Doing exactly what a sequel should do, "The Dark Knight" takes the already superbly crafted world created in 2005's "Batman Begins" and corrects its few flaws while expanding on both its potential and premise. The result is a decidedly darker, richer, more ambitious and more mature follow-up.
Great comic book films of late like "Iron Man" and "Spider-Man 2" may be more polished and crowd-pleasing, yet "Batman Begins" remains the most intriguing and influential effort of the superhero film genre to date. Artfully constructed, unflinchingly committed to its style, crisply shot, gorgeously designed and superbly acted - it's a film that works beautifully for what it is and remains just as strong after multiple viewings.
Yet Katie Holmes' performance, awkwardly filmed action, stilted humor, and a distinct tonal shift can admittedly detract from director Chris Nolan's otherwise excellent creation. The same goes for the grand-sweeping location-heavy gritty human drama of the first half being awkwardly fused with increasingly sound stage-enclosed comic book villainy in the second. The flaws are very minor, most seemingly driven by commercial needs rather than a lack of artistic ability, but they are enough to not so much diffuse but certainly dilute the edge off the enjoyment for a decent sized portion of the audience.
"The Dark Knight" has no such schizophrenic mood swings. Right from the start the film establishes itself as a sprawling epic - a gritty crime saga the likes of which Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese would be proud to call their own - and keeps things consistently at that high level despite numerous dark twists and turns. Densely layered and with fully fleshed-out characters that not only embody intricate concepts but are often placed in legitimate peril, the film makes no apologies for being too brutal and elaborate for not just kids but many adults as well. Even without graphic on-screen blood-letting and a PG-13 rating, the film manages to portray menace and tension with far more power and effectiveness than many an R-rated horror film.
Chris and Jonah Nolan's remarkable screenplay both credibly and cleverly explores the power plays, moral ambiguities and inherent complexities of a city torn apart by fractured authority figures both righteous and criminal. Many will find a surprisingly deep statement about the state of the post-9/11 world in the film's display of a vulnerable and desperate populous tortured by its darkest impulses and facing the challenge of sticking to the moral high ground - even at enormous personal and emotional cost. Such a character and thematic driven narrative means that the general plot does become segmented and thin at times, but the pacing never falters and all the assorted threads are wrapped up in not just plausible but very satisfying ways.
Performances are stellar all round - most notably Heath Ledger's definitive take on The Joker. The late Aussie actor utterly disappears into the role which smartly portrays the character as a sadistic and dangerously unpredictable wild card - a one man terrorist not driven by greed, power or ideology but his own psychotic gratification. With a deliberately conflicting and vague back story, morbid sense of humor, crumbling make-up and constant lip smacking, The Joker easily dominates all the scenes he's in and Ledger so perfectly nails this dark creation that you can quickly forgive the fact that such an impulsive villain has managed to pull off such a highly organized and well orchestrated plan.
Less showy but equally important is Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart's work. Bale is the calm in the storm here - his quiet but gravitating presence not only grounds the film, but his discussions with the likes of Alfred and Lucius Fox are its heart. With Bruce Wayne firmly settled into his job as Batman, 'Knight' explores the fascinating issues related to such a character including misguided hero worship, self-doubt and the tenuous line between protecting people and violating their individual freedoms. Once again Bale has grand fun playing up Wayne's playboy persona, and his physicality in the action scenes proves excellent - he really is the bedrock of the series and Nolan thankfully never lets him get outshone screen time wise by his various antagonists - making sure that these films remain very much about our hero. The only downside is that the grizzly Batman voice, though understandably necessary, remains awkward at times albeit less jarring than previously.
Eckhart as Harvey Dent slickly pulls off that character's trickier aspects such as his ego-driven showboating, effective political machinations, a genuine desire to change things for the better, and the ultimate abandonment of his own beliefs. Whilst the Two-Face make-up/FX job is remarkably done (and could've gone even 'ickier' had the film been rated R), the darker character itself is played too much like a thug and never utilizes the inherent sadness that comes with such a tragic figure. Some will not be entirely convinced of the character's fall from grace as Dent isn't portrayed as a saint in the early stages, but the transition is more believable because this isn't afraid to show Dent's more human frailties in the early stages.
The trio of Oscar winning supporting cast from the last film are back with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and in particular Gary Oldman all delivering restrained and grounded work that adds emotional heft, humor and pathos exactly where needed. Maggie Gyllenhaal tries her best and easily improves on Holmes' work, but the role remains notably underwritten and the love triangle angle is easily the film's weakest aspect (and is thankfully given very little screen time). Smaller roles from Eric Roberts as a cocky mob boss to Tiny Lister Jr. as a disgruntled prisoner are played perfectly - there's no repetitive "we're right on top of the main hub and it's gonna blow" cringe-inducing style lines this time. The only disappointment is Cillian Murphy's all too short cameo returning as the now pitiable Scarecrow in an early scene.
Wally Pfister's stunning cinematography and the use of IMAX cameras means everything - including the action - is composed in smooth and richly textured wide location shots that never confuse the action, fall back on quick cut editing, or make the Gotham City of 'Knight' feel like a sound stage at any time. Even with various threads running simultaneously, Nolan now seems to properly understand the geography of action scenes and so we're rarely confused about what's going on or where we are - even in a complicated sequence such as an ambitious high-speed prisoner hijacking sequence.
The visual effects are done exactly how they should be - action is all seemingly shot for real and to scale as much as possible, with green screen limited to the most minimal levels. CG appears to be restrained to background extensions, wire removals, and the foreground only when necessary and even then operates with proper weight and physicality. Only one scene towards the end involving sonar-textured visual tracking of Gotham and specifically its use in a construction site gets a little too daring - over reaching the otherwise authentic and well-explained nature of the gadgetry.
Technical specs are superb across the board. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard once again deliver a rich and punchy score, building on their remarkably strong themes from the first film with new and often intense variations here which form a crucial part of perpetuating the film's tension in several key scenes. Production design drops the gold and earth tone-drenched gritty "Blade Runner" style industrial urban look of 'Begins' for more high-tech modern stylings with brightly-lit glass skyscrapers drenched in cool blues and natural hues.
The 'Knight' flaw that will be most complained about is the runtime. At around 2.5 hours and with its serious subject matter, it is a long film and unfortunately feels it despite the superb pacing and tight narrative. It's a testament to the richness of the film that there is practically no extraneous elements here, every scene is crucial to the plot and characters making it very difficult to see where it can be trimmed without lessening the film in some way. Short of shaving a couple of seconds off some of the action sequences, the only possible excises could come in the form of the Hong Kong and to a lesser extent the twin barges sequences. Yet both scenes work beautifully and have elements essential enough to the plot that they simply can't be just cut out.
The film sticks to its convictions throughout, coming to a satisfying but daring conclusion that both comfortably rounds off the story but effectively begs for one more film to restore that elusive hope the characters all strive for throughout 'Knight'. The final result is easily the best wide release (if not film) of the year so far, one which not only surpasses the high water benchmark set by its admittedly more introspective and accessible predecessor, but pushes well beyond its genre boundaries.
Those looking for the kid-safe thrills of the Marvel films need to look elsewhere, 'Knight' takes the more serious minded tone of the early scenes of "Batman Begins" and runs with it into dark and complex territory rarely seen these days in cinema let alone in Summer blockbusters. It demands intelligence, maturity and attention, but as a reward delivers a film that will justifably sit high on many Top Ten lists at the end of the year. Certainly as major studio releases go it rarely gets better in quality than this.