The Dark Knight ****
I really did not have many expectations for "The Dark Knight," despite finding the trailer somewhat good. I honestly was not a fan of "Batman Begins," even though there was so much love and affection for it, with critics and Batman fans alike both proclaiming it the Batman movie to end all Batman movies. Rewatching it in preparation for "The Dark Knight" still had me wondering what the big deal was. After seeing this sequel, I have put more faith in Christopher Nolan's "Batman" vision, and he somehow magically fixed all of the problems that I had with his first film. "The Dark Knight" is an excellent super-hero movie, which works beyond the realm of the super-hero genre and into the realm of a great crime film. There are not many large set pieces in this film, and Batman only appears for a small handful of time, but its the drama that elevates this film-much like the drama elevated "Spider-Man 2," only this is bigger and better and almost flawless in execution.
The film starts off right where 'Begins" left, only Batman isn't leaving the type of impact that he expected. People are still somewhat doubting him in Gotham, and he has brought out a bunch of copycat vigilantes-the difference being that they kill the bad guys, breaking Batman's primal rule. Our bad guy here is The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, who approaches mob bosses telling them that he'll kill the Batman if they give him half of their money. The mob men have become scared of the Batman, meeting in daylight to avoid coming into contact with him. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne/Batman begins to see hope in retiring in the form of Harvey Dent, the Distract Attorney of Gotham (played by Aaron Eckhart) who is known as the White Knight of Gotham. Dent has an agenda to destroy the crime spree and save Gotham, but he also happens to be dating Rachel Dawes, Bruce's childhood love (this time around played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes who had to decline this because she wanted to film "Mad Money.")
There are several plot twists here and there, the biggest one really being the fate of Harvey Dent (but those that know even a small bit about the Batman story will know that Dent ends up becoming Two-Face.) As mentioned, all of my problems with "Batman Begins" were remedied here. To begin with, Nolan was able to find a better actress than Katie Holmes to play the love interest. While I'm still not on the edge of my seat with them getting together (as I was with the love story in "Spider-Man") Gyllenhaal is much more competent of an actress than Holmes (although I'm still not her biggest fan either.) The Joker (and even Two-Face) are far more interesting bad guys than The Scarecrow ever will be. And the action sequences here actually were visible. One of my biggest qualms with "Batman Begins" was that I couldn't see anything-Nolan had an edit nearly every second during them, and the picture was so black it was nearly impossible to make anything out. Here Nolan allows the camera to stick around for a bit, and also gives us enough light to really make out what is happening. Darkness is used at really pivotal times, such as to cover up the deformed side of Two-Face, or to really show The Joker at his most fiendish (although he does stick out like a sore thumb with that white make-up.) And the action set pieces (few and somewhat far between) are really a wonder to behold, especially a car chase scene which uses very little CGI.
Nearly all the lead acting is perfection. Bale makes a terrific Bruce Wayne, although sometimes the booming Batman voice seems a bit forced through. Ledger (whose been getting Oscar buzz since his death in January) is gleefully insane, and an extremely memorable villain-giving us a nice balance of dark comedy and insane madness. He doesn't steal the show, as there is good work by everybody involved. Eckhart is tragically powerful during the emotional parts of Dent's story. And the rest of the high profile cast-Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman-all get their moment to shine. When "Batman Begins" was released, Christian Bale really wasn't much of an A-Lister, so they surrounded him with vet actors. This is fine, but their work in "Batman Begins" really did seem like it was just there to give the film a boost. But all of them get their little moment here, especially Oldman, whose Gordon really gets a few applause worthy moments. The film is packed with events and characters, but it never seems overloaded with them, which was the case with the flawed, but entertaining, "Spider-Man 3."
What does end up change "The Dark Knight" from any other super-hero film was its realism. It doesn't go the over the top route as the other Batman films (which isn't a negative, this is just a different approach). It is dark and dramatic-the Joker's origins aren't explained by some kind of toxic accident like we were told in the other Batman film. Instead we are left to always wonder what made The Joker who he is-and his origin story about his scars which he says from time to time is always different. Ledger is actually doing a sick criminal, whose theories about chaos are grimly fascinating. It makes me mad when I read reviews that suddenly compare Ledger's performance to Jack Nicolson's by badmouthing the Nicolson one. They are two completely different approaches to the story-even Nolan's vision of the film is different from the Burton one. There is no need to suddenly act negative towards those early two films, which just looks at the Batman action in a different way-which is through extreme camp instead of it being an intense crime drama. This is not the smooth Point A to Point B type of super-hero tale that we've seen before-there is true and genuine chaos here, and there are moments where I really did not know what would be the fate of these characters, all the way to the very end which takes a very impressive and dark turn.
So its with extreme happiness that I am able to be so happy about "The Dark Knight" because of my reluctance with Nolan's first film. It is epic in the highest sense of the word, so vast in scope, character, and drama. Nolan seemed to know what he did wrong and fixes everything to the utmost amount of perfection. And the ending, which does set us up for a third film and I hope that we are treated to it if he can possible pick up from the brilliant (and downbeat) final five minutes that we are treated to here. I got chills as I watched each of these main character walk out of the film. "The Dark Knight" is the best film made about a super-hero that I've seen, which uses the crime drama genre to elevate the material away from any formula or paint by numbers plot revelations. This is a great step up for Nolan, and its one of the best movies I've seen this year.