The Dark Knight (2008)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 7/18/08
Director: Christopher Nolan
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts

"The Dark Knight" is really good, but not great. The Warner Brothers media hype machine saw to that by overloading the public with too much coverage and setting expectations WAY too high. In fact, I would weigh the same criticisms against it as I did with "Batman Begins" (2005), in that it's too long, the pacing is challenging, and the fight scenes are frustratingly obscured. However, it also succeeds in the same ways that the previous film did, with excellent performances, wonderful art direction, exciting action sequences, and another urgently haunting music score from Hans Zimmer.

Batman (Christian Bale) has done a good job of cleaning up the streets of Gotham City, which brings about the wrath of a psychotic criminal known as The Joker (supremely creepy Heath Ledger). The Joker is the ultimate wild card, throwing Gotham City into chaos simply to satisfy his appetite for anarchy and cruelty. But that's not all that Batman has to deal with. There are copycat vigilantes on the street, his secret identity is discovered by an accountant at Wayne Enterprises, and his former girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has fallen in love with District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Of course we all know what's in store for poor Harvey, and by the end of the film he has become the hideously disfigured Two-Face, and yet one more thorn in Batman's side.

Again, the film continues to disregard established canon, while at the same time echoing elements from Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke" and Frank Miller's "Year One." Not surprisingly, duality is the recurrent theme in the film. Bruce Wayne and Batman represent light and dark, while Batman and The Joker are opposite sides of an equally insane coin. Rachel is torn between her dark knight (Batman) and her white knight (Dent), while Harvey's disfiguration literally splits him into two entities. Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has to deal with upholding the law while unofficially supporting a vigilante, and ultimately his friendship with Batman forces him to also become his enemy. There's definitely a lot of psychological complexity going on in this film, and director Christopher Nolan relishes in it. Perhaps too much, as he takes his own sweet time getting anywhere in the film, and the plodding pace and long running time tend to suck all of the energy out of it. But at the same time, the action sequences are chaotically frantic, and you wish that they would last a bit longer. Curiously, the action scenes are downplayed so much that they feel like an afterthought; merely incidental fluff to string the narrative together, which is the exact opposite of most action films.

And speaking of the narrative, the film ultimately feels disjointed and unfinished. I'm sure that this is due in part to the unfortunate death of Heath Ledger prior to the completion of the film. He makes a viciously creepy Joker, and his flair for madness, violence, and cruelty is consistently shocking. It's easy to see how this role consumed him, making his death seem more tragic. The other performances are very good, and it's Gary Oldman who ended up impressing me the most. His portrayal of Jim Gordon is unquestionable. Warner Brothers made good with their threat to not bring Katie Holmes back as Rachel (laughably considered box office poison at the time), and while I'm no fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal, she does a fine job. Batman's world is a mess by the end of the film, so it will be interesting to see where the franchise goes next. Christian Bale has expressed no interest in reprising the role, but as long as there's money to be made, the producers are going to keep pushing things forward.