Forget the great things you’ve heard about The Dark Knight. No matter how lavish the praise or how determined the hyperbole, it’s all understatement. The Dark Knight is I suppose the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it’s so far beyond the limited men in tights genre that attempting to compare it with movies like Spider-Man, Superman, or even Batman Begins is almost laughable. Director Christopher Nolan’s film trumps everything and everyone, including himself. It’s not just the best superhero movie ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever to show up in a theater.
More than a film about a man in a mask trying to stop the bad guy or save the innocent, it’s the story of a city and its people trapped between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Gotham City is at the center of everything while two men, each mad in their own way, fight to control the hearts and minds of its populace. The Joker (Heath Ledger) bursts onto the scene, and correctly pronounces himself the living embodiment of chaos. This is a man who cares for nothing and wants nothing, except to watch the world crumble around him. Nolan wastes no time explaining Joker’s origin, he is a force of nature and as such has always existed. Faced with pure chaos given form, the people of Gotham turn to selfish terror, and the Joker laughs gleefully as we watch them dance to his tune. Opposing him is Batman (Christian Bale), embodying the pursuit of single-minded justice and, hoping for the best in mankind, he seeks to inspire them to something better through living symbols like Gotham’s new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), or top cop Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). In the end it doesn’t matter whether Batman captures Joker or Joker takes out Batman. What matters is which of them wins the battle for Gotham City’s soul.
The genius of Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker is that in a way, you’ll almost find yourself rooting for him to win. Let him burn it down, if only so we can see how he’ll make it happen. Ledger’s Joker is easily the best on screen villain since Star Trek II’s Khan, a performance unlike anything else you’ve seen. He is at once funny and terrifying. He’ll make you laugh at all the wrong moments, and then cringe in unspeakable terror at all the others. His peals of laughter bounce through the film, echoing long after the credits roll and leaving Joker’s mark not just on this movie, but on cinema. He’s an instant icon. The Oscar buzz for what Ledger has done is not premature. He drives the entire movie with his performance, embodying something so out of control and his own way so true, that the whirlwind of his mere presence destroys all comers.
What I’m getting at here is that most of what’s going on in The Dark Knight is mental. It’s not that there isn’t action, there’s plenty of it, but even when Batman is running around punching people in the head or racing through the streets on his incredible, visually stunning gadgets, it’s the psychology of what’s happening pushes the story. Because of that, the problems Nolan had directing some of the action sequences in Batman Begins, are utterly erased here. Batman lurks in the shadows dispatching bad guys with a single punch. There are no extended, complicated fight scenes for him to botch because quite frankly the movie doesn’t need them. There’s plenty of fighting, but it happens in quick encounters staged one after another with a kind of lyrical precision I haven’t seen in anything outside of the action-poetry in last year’s The Bourne Ultimatum. When Batman is forced into an extended showdown, it takes the form of a brutal, economical beating, with punches landed with vicious force and battles being waged by men who have made themselves blunt instruments. What makes the action so arresting is the force of will behind it, the philosophical battle driving it. You’ll be on the edge of your seat for every single moment, whether it’s a simple conversation at Bruce Wayne’s office, or a balls to the wall brawl inside a gangster-infested Hong Kong skyscraper.
Nothing is wasted, there’s not a minute in the film that doesn’t fit into a bigger, broader, deeper picture. That goes for everything, right down to the way Nolan filmed it. When you see it (and you will), settle for nothing less than IMAX. Portions of the film were shot in specifically in IMAX, but not as some gimmick. They play a key role in setting the tone of the story. Most interior scenes are shot using normal film, and when displayed in an IMAX theater, they use only a portion of the total, massive screen, thus conveying an intimate setting. Exterior shots, flyovers of the city and amazing, breathtaking chases are done using IMAX, stretching out to cover the entire, enormous IMAX canvas, conveying a tremendous sense of scope by rote of contrast. Gorgeous, dark, city flyovers are used to hammer home the size of the world Batman and Joker are operating in, and pummel the audience with the scale of this place and hopelessness of Batman’s task in guarding it. None of that will be quite so evident seen anywhere but in IMAX, and you owe it to yourself, perhaps more with this film than with any other in the history of the format, to see it in the best way possible.
The Dark Knight is both entertainment and art, slipped into a dark, gritty package. It marks a completely new direction for that which we’ve come to know as the superhero genre, here’s hoping others have the sense to follow it. Whether or not they do it’s unlikely anyone, including Nolan himself, will ever top what’s been accomplished here. It works on every level and no matter what I’ve said about it in this review, believe me when I tell you that I’m underselling it. Movies rarely get better than this. Check your gut before you go in, The Dark Knight is going to land a punch right in the middle of it. You won’t soon forget it.