(director/writer: Christopher Nolan; screenwriter: Jonathan Nolan/based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer/Batman character created by Bob Kane/Batman and other characters from the DC comic books; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Lee Smith; music: James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer; cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent / Two-Face), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt. James Gordon), Eric Roberts (Salvatore Maroni), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow), Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel), Michael Jai White (Gambol), William Fichtner (Bank Manager), Monique Curnen (Det. Ramirez), Ron Dean (Detective Wuertz), Ritchie Coster (The Chechen), Nestor Carbonell (Mayor), Chin Han (Lau), Matthew O’Neill (Chuckles), Joshua Harto (Reese); Runtime: 152; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Christopher Nolan/Charles Roven/Emma Thomas; Warner Bros.; 2008)

“Probably one of the better comic book stories filmed, even if flawed when overreaching its pop-culture limits for something more dark, more arty and out of its realm.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Probably one of the better comic book stories filmed, even if flawed when overreaching its pop-culture limits for something more dark, more arty and out of its realm. Batman was my comic book of choice as a youngster, and I’m happy to see it has finally been translated to film with the skill that can bring to the table its complex psychological yearnings, its mythical doom and gloom scenario and the dramatic depth it had subtly hidden inside Bob Kane’s comic book stories even though it seemed at the time like a light read. The accomplished and lengthy film at some 2 1/2 hours raises astute questions in this age of terrorism of how democratic governments can maintain their decency in fighting madmen who are willing to die and don’t care about who they kill. The villainous madman in this episode has a clown’s face with a menacing smile painted on him, a darting tongue and a sinister faint lisp. He’s given to telling sicko jokes, venomously teasing those he confronts and has no particular reason to do the mayhem he does except he likes to see people die, enjoys chaos and is against all schemers with a plan–that includes cops, robbers, politicians, philosophers and businessmen. This madman doesn’t want to conquer the world, he just wants to play diabolical games with it and make everyone feel spooked (he-he-he).

This follow-up film is a big upgrade from Christopher Nolan’s (“Memento”/”The Prestige”/”Insomnia”) previous Batman Begins (2005), which was a big upgrade from the previous Batman franchise films that were wasting away with their slight camp and kitsch takeoffs on the Caped Crusader. There’s some expansive provocative thinking that went into this story that questions mankind’s collective morality and the methods used in fighting crime. It’s sharply written to be relevant by Christopher and his brother Jonathan, with David S. Goyer also getting a screenwriting credit. Everything seems layered in place here, from the eye-popping well-staged opening bank robbery to the final confrontation between the villain and the compromised hero. There are many dazzling comic book-like action sequences, superb noirish color photography, fittingly using IMAX and great performances from a talented cast.

There’s a memorable crowd pleasing performance by Heath Ledger, who was starting to reach a more mature point in his acting career before he prematurely died in January at age 28 from an accidental overdose of prescription medication. Heath’s scene stealing maniacal characterization of the film’s arch villain, the Joker, gives the original story its destructive cutting edge and darkest moments–his zestful villainy is so unreasonably demented yet is so frightingly real and incomprehensible, that he becomes a fascinating watch who is put into position to walk off with the film’s thunderbolts and easily does so. The Joker’s powerful attacks on society leave Gotham’s prominent leaders (filmed in Chicago) wondering outloud and to themselves if it means civilized society must also play by no rules like the Joker. Through both the mob’s and the government’s conflict with the freakish and uncontrollable Joker, it puts the moral compass we say guides us to behave in a civilized way to its ultimate test.

Christian Bale reunites with Nolan to play the fallible crusading crime fighter Batman, the alter ego of playboy billionare Bruce Wayne, who now doesn’t look inward to fight his demons like he did in the preceding Batman film but must deal with all the outward demons created by society and realizes his costumed fight against crime has made him into a polarizing ‘dark knight’ accused by some non-admirers in the public of being a mere vigilante. Bale, in a raspy voice, gives us another expressive tour de force performance by psychologically nailing his introspective tortured character even from the difficult position of being masked most of the time and even if he doesn’t give the film’s flashiest performance he gives it its best one. A new and pivotal character introduced is the golden knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the idealistic crime fighting DA, with the nickname of Two-Face from his Internal Affairs days, who is committed to ending crime by using the full power of the law and who cannot be bought by fame, power or money. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the Assistant District Attorney, Rachel Dawes, who is the childhood friend of Bruce Wayne and knows of his secret existence. Giving up on Batman as suitable husband material, Rachel’s fallen in love with Dent and publicly dates him. Casting the talented Maggie in the part to replace the uninteresting Katie Holmes is another upgrade. Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the good cop and the decent family man who questionably deploys criminals to help him nab other criminals and will soon find himself rewarded with a promotion to police commissioner by the political savvy mayor who relishes (without questioning) that under his administration crime took a beating. The other main character is Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts), the big mob boss being squeezed by the DA and forced to make a bad bargain with the unreachable Joker.

The main plot gets buried under a number of subplots, some turning way too ludicrous to give much credence to, but it all moves along at a brisk pace because there’s always some kind of action and new moral dilemma popping up. If things take five to cool down, there’s always the wired Joker soon popping back up with some more psychopathic madness to get your attention. In the meantime Batman, Lt. Gordon and district attorney Harvey Dent have teamed up to rid Gotham City of its crime wave, and if the Joker wasn’t around Batman would be ready to put down his cape in retirement, live a more pleasurable life, maybe read a good book, take more interest in his Wayne Industries and might even help his trusted CEO, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), run the show. Also on hand to give Wayne an earful of solid advice is his faithful and worldly wise butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Eventually the film screeches to a sudden halt with its moralistic message clearly spelled out for us that the creepy Joker’s acts of murder and thievery and his homicidal sicko philosophizing and jesting, represents a test for mankind to not give up their sense of decency even when fighting a monster. The Joker, if he serves any purpose other than a nihilistic one, is around as the foil of the good guys so he can expose how vulnerable is the order of society and how even if such an evil-doer and fanatical terrorist as himself is taken out of commission, he still wins anyway if civilized citizens out of fear or misguided reasoning resort to using ways to remove him that go against the ethical conduct of humanity.

This is more powerful brainy stuff than what you usually get in a comic book film, especially one that doesn’t ease up on its trademark scenes of cartoonish violence and action thrills. For that reason and because it was so well-conceived and carried out, I found myself enjoying what it could do and not too concerned about what it couldn’t do (unable to get past taking graphic novels as the be all and end all in mythology without being able to reach a more sublime, penetrating poetical working of its story).

The Dark Knight