The sixth live action feature film involving the caped crusader is the best of the whole series, even trumping the original Tim Burton film by leaps and bounds.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Batman makes Tim Burton's version look like Sesame Street. This movie is slicker, darker and more real than any comic book movie ever done.
Normally, they don't give out Oscars to comic book movies, at least not for any of the major categories like acting, writing, or even the ultimate prize of best picture, but, in this case, the Academy needs to make an extreme exception. Not only is this the best comic book movie ever made, it is by far the most entertaining, the most thrilling, and currently the best movie of the year.
There has already been Oscar talk for Heath Ledger who takes on the infamous role of the Joker. Going into it, I didn't think that anybody could top Jack Nicholson's version of that character back in 1989. Yet, somehow, Ledger does it.
What Nicholson did was child's play compared to Ledger's sick, twisted, and smart performance, which makes Nicholson look like Caesar Romero.
Some might be disturbed by the fact that no clear explanation is given of who the Joker is, or, where he came from. But, honestly, you become so involved with his presence that none of it matters. Even the disgusting war-paint on Ledger's face ceases to become a distraction, as he envelops you.
Ledger is absolutely terrifying. Working on so many levels, Ledger delivers the scariest comic book villain I've seen in my life. You can't take your eyes off him when he's on screen, and you're always a little anxious, a little on edge, or a little bit quivering when Ledger walks into the room.
Batman is the costumed crime fighter and alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne. His origins were detailed in Nolan's Batman Begins (2005), a film I actually didn't enjoy, despite its success.
However, it's strange because all of the things that I thought were wrong in the last movie, Nolan addresses and fixes in this one. Either intentionally or just organically, Nolan improved upon the brand, and removed the flaws that I felt bogged down the previous film.
For example, in the previous film, I felt actor Christian Bale (3:10 to Yuma and American Psycho), who did an amazing job as the iconic character, was too stiff in the bat-suit. There has been controversy over the look of the bat-suit, ever since Tim Burton put Michael Keaton in that black rubber, muscled-out, body armor.
My complaint was that Bale was too stiff and rigid in that thing. His Bruce Wayne, despite being a playboy and industrialist, was also well trained in martial arts. Yet, in that bat-suit, he could barely move or turn his head. He looked like he was dancing the robot instead of being a smooth fighter.
Here, the problem is solved. With a laugh and a slight wink at the camera, Wayne is given a new bat-suit, along with many other new gadgets by scientist and inventor Lucius Fox, played by Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby and Shawshank Redemption).
Freeman is joined by fellow Oscar-winner Michael Caine (The Quiet American and Alfie), who returns as Wayne's trusted butler, Alfred. Both men, veteran actors, add gravitas to an already centered story. Both men are wise, witty, and funny, and most importantly they're given things to do. It's not much, but they're not just there, as the token veteran actors.
Speaking of token actors, or rather actresses. In the previous film, Bruce Wayne's love interest was played by Katie Holmes. Despite the fact that Holmes was coming off her recent marriage to Tom Cruise, and she needed a large vehicle to boost herself, I saw no reason for her to be in that movie. Her character was more or less a waste of time. She didn't even make for a good damsel-in-distress.
Here, the problem is solved. Holmes' character of Rachel Dawes is instead played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary and Sherrybaby). Gyllenhaal is actually given an arc here. Her role has a point, a purpose that makes her more than the token female. Gyllenhaal plays her with snap, with fire, with courage, and eventually heartache.
Gyllenhaal adds, along with Ledger, what aspires to be the best ensemble acting piece of the year. While the movie is centered around Bruce Wayne who as Batman has to find and fight the Joker, the other characters play integral roles.
Gary Oldham (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and "JFK") plays Lt. Jim Gordon, the elder police officer. Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich" and "Thank You for Smoking") plays Harvey Dent, the hotshot new district attorney, who frequently bumps heads with Gordan, as they both try to seek justice against the mob while navigating through city politics. Both actors contribute essential information for telling this story.
In the previous film, actors like Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy who played that movie's villains were disposable, and along with Katie Holmes, seemingly wastes of time and talent. No. Here, the problem is solved. Every actor, every character, every scene is not a waste of either time or talent.
Even the action scenes are well balanced. Wally Pfister, who is an Oscar-nominated cinematographer, returns and delivers a visually interesting feast. Watching Batman & Robin (1997), the last and probably worst Batman movie before Nolan took over, I saw an action scene involving motorcycles that was so boring and visually static, campy, and uninteresting.
In the previous film, I had complained about the Bat-mobile being too big, clunky, and not fitting the look of the comic books. Here, the problem is solved, as Nolan sheds the Bat-mobile for a new Bat-cycle, or Batpod on two wheels. That's a whole lot more fun.
Pfister appropriately photographs the scenes with the Bat-cycle in a way where the camera is low to the ground, at wheel level, and it follows the action almost as if the camera were on a motorcycle itself. Nolan and Pfister incorporated the IMAX format, which is the use of 70mm film, the maximum and best resolution size of any camera, on six action scenes, and it shows.
But, special thanks goes to Nolan and his editor Lee Smith ("Master and Commander" and "The Truman Show"), who, despite being nearly three hours long, don't drag or slow down the pace of this movie for a single second. From the moment the movie starts to the instant the credits roll, you are absorbed. The film flows with the exuberance of last year's "The Bourne Ultimatum" and with the chilling terror of David Fincher's "Seven" (1995).
The writing is stellar. Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan Nolan, and the script is nothing short of superb. Especially, when it comes to the monologues uttered by Ledger, which are inspired and brilliant. The story itself infuses a lot of the stories of the Frank Miller comics and beyond, but weaves them together in a way that feels wholly nuanced.
The message of the movie is probably the best examination of what it means to be a hero, what a true hero sometimes has to do, and what he has to sacrifice for the betterment of the people he protects. The Joker represents anarchy and chaos, and how even in the face of that, even in the face of death, one has to hold onto some kind of faith and hope because in the end that may be all we have. It may be what separates us from the animals and the monsters.
The movie has already gotten the approval of all the major film critics, and I didn't want to be a part of the chorus. I never do, but I have to say, if you see only one movie all year, if you see only one movie for the rest of your life, go see The Dark Knight.
The film doesn't not mis-step for a moment. I can't see a single flaw. It's as close to perfect as one can get at the cinema. With this film, Nolan has set a new paradigm for comic book movies. All future comic book movies must now be measured against this one. It's that amazing.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for intense violence
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 32 mins.