Before I get started, note the running time. I had this vague idea that The Dark Knight was this great epic mega-stomping three and a half hour gorilla, but in fact it's basically the same length as Batman Begins
. Twelve minutes longer. That's nothing.
Clearly the colossus of superhero films to date, it's basically inventing a new genre. It's the cinema's equivalent of Watchmen
. (Yes, I know that has an upcoming adaptation too. Shush.) We've simply never seen this kind of story being told before with caped crusaders pulled out of the funny books. We've seen some of its story devices before, such as the Hero's Dilemma ("Which One Do I Save?") and so on, but this is the first time a film's actually meant them. This is a universe in which a hard choice isn't just an opportunity for chest-thrusting heroics. If the Joker says he's going to kill a bunch of people, there will be blood. If the Batman has a choice of saving one of two people, the one he doesn't save is gonna BURN. Superheroes are basically fantasy wish-fulfilment and that's completely okay, but here they really, really aren't.
This film presents some vile choices, thanks to the Joker and his unique approach to ethics. However he also makes some excellent points. This film is asking all the tough questions and the Joker can see through all the usual arguments. He thinks we're animals. He thinks our idea of civilised behaviour is so full of contradictions that one man could bring a city into anarchy... and he's right! There's a situation with some bombs towards the end in which everyone's clearly crazy not to be blowing each other up as the Joker wants. Strictly speaking, they're all idiots. If you trust the Joker to deliver on his promises, then the rational choice would indeed be to minimise the impending carnage. However these kinds of issues are exactly what the film's making us examine, showing us that sometimes there's more to doing the right thing than just logic.
There's Harvey Dent and Two-Face. They're both so good that I wanted more. I want them to continue for film after film until the end of time, but then again I want the same of Heath Ledger's Joker and we won't get that either. Dent is the real heart of the story, one good man trapped between the two opposing elemental forces that are Batman and the Joker. Neither are really human any more. I don't know if I'd even dare to call either the greater psychopath. The genius of Dent's story is that it doesn't matter whether or not you know what's going to happen to him. You might even be waiting for it, much as we were waiting for Bruce to don the cowl in Batman Begins
. However by the time it happens you'll have come to be dreading it... and no matter what you may or may not have been thinking, it's still appalling.
Oddly enough, Two-Face remains the same man. He's gone mad, of course, but even at the end he's still driven by the same desire for justice. He just sees things a little differently, that's all.
Then at the end, the film presents its surviving heroes with a decision so black and bleak that it's a surprise even given everything that's gone before. This film bombed in Japan, you know. It did mad crazy gangbusters at the box office everywhere else, but my theory is that the Japanese saw it as a category error. They have their own tradition of masked superheroes, generally involving excruciatingly goofy overacting, deliberately outrageous costumes and as much wacky imagery as possible. To a Westerner, it looks as if it's for five-year-olds. They'd love the 1966 Adam West movie, but this? You must be joking. It's a brutal, challenging film with a savage ending not offering even the slightest glimmer of light. The Joker wins, basically, and the best that can be done is to lie to everyone about it.
The non-villainous cast are pretty much the same as last time, which means they rule. It's amazing how completely Gary Oldman can transform with just a simple moustache. It's not just that he's the best actor to have played Jim Gordon, but he's pretty much the only actor to do so. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine rock.
What's more, we've traded in the two actors about whom I was least enthusiastic last time, with Eric Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal coming in respectively as the Mob Boss and the Girl. They're both good. I'll admit that I liked Roberts mostly for being himself, but I ended up feeling almost sorry for him in this clash of the monsters. He's a normal man, which means he's going to get crushed. The film's obviously drawing lots of parallels between Dent and Wayne, but to a lesser extent one could do the same with Dent and Roberts's Salvatore Maroni. The difference is that they're on opposite sides of the law.
As for Gyllenhaal, she does a good job. Admittedly I said the same about Katie Holmes last time, but Gyllenhaal seems less of a pretty little girl and more suited to this world of giants and madmen.
As for the villains... aaaaaaaaaaaah. I adored Leeson and Murphy, but no less do I adore Ledger and Ekhart. It doesn't even need saying that Heath Ledger is astonishing, does it? I mean, the whole world knows it. His death from that drug overdose merely set the seal on something that was always going to be one of the great unforgettable movie villains. He's the Joker, but he's real. Think about that for a moment. However I'm also full of love for Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, with that clean-cut Robert Redford hero quality that he knows exactly how to undercut. Just as you can see Harvey in Two-Face after he gets his face burned off, so it's also possible to see the seeds of Two-Face in Harvey. Just little moments. Despite all the theatricals going on around him, this is really Eckhart's story and he doesn't drop the ball for a moment. Dent's the one who changes, and how. Batman and the Joker? Not in a million years, despite Wayne's hopes and dreams as embodied ironically by Harvey himself.
In case I haven't made myself clear yet, this is a landmark film. It's done something revolutionary in its genre and has probably already sown the seeds of what will eventually become the next generation of superhero films. Batman Begins
was influential, but this is something else. Change won't come immediately and the old-school silliness will probably always remain the dominant form, but we've been shown something else now. However probably of more immediate interest will be that this is both an outstanding Batman film and an excellent movie in its own right, of which there was serious Best Picture Oscar talk. It's bleak and uncompromising, but not afraid to get flamboyant when its monsters are on the loose. Christian Bale's Batman voice is silly, but you'll never forget Ledger's posthumously Oscar-winning Joker. He's both funny and ghastly, making you laugh even as you cringe. Magnificent supporting cast. Towering ambition. Just don't expect nipples on the Bat-suits.