Itâ€™s funny what happens to entertainment ideas if they stay popular for decades. Batman began with no dark depths beyond an original, simple conceit, but given 70 years to foment in the cultural consciousness and itâ€™s evolved from a funny pages icon to a serious dissertation on the nature of society and the psychology of the criminal mind.
Such is the treatment Christopher Nolan brings to his first Batman sequel, ”The Dark Knight”. By treating his characters and the subject seriously it becomes his ”Empire Strikes Back” â€“ a movie that in every way builds on and surpasses its formidable predecessor, revealing a filmmaker in full maturity.
It also gives the Batman mythology a thrilling new edge. Nolanâ€™s dropped this one-time hand-drawn cartoon into an all-too real world, a Gotham city nothing like even the matte paintings of Tim Burtonâ€™s 1989 blockbuster. Filmed amid the gleaming office towers of Chicago in grimy docks, pristine boardrooms and SWAT police emblazoned with GPD (Gotham Police Department) jackets, weâ€™ve never seen Batman in a world so like our own, and doing so makes it feel all the more threatening and lifelike.
Itâ€™s threatening because in such a realistic setting, maniacs like The Joker (Heath Ledger) become terrifyingly possible rather than just comic book thrill rides for the hero to outshine. As youâ€™ve heard, itâ€™ll be the role Ledger will be remembered for after his January 2008 death, a cackling ghoul frightened of nothing and with as much menace as he has glee. What you havenâ€™t heard is how the Joker isnâ€™t all Ledger â€“ cinematographer Wally Pfisterâ€™s lighting, Nolanâ€™s framing and James Newton Howardâ€™s horror-movie score all contributing.
In fact, itâ€™s these elements that give ”The Dark Knight” most of its kick. Weâ€™re treated to several screaming crescendos as something horrible builds, and the shadow and light of Gotham is bought to breathing, sweating life.
Plot-wise itâ€™s an extension to the final, tricksy coda of the last film, one that at the time didnâ€™t look like it was going to be taken this seriously. Almost a comment on the pre-emptive strike, Batman seems to give rise to evil like The Joker (a fact alluded to by the man himself, in his chilling hiss of â€˜you complete meâ€™) after heâ€™s done his part in cleaning gangsters off the streets.
The rest is up to Gothamâ€™s new hero, DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a smug idealist whoâ€™s also romancing Bruce Wayneâ€™s old flame Rachel, this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Dent puts half the Gotham mob away, but like Batman is a different class of crime fighter, The Joker is a different class of crime, and whether Gothamites still realise it or not, they need him as The Jokerâ€™s rise to power picks up speed and leaves a trail of bodies in its wake.
Itâ€™s not perfect â€“ the harsh, guttural growl Christian Bale adopts when heâ€™s in the suit is outright silly, and at times the soundtrack threatens to overwhelm the dialogue. As the gatekeeper for every aspect of the story, Nolan also takes some ideas too seriously, and the final scenes are infused with more glory and gravity than the idea warrants.
But heâ€™s proven himself that rarest of movie directors, one who can take any idea and not only make it very cool but not give in to the studio marketing committee.