In the closing scene of Batman Begins, newly-promoted Lt. James Gordon warns his winged ally of the threat of escalation, describing a homicidal armed robber who leaves a playing card — a joker — to mark his crimes.
“I’ll look into it,” Batman promises.
As the vigilante leaps off the roof of the Gotham PD and swoops over his city, the promise of bigger, better adventures hung in the air with him. With The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan hasn’t just made good on that promise — he’s crafted a smart, layered film that expands the comic-book-movie genre’s vocabulary. This is The Godfather in pointy ears and clown makeup.
Knight picks up maybe a week after the events of the first film, and the plot goes full throttle from minute one. Batman (Bale) and Gordon (Oldman) have a new partner in their war on organized crime: Gotham’s new “white knight,” D.A. Harvey Dent (Eckhart). Hope is on the way, but none of them are truly prepared for the arrival of The Joker (Ledger), a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos” whose goal is to cause as much mayhem as possible.
Unlike other comic-book films, Knight succeeds in creating palpable tension. In fact, the movie is almost all tension — The Joker’s campaign of terror is brutal and unpredictable, and the body count is high. Ledger’s performance lives up to the posthumous hype — his Joker is more frightening than funny, but no matter how grotesque he gets you just can’t look away.
The other performances are less showy, but just as good. Eckhart is, hands-down, the best onscreen Harvey Dent ever (sorry, Billy Dee), adding shades of gray to what could have been a bland, do-gooder role. Also welcome: Maggie Gyllenhaal transforms Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes from a preachy bore to a real, grown-up woman with intelligence and passion. It’s still a thankless role — as in Begins, the romantic subplot is never quite believable — but she makes it work. Oldman is superb as always, and Bale is still the definitive cinematic Batman (and he can finally turn his head).
Knight is clearly only the second act of a three-act morality play. Despite all the action, spectacle, and explosions (and there are many), Nolan knows that there is one conflict not so easily settled: an inner one.
The Dark Knight
Dir. Christopher Nolan; writ. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan; feat. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman (PG-13)