If you are reading this, it is likely safe to surmise that you are anticipating the opportunity to see Christopher Nolan's sophomore effort in the Batman franchise. You have likely been subjected to the raves the film has secured from almost every critical forum that has viewed it. You are likely aware of the maddening level of praise that Heath Ledger has received for his disturbing take on The Joker. And I am certain the question that you are continuing to ponder is whether this film is really as masterful as it is being built up to be.
Having finally seen the film, all I can say is brace yourself, for this film is a masterpiece.
Yes, I am well aware that by stuffing this review with grandiose hyperbole, I will be expected to explain my reasons for making such a statement. Believe me there are plenty of elements in this film that are worthy of applause. First of all, immense kudos must be given to Christopher Nolan; not only did he manage to craft the best superhero film that has been released thus far, but this film also stands as an outstanding crime story. So much of the film seems to have been shot through a lens of pure adrenaline. Nolan also made a decision that no other director of a mainstream superhero film has been capable of making — he chose not to water down this comic-based film to appeal to the largest possible audience, and instead sought to present a dark, disturbing, and brilliant take on this classic character. This is certainly not the film that should be chosen for a peaceful family outing; it is dark, twisted, chilling, and at times terrifying; all qualities that the Batman comic possesses at its best. The fact that there are even children's action figures for this film seems like the type of disturbing joke The Joker himself would have devised.
The acting in this film also deserves a tremendous amount of kudos. I can honestly say this was one of the rare films where I cannot think of a weak performance in the picture. I knew Christian Bale would be terrific as the Dark Knight, since his character in American Psycho shared many of the same characteristics and qualities as Bruce Wayne, and of course he was terrific in Batman Begins. And yet, he pushed the character even further in this film. This is a superhero who is not without faults; in fact there are certain actions that he chooses through the course of the film that could be considered highly unethical. And yet Bale is able to allow the audience to stand behind the character and remain invested in his purpose in the film.
Also returning from the first film as Alfred is Michael Caine, who once again is flawless as Wayne's unrelenting voice of reason, and Morgan Freeman as Wayne's wise business partner Lucius Fox. It is amazing that Nolan was able to convince two of the most respected actors of our generation to agree to more of a supporting role, and this may be one of the secret strengths of the film. And once again Gary Oldman plays opposite his usual villainous roles and once again makes us believe he is the only decent cop left in Gotham, Commissioner Jim Gordon. I was very pleased that Gordon's relationship with Batman received even more screen time in this film than the previous one. It was made even more apparent in this film that in many ways that Gordon's devotion to justice is in many ways the backbone that allows Batman to hold his head high in the face of the horrors of Gotham City.
As for the newest additions to the cast, they are equally fantastic. I've never been too impressed with Katie Holmes as an actress, and though I am usually against replacement casting in films I was very pleased with the casting of the much more talented Maggie Gyllenhall. Her take on Rachel Dawes stayed true to the portrayal from the first film, but she also allowed her to possess a greater level of sass and confidence than in the first film. I read that Holmes was offered the role once again for this film and chose to pass on it, and I am certain she will look upon this decision down the road with immense regret (and if she chose to appear in Mad Money with Queen Latifah and Diane Keaton over this, she likely deserves to be committed). Even more impressive in his role is Aaron Eckhart as honorable District Attorney Harvey Dent. When you see this film, you will discover that Eckhart is really the heart of the film. He instills in the viewer a true passion for justice in an unjust city, and his determination to be the best in law enforcement is truly believable. All who are familiar with the Dent character know what occurs when he falls from grace, and most were anticipating this fall, but Eckhart actually makes you want to believe that he will not fall to the evils of Gotham.
Of course, this review cannot be completed without mentioning the performance that is garnering all of the attention for this film. And make no mistake: Ledger's Joker is one of the greatest screen villains of the last few years, and I would even venture to say it is one of the greatest screen villains of all time. I was truly saddened as I watched the film that Ledger has since passed and we are not going to be blessed with further virtuoso performances from this brilliant actor. I was amazed by his work in Brokeback Mountain, but in all honesty his work in this film makes all of his previous roles pale in comparison. Ledger's Joker is not the silly, Prince-loving cornball that Jack Nicholson crafted in the original Batman film; he is a creepy, disturbing, sadistic terrorist, who grins and smiles like a sadistic hound from Hell. This is not a vaudeville act as a superhero villain; The Joker is a religious terrorist, and chaos and destruction is his religion. Every moment that he arrived on the screen, the filled-to-capacity theater was silent, in awe of a character that is nothing short of electrifying. I am aware that the track record for posthumous Academy Award victories is rather low, but if any deceased actor deserves the recognition, it is Ledger. I know it may seem impossible that any performance can be as legendary as critics are making this role to be, but make no mistake, it is all true.
I could not be more excited about the direction that superhero films have taken with this film. This isn't just a fun, entertaining film; it is a hellish masterpiece, with Ledger's Joker front and center as a cinematic Lucifer. If you have yet to see it, I implore you to occupy your local theater as soon as possible. For once, a summer movie has not only lived up to the hype, but it has exceeded even the most bold expectations.