The Dark Knight [Blu-ray]

Batman Begins was a fantastic reboot for D.C.’s bad boy, who had managed to endure decades of battle with his rogues gallery but couldn’t overcome a nipple-laden costume. Chris Nolan’s first Batman picture ended with Batman securing his place in Gotham City - still a new entity in the city, with a threat of escalation on the criminal side as a reaction to his presence. The Dark Knight builds on all of that, delivering the escalation Lieutenant Gordon was so worried about, while continuing the excellence of Nolan’s first film with a second chapter that surpasses Batman Begins in every way. I liked Tim Burton’s Batman when it first came to theaters, but one thing always bothered me about his story. I never understood the dire need to explain and rationalize a villain who had plagued the Caped Crusader for years. Suddenly the Joker had a back-story, and to me that damaged the character a little; he was no longer a mysterious criminal force - just a mafia hood. Imagine my disappointment, then, when Christopher Nolan’s Joker begins to explain the background of his scars during one of his first prominent appearances in The Dark Knight.

Nolan’s story succeeds, however, because, despite that attempted rationale, Nolan gets that the Joker doesn’t need explanation (the damage of that explanation is undone later in the film as the Joker offers a different story for his scars). The character is a force of chaos personified. In The Dark Knight he appears with a backstabbing bang, hiding as a pawn in his own scheme, and proceeds to tear up both Gotham City’s law abiding and criminal sides. Every time Batman and the audience think they’ve figured out the Joker’s plot, it changes, ripping the story into a new direction and dynamically changing the landscape of the movie.

But this is a Batman movie, not a Joker movie, no matter how awesome Heath Ledger’s performance may be (and it is an incredible performance), and the Dark Knight has never had a better presentation on film. Nolan continues to explore Batman as both a person and a symbol, and here the two ideas are at odds with each other. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still new to the crime fighting game and hasn’t yet realized the full potential of what Batman can become. Even as the masked element of his character starts to slide toward his destiny as a vigilante working outside of the system, and as a symbol that can endure the corruptions of the legal system, Bruce refuses to acknowledge that fate. Instead he dreams of a day when he can give up the cowl and settle down with his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) - a day he hopes will be coming sooner rather than later, thanks to “Gotham’s White Knight,” new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Unfortunately, the disruptions of the Joker mean Bruce’s plans for a happy future aren’t likely.

Everyone is quick to praise Ledger for his dedicated portrayal of the Joker, and they are right to do so, but the deceased actor isn’t the sole reason The Dark Knight is an excellent movie. Truth be told, he’s just a cog in an incredible machine. Everything from Nolan’s direction to the underappreciated performances of Eckhart and Bale is worthy of praise. Nolan has assembled a piece of cinematic art, from camera choices made to accommodate his IMAX dreams to one of the most compelling film scores a movie could have, strongly complimenting the movie's characters with its musical themes. The end product is equal parts comic book movie and meditation on the dual nature that comes with that, as well as an ideological battle between the romantic notions of becoming a crime fighter against the reality of what that lifestyle can cost.

It’s not fair to lump The Dark Knight into the “comic book movie” category. The movie transcends that genre immeasurably. The Dark Knight is a cinematic masterpiece, assembled on the shoulders of giants of every aspect of filmmaking. The fact that it features one of the comic book universe’s best-known figures and is occasionally interspersed with action and explosions is secondary to the themes and ideas explored throughout a brilliant story.

I predict The Dark Knight will be the next big influential picture on cinemaphiles everywhere. Twenty years from now, when we see the next big wave of filmmakers, many of them will list The Dark Knight as the movie that inspired them to go into storytelling. If they can come even somewhat close to the product that Nolan has presented here, the film industry will have a promising future in their hands - at least a lot better than with those who felt the need to put nipples on a batsuit or explain away the Joker. At first glance I was a little disappointed with the announcement of The Dark Knight on Blu-ray. Many of the things I’ve come to expect as part of home entertainment releases are missing - including the almost typical commentary track. Quantity isn’t everything though, and The Dark Knight brings a high level of quality to the extras it does carry. Add on top of that the excellent film that’s on the disc, and this is a fantastic Blu-ray release that belongs in anyone’s home theater collection.

Like you would probably expect, the high definition presentation of The Dark Knight is absolutely gorgeous visually. I’ve always liked the realistic portrayal of Nolan’s Gotham City, but it really shines here, much more visually brilliant than the gothic landscapes of Batman’s previous cinematic homes. The sound is also fantastic - a presentation worthy to carry the fantastic score created by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (can you tell I love this soundtrack?).

The first disc in the two-disc Blu-ray release contains the movie as well as a multiple part behind the scenes look at the movie titled “Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene.” The hour-long extra can be watched all at once, independently of the movie, or as a branching option as you watch the movie, with an icon appearing on screen when an appropriate part of the documentary ties in with what’s on screen. This is the biggest look at the movie you’ll get on this release, but it is absolutely spectacular, looking at different elements of making the movie, from filming in IMAX for the first time to some of the massive stunt work put into the movie.

In fact, “Gotham Uncovered” probably reveals why Nolan’s movie is so substantial. Shooting for IMAX cameras meant having to provide a higher level of detail for the movie. Meanwhile, a lot of the movie’s stunts and spectacular moments were created practically, with CG used to clean up errant items in shots more than as the typical crutch so many productions lean on. Even stunts that wound up being predominantly CG based were tried at first practically, including Batman’s leap off the building in Japan. With tons of test footage included, “Gotham Uncovered” is an excellent, albeit far too short, look at Nolan’s dedication and approach to filmmaking.

It’s worth noting that “Gotham Uncovered” is available on the 2-disc DVD edition, although it’s on a second disc instead of with the movie, which means the branching method of watching the pieces of the documentary isn’t an option.

On the second Blu-ray disc are the sets two other sizable bonus pieces, “Batman Tech” and “Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight.” Both play like Discovery Channel specials that look at elements of the Dark Knight, but not solely in this movie. Instead they span his entire existence, from his comic book origins up to The Dark Knight (oddly jumping over the television series and the non-Nolan films). They are interesting, but after watching them once I can’t say I’d be compelled to see them again. At least they are offered in high definition in this set though. They are available on the 2-disc DVD release as well.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition are several BD-Live features. You can use the service to have a live screening of the movie with your friends (essentially syncing up your respective Blu-ray players), although I’d rather watch this with my friends all in one place. You can also use your webcam to record a video commentary track to the film that you can share with others. Again, I’m not sure this is a feature I’m likely to use. Let’s be honest, there are probably more reasons against watching commentary tracks created by anyone with a Blu-ray player and a webcam then there are for watching them.

Also included are the six episodes of “Gotham Tonight,” Gotham’s news show that was released in webisodes leading up to The Dark Knight. The shorts are nice for setting up the political atmosphere of Nolan’s movie, although I think I preferred Batman: Gotham Knight as a means of bridging the gap between Batman Begins and its sequel. A gallery of art, posters, trailers, and more can also be found here, as well as a digital version of The Dark Knight. I’ve never been big on those digital versions, but I think this one is going on my iPod immediately.

If you’ve been on the edge about buying a Blu-ray player, The Dark Knight is the movie that should push you into the stores and walking out with Nolan’s movie and a new player for your home. Although the bonus materials are limited in scope and the best stuff isn’t exclusive to the Blu-ray edition, the movie alone is worth making the move to high definition.