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There is no way to watch The Dark Knight without the specter of Heath Ledger's death haunting you at every turn. This fact both adds poignancy to his performance, but also won't allow you to take full enjoyment from his amazing performance. It also takes away from the other strong performances in The Dark Knight. There is an unusual complexity for a "comic book" movie in both the screenplay and the characters. In addition to Ledger, there are six characters with significant screen time and their own subplots. The Dark Knight picks up the re-imagined story of Batman shortly after the first installment, Batman Begins, left off. Crime is down in Gotham city, but there are calls for Batman (Christian Bale) to reveal himself. There is additional pressure from Batman's sometime girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who has given him the choice of being Batman or having her. She has taken up with the new crusading district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Lieutenant, soon to be Commissioner, Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues his single minded fight against crime with his buddy Batman. Batman continues to be aided by the indomitable Alfred (Michael Caine), and his "Q" (Morgan Freeman). At this moment, a new villain, the Joker (Heath Ledger) appears on the scene and urges his fellow criminals (Eric Roberts et al.) to "kill the Batman." Ok, I don't need to explain who the Joker is. You can view his evolution below.
The Dark Knight like its predecessor, Batman Begins, was directed by Christopher Nolan and co-written with his brother, Jonathan. This is the team that brought you Memento and The Prestige, two of the most interesting and disturbing movies of recent years. With Batman, they are successfully purveying the multiverse concept of superheroes, wherein you can hit the reboot button, restarting the story from the beginning. The characters are the same, but we get to see Batman and his array of supervillains again for the very first time. The first movie featured an obscure supervillain, The Scarecrow along with the familiar array of characters from the previous multiverse including Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and Lucius Fox. The new movie, The Dark Knight, brings back one of the big three (The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler) who were killed off one after the other in the previous series of Batman films. In the comics, of course, the bad guys, once defeated, would run away to fight again another day. It is nice but sadly ironic that the Joker still lives at the end of The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight is a very well put together film that weaves together the stories of seven major characters giving them all at least 2 if not 3 dimensions. And they are all having an existential crisis. The Joker is definitely having a crisis, but we don't know exactly what it is. He gives several different accounts of what happened to his mouth. Harvey Dent (Eckhart) tries to be a good guy, save the city and woo Batman's girlfriend. But he is a real character in the comic-book multiverse, so he has to accept his fate. Batman is trying to deal with the fact that even though he saved the city, he is unloved both by the Gothamites, who want him to reveal his identity, and by his ex (Gyllenhaal) who won't go out with him as long as he is Batman. Even those strong confident guys, Alfred, Fox and Gordon are having their own crises.
The Dark Knight is better than your average comic-book movie because it has a good script and a great cast. Just having Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman as your supporting cast is amazing since any one of them could carry a film himself. They, along with Eckhart and Gyllenhaal, force Christian Bale to do his best acting. And then there is Heath Ledger. He gives an excellent performance here as the Joker by understating the character and except for a few cackles just playing it straight. Gyllenhaal has replaced Katie Holmes who played the love interest in Batman Begins. Maggie is a much better actress and she does her best with the thankless girlfriend role. At least, she is choosing between two very attractive complicated men which is nice for a change. I'm really tired of Judd Apatow's view of romance. Watch for Senator Patrick Leahy being terrorized by the Joker in the party scene. Leahy is a big Batman-ophile. A couple of blasts from the past are provided by Eric Roberts (Star 80), and an unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club).
Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight, is very, very good. I loved Memento, and The Prestige (also with Bale and Caine) was very good and very surprising. The Dark Knight is probably as good as a comic-book movie can be. Although, I probably prefer Batman Begins just because it was so fresh and new. The Dark Knight is a sequel no matter how good. But Nolan manages the pace very well. There were several times during this long, 2 1/2 hour movie that I thought it was winding up only to have it spin off in a different direction. Even though The Dark Knight is long, it doesn't drag. And it isn't all somberness. There are some nice bits that break the tension including a classic "Q" moment when Bale hits the wrong button on his new batsuit and some projectiles zip past his head into the wall. Freeman points out that maybe he should read the manual first. And when Eckhart asks Caine if Gyllenhaal has any psycho ex-boyfriends he should worry about, he smiles and says, "you wouldn't believe." Finally, there is the iconic atmospheric shot of Batman high atop a building overlooking Gotham City at night. Then, he answers his cell phone. Not even Batman can be alone anymore. Please remember to turn off your cell phones when you go to see The Dark Knight.