Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Is The Dark Knight the best comic book movie ever made? It’s hard to say, so thoroughly does the follow-up to Batman Begins transcend the boundaries of its genre and become something else entirely. It’s far too cerebral to be labelled simply “a comic book movie” or an “action movie;” it’s a morality play in which the villain is less a means of causing chaos and destruction than he is a way of challenging the hero on moral and intellectual grounds.
The story picks up more or less where Begins left off: Gotham is still under siege by the mafia underworld, but is in the process of being cleaned up by people like Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and A.D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Batman (Christian Bale) is there, too, of course but is a divisive figure within the city as some people seem him as a saviour, others as a dangerous vigilante who ought to be stopped. The mob is on the verge of being shut down but then the Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture to throw a wrench into the plan. Gotham is soon plunged into terror and a series of choices are made which cause Bruce Wayne/Batman, as well as Dent and Gordon, to question the moral codes by which they live and conduct their business.
More than anything, the Joker functions as a mirror for Batman. Both are “freaks,” as the Joker happily points out, both scarred by events in their past (the Joker literally, Batman metaphorically), one acting out his trauma by attempting to bring order to the city, the other by attempting to dismantle it completely. The mob is willing to work with the Joker only for as long as they need him, and the authorities are willing to condone Batman’s actions only for as long as they have to – once the city is cleaned up a bit, he’ll go back to the top of the most wanted list. Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin (or, for the morbid amongst us, the two sides of Harvey Two-Face). Dent and Gordon function as mirrors of each other as well, with Dent playing the role of idealist driven off the rails and into performing the very actions he’s meant to stand against, and Gordon playing the role of realist (“I work with what I’ve got,” he says, explaining why cops who have a history of being on the take are still on the force) who is able to maintain his place on the moral high ground through his ability to see the various shades of grey which reside in between black and white.
A lot has already been written about the performance by Ledger, so I’ll simply say that it’s everything you’ve already heard, and focus instead on the film’s other two great performances: those of Eckhart and Oldman. Eckhart is wonderful, perfectly managing Dent’s transformation from hero to villain and becoming the film’s most compelling character. There’s something almost operatic about the arc of this character, who goes from being as good as Batman to as disfigured and twisted as the Joker. As for Oldman, he provides a solid anchor for the film as the character with the least ambiguous moral authority. It's a quiet role but Oldman does more with it than you might expect.
I really only have one criticism of the film, and it’s the same criticism I had of Begins, which is the length. You could easily cut twenty minutes out of this film while still maintaining its power. That begin said, however, the film is powerful; I was more moved by it than I had been expecting. The Dark Knight is definitely more than just your average summer movie fare.