“The Dark Knight,” the highly anticipated new “Batman” film that broke opening weekend box office records, is so much more than just a superhero movie. This is a dark, sweeping, epic movie powered by the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of The Joker.
For those out of the loop, “The Dark Knight” is a sequel to “Batman Begins” which rebooted the series and brought it back to square one after the disastrous “Batman and Robin.” Thus we have the reappearance of The Joker, but this is a Joker like you’ve never seen before.
As entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s take on The Joker was in 1989’s “Batman,” Ledger ("Brokeback Mountain”) tops him in every way in quite simply one of the greatest acting achievements in recent years. Ledger, who died from an accidental prescription drug overdose in January, is mesmerizing. He is darkly comic and utterly terrifying. A “magic trick” with a pencil will make you laugh and cringe at the same time. Ledger’s performance will get under your skin and in your head and linger their days and weeks after seeing the film.
Ledger’s Joker is the driving force of the plot. Unlike Nicholson’s Joker, or other comic book villains, for that matter, this Joker has no back story and no motivation. He is simply an anarchist, a self-proclaimed “engine of chaos.” Or as Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and confidant Alfred (Michael Caine) phrases it “some people just want to watch the world burn.”
Through The Joker, director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, shows that the line between good and evil is a thin one. This theme has come up in previous “Batman” film, but never quite as substantially as it does here. Nolan asks complex morality questions as The Joker escalates his deadly games.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, “American Psycho”) is looking for a way out of being Batman. He has cleaned up the streets of Gotham, but the dual life is taking its toll. Wayne thinks he sees hope in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, “Thank You For Smoking”), Gotham’s new district attorney, who appears to have an incorruptible soul and the drive to keep Gotham safe without having to wear a mask and cape.
Those familiar with “Batman” lore already know Dent’s destiny will follow a different path than Gotham’s savior. Eckhart is charming and earnest as Gotham’s knight in shining armor, and, when things take a sinister turn, Eckhart turns with it in a well-acted plot development. This development is somewhat rushed but fits completely within the tone and logic of the film. Even if Dent’s story is resolved too quickly, it is not likely to anger “Batman” aficionados.
Although it is in many ways Ledger’s show, all the acting is tops — and that’s one of the keys to the film’s success. Even small supporting roles are filled by some of the world’s best actors. Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon; Caine as Alfred; Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s man behind those wonderful toys; Maggie Gyllenhaal as Wayne’s former love and Dent’s new one; and even Eric Roberts as a mob boss are all just about perfect. No one plays this for camp. It is played for real.
As with “Batman Begins,” Bale is excellent in the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. If it wasn’t for Ledger’s performance, which is working on a completely different scale of acting quality, Bale would be getting more notice for his work here. Bale brings subtle layers to the performance. You can sense the weight and burden of being Batman weighing on Wayne. The struggle to stay good in the face of evil and to stay Batman in the face of losing his own life is played delicately.
This is easily the darkest, most thoughtful “Batman” film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Caine’s Alfred helps provide a deadpan wit to the proceedings, as does Freeman’s Lucius Fox. And Ledger does provide twisted laughs.
The action sequences are well paced and directed. A huge grin popped across my face when the new Bat-motorcycle emerged from the downed Batmobile. The scene continues on to a thrilling battle of chicken between Batman and The Joker in a tractor trailer. The payoff of this scene is unexpected and one of the most exciting scenes in any movie this summer.
Here’s the bottom line: If you see only one movie this summer this is the one. Don’t let any bias about this being a superhero movie stop you. This is not just a great superhero movie. It is simply a great movie.