The Dark Knight: The Verdict

Nathan O'Hagan 24/07/2008

Rating: 5/5

Having rescued the Batman movie franchise from it's Joel Schumacher inflicted death with the superb “Batman Begins” in 2005, Christopher Nolan returns with the inevitable sequel. Having restored Batman's movie credibility with a back to basics origins story, the challenge for Nolan now is to build on that films success. Having established his own Batman universe (what Nolan calls “a heightened reality”), now he had to raise the bar for superhero movies even further than “Begins” had managed.

Well, he has done just that. In spades. Rather than a traditional superhero flick, The Dark Knight models itself more on an urban crime movie- Nolan has mentioned Michael Mann's “Heat” as an influence. From the gripping opening bank heist, to the brilliant chase sequences, Gotham feels like a living, breathing city, and the audience truly feels a part of it.

With Wayne Manor being rebuilt, Bruce Wayne and the ever-faithful Alfred have moved into a Penthouse Apartment in the centre of the city, complete with a temporary Batcave. It is from here that Wayne continues to wage his war on crime in Gotham. Whereas the first movie was all about Batman's genesis and rise to prominence, this movie's theme is more about the downside of attaining that power, and the criminal fraternity's response to the presence of “The Batman”.

The main downside is the rise in Gotham of a new criminal mastermind, The Joker. In contrast to the warped idealism of Ra's Al Ghul and the fear and psychology obsessed crimes and experiments of Scarecrow in “Begins”, Batman is now faced with a foe motivated purely by chaos and anarchy, and a desire to upset the established order. Just how does one fight an enemy that kills people for the sake of it, who laughs when you administer a beating to him and who, in the words of Alfred, 'just wants to watch the world burn'? Coupled with this battle, Batman has to face growing antipathy from the public, the media, and most of the police force. Batman's only other allies in his war on crime are the noble Jim Gordon, and newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent, who also happens to now be dating Rachael Dawes, Bruce Wayne's love interest from the first movie.

As well as the excitement and anticipation built up by an ingenious viral marketing campaign, an unexpected element of poignancy was added to the release of this film when, in January, Heath Ledger passed away following an accidental overdose in a New York apartment, shortly after completing his role as The Joker. Even before that tragic event, word was sneaking out from cast and crew members about the quality of Ledger's portrayal. And since then, talk of a posthumous Oscar nomination has been incessant. Undoubtedly, Ledger gives an immense performance, disappearing almost completely into the part. Were it not for the fact he died a few months ago, most of the time one would completely forget it was him up on screen, such is his immersion in the role. But is it Oscar worthy? Personally I find the Oscar issue slightly irrelevant. He should have won one a few years ago for Brokeback Mountain, but lost out unjustly (as did the film), and any Oscar now will seem like a sympathy vote. I will say though, that even if he hadn't died, and were this not a superhero movie, he would still surely have been a genuine contender. And if Anthony Hopkins deserved an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, then Ledger deserves a Nobel Prize for the Dark Knight.

Given the circumstances, it's hard not to let Ledger's performance overshadow the film, and it would take an excellent movie to emerge from his shadow, and make no mistake, The Dark Knight is an excellent movie. In fact, the Dark Knight is MAGNIFICENT movie. There is huge emotional weight to the story, as Bruce Wayne reaches breaking point in the face of immense sacrifice and responsibility. The action scenes are bigger and better than the last movie, and are lent an air of grit and authenticity by Nolan's insistence on doing as much as possible with real stunt work, rather than relying on CGI. But, as with “Begins“, this is so much more than just an action flick.

Ledger certainly devours every scene he's in, but all involved give superb performances. Christian Bale gives the kind of intense, complex performance that now seems the norm for him, while the gallows humour between him and Michael Caine's Alfred often rescues the movie from the otherwise pretty unremitting darkness. Also deserving of special praise is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. His is a moving and gripping journey from righteousness to the dark side. While Ledger's Joker flits in and out of the film, causing chaos, death and destruction wherever he goes before disappearing again, Dent's story as the heroic new face of Gotham is the film's emotional backbone, and Eckhart gives a performance worthy of such a great character.

Nolan been coy so far, about whether he would return to helm a third Batman film, but I find it inconceivable that he would decide not to return to conclude a trilogy of films I'm certain he had planned out from the start. After a film this good, though, will it be possible to raise the bar once more? Over to you Mr. Nolan……..