This film is ridiculously good. You need to know this before you read any further. You also need to know that this review is going to contain spoilers. Director Christopher Nolan takes the basics he assembled in 2005’s Batman Begins and screws with them until they bleed. He takes Frank Miller’s and Jeph Loeb’s examination of the Wayne/Harvey Dent/Jim Gordon trinity and uses it to frame the narrative for the entire film. Gordon is the fulcrum between Gotham’s Dark (Wayne) and White (Dent) Knights, both horribly psychologically scarred, but both prepared to do anything to rescue the city from the mob. Each as single-minded as the other, District Attorney Dent and Wayne see their and the city’s salvation in the other, yet where Wayne spent years honing his body and mind through his psychological damage, Dent has had no such training. And when Wayne becomes so desperate to hang up the cape & cowl his lasting character flaws become apparent, putting all his faith in Dent and ex-girlfriend (and Dent’s new fiancee) Rachel Dawes. Dawes however has long given up on him, but hasn’t the courage to admit it, whilst Gordon sits in the wings, efficiently smashing the mob whilst keeping his allies on side. Dent in turn makes smashing Eric Roberts’ mob his life’s work, whilst keeping secrets of his own. As long as there’s no challenge to this simmering tension, all is fine. Enter Heath Ledger’s Joker.
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself turn into the villain.”
Prophetic words, which of course foreshadow Harvey Dent’s fate, in a genuinely epic tragedy. Dent’s fate is sealed before the film even opens – all the Joker does is attack faultlines which are already there – from Bruce Wayne’s self-deception about Dawes, to Dent’s increasingly, near-psychotic single-mindedness. But the Joker is so primally without a moral compass, whilst equally driven to do what he does, that he causes the Wayne, Dent and Gordon alliance to unravel without them even seeing it, being far more true to himself than any of them other than Gordon can afford to be. Wayne is all reason and rationality, Gordon is almost superhumanly human, but the Joker is all rebellion, irrationality and the absence of reason. He should be impossible to act, yet his war-painted persona is an acting masterclass. Where Jack Nicholson imprinted his own persona onto Tim Burton’s 1989 Joker, Ledger abandons his own altogether, for a character with no moral compass, no rules, nor feelings. He occasionally hints at a dark past which created him, but he’s all about ambiguity and terror for its own sake. Ironically it’s only Caine’s rock-like Alfred who understands this, and what’s needed to combat it.
Christopher Nolan rivals his own Memento with a rock-solid character piece balancing issues of democracy and anarchy and takes risks with the answers he comes up with. His casting of Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon at last becomes the most crucial aspect of this series, Oldman effortlessly demonstrating Gordon’s simple humanity serving him far better than Gotham’s Knights’ single-minded pursuit of justice and vengeance. Bale too crafts a fascinating Bruce Wayne, trapped in the unwilling role of hero and unable to see his own nobility when Gordon, Dent and Alfred can; his tragedy ends up the strongest of all. Ledger though imbues the film with a sense of real danger. His Joker, coming across almost improvised and unscripted, really could do anything at any moment – his threats aren’t just words, you can see the absence of any humanity in his eyes. If he doesn’t get nominated for a posthumous Oscar there really isn’t any justice in this world. He makes you laugh with painfully dark humour, whilst his violence isn’t just serious – it’s demonstrably excessive.
After all of this however it’s actually Eckhart’s film – a man deserving to join the A-list for many years. His depiction of the decline and fall of Harvey Dent is truly towering – at least the equal of Ledger for its nuanced conviction. The arrival of Two Face was never in any doubt, and what it takes to create him are the moral gaps around him – from Wayne’s willingness for him to unmask as the Batman in his stead, to the Joker’s demonstration that his interests really are best served by chaos and not democracy. The multiple layers upon which he and the rest of the cast operate are quite extraordinary for a superhero movie, and Nolan really should be lauded for raising the film way above its own medium – the Batman and his rogues gallery have never even in the books been this compelling.
It isn’t a flawless film – recasting Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel may be an improvement, but the character remains as perfunctory as she was in Batman Begins. Her demise may be the last straw which guarantees Two Face’s creation, but her character really serves very little other purpose than that. I’ve also heard Bale’s Batman voice was indeed electronically altered to be as low as it sounds, and I would agree that it’s often excessive; at the start of the film it is an awkward distraction, although one which improves as the film goes on. But these are trivial concerns. From the electric storyline where Dent and Gordon get Wayne to extract the mob’s accountant from Hong Kong, to the claustraphobic confrontation with the arrested Joker, to the achingly painful finale between the three crime fighters, this is a mesmerising film, and one which will be very hard to top. It manages to walk the line which Superman Returns ignored, between adult and interesting and extremely cool – the Batmobile and Batpod chases are incredibly exciting, and not the straightforward marketing exercises, which their counterparts in such movies tend to be. Finally, not mentioning Morgan Freeman’s turn as Lucius Fox would be criminal, imbuing the character and his corner of the film as he does with deep moral character and authority. Right to the end Wayne has no idea of the love those around him have (& retain) for him, making his fate in what is clearly part 2 of a trilogy the most tragic of all. Will the Dark Knight Return?