Ever since that playing card flipped over at the end of 'Batman Begins' to reveal a jaunty smiling clown, a road opened up and appeared to have only one destination – bat heaven, courtesy Christopher Nolan. Hype reached unimaginable heights and expectations hovered on such a colossal unreachable level that it seemed no cinematic effort could possibly deliver... and then came 'The Dark Knight'. It was the film that was supposed to release and prove that too much hype could destroy a film. 'The Dark Knight' has now reached the all-time #2 spot at the US box office with only ‘Titanic’ ahead of it. It has ensured that the superhero genre is never going to go away.
Before we get too carried away, let’s look at it in context. On first viewing, 'Batman Begins' honestly didn't impress me as much as it should have. What was wonderful was that batman received a much needed shot of adrenaline after the insult that was 'Batman and Robin'. 'Begins' felt like the batman we grew up with and Nolan's vision of the universe just drew viewers in. That universe has started looking a lot like Chicago this time around and that is not a good thing because Gotham really needs to have its own identity.
So is 'The Dark Knight' the monster vehicle it promised? Like ‘Begins’, it was actually after my second screening that I came to appreciate it more. The Scarecrow was always one of my favourite characters and seeing him in ‘Begins’ was disappointing the first time, but upon further consideration Nolan got a lot about the character right. Having him reduced to a cameo in the sequel is sacrilege but at least it establishes some continuity. On second viewing, what becomes clear is that in spite of my love for The Scarecrow, 'The Dark Knight' does take batman forward in an impressive manner. And yes, it could be comparable to what ‘Empire Strikes Back’ did for ‘A New Hope’.
This time batman has managed to clean up quite a bit of Gotham but criminals seem to be multiplying and chaos seems to be peaking. He teams with Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) to take down the mob. The mob turns to the intellectual psychopath known as The Joker to do their dirty work. But the only thing he is interested in is anarchy and before the tale is through, everyone else will know the true meaning of the word. Is this film the second coming that people are calling it? Not quite but it does up the ante. I love ‘Alien’ directed by Ridley Scott but there is something special about ‘Aliens’ that takes the story a step in a whole new direction. That’s what 'The Dark Knight' does for ‘Begins’. The Joker is a wonderful product of Heath Ledger’s creativity and Nolan’s vision. Christian Bale lets his co-stars shine in this one and they do well. Dent gets his tale of the ‘white knight’, of course culminating in the arrival of Two-Face. Oldman is exemplary as Gordon and Michael Caine, as always, is an able foil for Bale.
In a lot of ways, 'The Dark Knight' is a standalone tale rather than a sequel and it is a pity that two of batman’s greatest nemeses both hit the screen this time. A little more of the development of the true Two-Face would have been interesting. It is tough to find fault with any aspect of The Joker’s characterisation as it clearly shows that Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t the only iconic portrayal possible. A highlight of 'The Dark Knight' is the interrogation room scene where batman takes his anger and frustration out on the joker - brilliantly brought to life by both actors.
The ensemble cast is really what makes 'The Dark Knight' work as a film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually a much more believable Rachel Dawes and Morgan Freeman shows an intriguing side of Lucius Fox.
With Ledger’s untimely passing, it is unclear whether another Nolan film will be made. If it isn’t, 'The Dark Knight' would be a great way to sign off. If not for anything else, Nolan will be remembered for reminding the audience why batman has been a fan favourite for generations. ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have proved that even when the subject matter is familiar, there is always room for a different vision that can create memorable cinema. Superhero films will never be the same again!