, the self-appointed protector of Gotham City, which has inspired both copycat vigilantes supporting his one-man war on crime and those who want him to let the police do their job. In any case, Batman's effect on Gotham's criminal element can't be denied, and with crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) rising through the city's legal system, a peaceful future may be in sight for the metropolis Wayne calls home. But all of their efforts are in danger of being swiftly undermined by the actions of one figure: the Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic beast of a man who wants not money or power but simply to spread sheer anarchy throughout Gotham. As the Joker's vicious crimes push him further toward completing his goal, Wayne must reach deep within himself to find a way to combat this demented threat without playing right into his hands.
With The Dark Knight, Nolan accomplishes two storytelling goals. He not only shows Wayne struggling with how Gotham's citizens view Batman but also with the character of Harvey Dent. Fans of Batman comics already know that the fate Dent meets involves being transformed into the half-deformed villain Two-Face, but once again, the filmmaker refuses to let simple dogs lie. When the film's cast and crew talk about Harvey Dent as the story's backbone, they mean it. Dent is a champion for justice who tries playing things as much by the book as possible, but his own frustrations start to gnaw at his core, a weakness the Joker seems all too willing to exploit in one of the picture's most crucial scenes. The central theme behind The Dark Knight is the battle between what one person believes is right versus what the majority wishes, thus providing more than enough thought-provoking material to chew on along with your popcorn.
Of course, this Batman outing isn't all talk and no action. In addition to one of the strongest stories of any film in recent memory, The Dark Knight serves up a number of action sequences that really get one's pulse pounding. Nolan keeps this action coming at a relentless pace, yet he never allows all the car chases and pyrotechnics to become exhausting, and he makes sure they fit in with the escalating threat of the story. That being said, prepare to be wowed by Batman's extended pursuit of the Joker and his cronies on the streets of Gotham, as well as a climax in which the Joker leaves the fates of two ferries loaded with explosives in the hands of those on the boats.
As in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight supplies a cast ready and willing to leave all Batman's campy aspects behind in order to give the lead character a gritty, real-world flavor. Bale impresses yet again as the Caped Crusader and his carefree alter ego, continuing to wrestle inner demons while tackling some real-life ones at the same time. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return as Bruce Wayne's faithful butler and glorified gadget man, each man serving as a part of Batman's moral compass in his own way. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Wayne's love interest, and she handles the task marvelously as her character's relationship with Wayne becomes stressed once Harvey Dent enters the picture. Eckhart is excellent here as Dent, perfectly playing a conflicted man of justice whose mind becomes one of the Joker's primary targets. But the performance you'll walk away remembering most is Ledger's turn as the Joker. Gone are the corny one-liners and off-kilter sense of humor embraced by previous Jokers; Ledger's rendition of the character is a monster through and through, a creature of chaos brought to chilling life in much the same way Javier Bardem made Anton Chigurgh so magnetic in No Country for Old Men.
This summer's Iron Man got the ball rolling in terms of exploring comic book stories as character pieces and not simply seeing them as live-action cartoons. But The Dark Knight nails its intentions even more dramatically, achieving that ideal balance of a blockbuster's mentality with an art house picture's knack for tackling heavy themes. I believe The Dark Knight is one of the best movies 2008 has to offer.
MY RATING: **** (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for intense sequences of violence and some menace.)