Superhero Movie Month: "The Dark Knight" Review

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Heath Ledger makes his last full screen appearance in this 2008 blockbuster sequel to Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan directs as the caped crusader (Christian Bale) teams with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in Gotham's war on organized crime. However Batman and the police have an even bigger problem on their hands when a psychotic villain known only as the Joker (Ledger) starts a murderous rampage.
4.5

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Rating: PG-13
Length: 152 minutes
Release Date: July 18, 2008
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama

Few onscreen works represent the pinnacle of the modern superhero movie more than the "The Dark Knight."  Considered by critics and fans alike one of the great masterpieces of the genre, it remains, even years after its premiere, the standard by which most other comic-book-inspired films are judged. It boasts a near-perfect balance of great writing, compelling performances and top-notch production values.

The vigilante known to the citizens of crime-ridden Gotham City as the Batman drives his war on the criminal underground to a new level, targeting the city's most notorious crime families for destruction. Allied with District Attorney Harvey Dent and police lieutenant Jim Gordon, Batman proves increasingly too much for the city's mobs to handle. But that quickly changes with the arrival of the Joker, a psychotic criminal mastermind who unleashes a wave of murderous chaos on the city. Batman is tested like never before, with not only the city but the lives of his friends and loved ones on the line. He is forced to make difficult choice after difficult choice, facing a sacrifice very few superheroes have ever had to face.

The central brilliance of this film lies in its outstanding performances, the first and foremost of which is Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker. The other actors turn in rock-solid performances, but it is Ledger's brooding, maniacal prince of chaos who steals the show. Bringing a unique interpretation to the character — not something easily accomplished with an iconic villain over seven decades old — Ledger's Joker is no mere diabolical clown or gimmicky criminal. Hiding behind his "war paint" is a genius innovator and strategist whose specialty happens to be destruction and murder. He takes joy not in just his own personal in jokes but also in watching the world burn down around him. The one thing he does have in common with past Jokers is his delight in torturing Batman on both physical and mental levels, often while innocent lives are in the line of fire.

Christian Bale's portrayal of both Bruce Wayne and Batman are strong and to the point. This is a much more fleshed-out version of the character than in "Batman Begins," the first installment of director Nolan's trilogy. Batman at first seems to be succeeding in his efforts to systematically dismantle organized crime and corruption in his beloved Gotham City. However, the appearance of the Joker, along with the insane clown's ability to match the caped crusader move for move while always upping the stakes in atrocities, creates a conflict that threatens to tear the film's hero apart by the end. Seeing Batman struggle with this unexpected new challenge, especially his personal stake in the situation, gives a surprising depth to Bale's performance.

Michael Caine as Alfred and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon reprise their roles from the first movie and are just as effective here. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent takes a surprising turn in the course of the movie, easily making him one of the story's most tragic and intriguing players.

The action sequences in "The Dark Knight" are masterpieces in themselves. The most thrilling is the back-and-forth running battle along the streets of Gotham with the Joker in a semitruck and Batman in his iconic "tumbler" Batcycle. Batman invading a Chinese mob's skyscraper stronghold early in the film and a similar battle late in the film to save two ferries' worth of hostages are also thrilling tour-de-force action pieces.

The cinematography is appropriately lush and moody, as one would expect from a director of Nolan's caliber. The film's soundtrack and music also fit the narrative well, with sweeping and epic instrumentals to complement the battles and discordant, almost chaotic, chords to emphasize the Joker's growing madness.

No film is perfect, even one as renowned as "The Dark Knight."  The film is somewhat overly long, at a running time of over 150 minutes. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawson, Bruce's childhood friend and occasional love interest, seems to be tragically underused as the film's only major female character. Because so much of the film takes place at night, some of the action can be hard to follow, as it's swathed in deep shadows.

Batman is a character who has been reincarnated multiple times over the seven decades since his introduction. Some versions have been more successful than others. It's a testament to this film's quality that the definitive version known to most people today is Nolan's interpretation. "The Dark Knight" is arguably the best version of Batman to ever be put on screen and even one of the very best superhero movies ever filmed.