Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman
Heath Ledger as The Joker
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes
Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox
Monique Curnen as Det. Ramirez
Ron Dean as Det. Wuertz
Cillian Murphy as Dt. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow
Chin Han as Lau
Nestor Carbonell as the Mayor
Eric Roberts as Salvatore Maroni
Ritchie Coster as The Chechen
Anthony Michael Hall as Mike Engel
Keith Szarabajka as Det. Stephens
Colin McFarlane as Commissioner Loeb
Michael Jai White as Gambol
Melinda Mcgraw as Barbara Gordon
Nathan Gamble as James Gordon Jr.
Joshua Harto as Reese
You know you're watching a really, really good movie when it puts a smile on your face right from the start. In the case of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" it may be a twisted grimace of smile, but if Nolan proves anything in his follow up to "Batman Begins" it's that given the right perspective there's enjoyment to be had in even the bleakest of subject matter.
And "The Dark Knight" is bleak. Magnificently so. Nolan and his brother and co-screenwriter Jonathan pay the Batman mythos the ultimate compliment of taking it completely seriously. It's obvious from the Joker's (Heath Ledger) opening raid on a mob controlled bank that they've given a lot of thought to this world and the problem of making it real. It's fun and occasionally funny, but it never winks at itself or what it's doing. The result is more of a crime drama than an adventure spectacle (though there are plenty of spectacle moments) just one that happens to involve a man dressed up as a bat. But the most impressive thing of all is that it never waivers. Nolan and company have chosen some very dark subject matter for their summer action film and they tackle it head on, allowing their setup to play out to its logical conclusion without hesitation. Taken as a whole it's an amazing accomplishment.
Standing at the head of that accomplishment, it must be said, is Heath Ledger's Joker. A self-described 'agent of chaos,' everything about him is wrong, in the best manner possible, from his face to his strange rambling gait to the single discordant note co-composer Hans Zimmer has come up with for his theme. The Joker's goal in life is to set the world on its head. It's a job he does with gusto, turning Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) comfortable little war on crime into a fight for his own soul. Actually, the Joker does everything with gusto. He is by nature a very showy character and in less sure hands can be (and has) a license to chew up all the scenery, the curtains, the stage floor and anything else in range. And Ledger does do quite a bit of scenery chewing there's no denying, but underneath all that is a very well-considered performance married to a finely written, naturally interesting character. The result is someone you can't take your eyes off of. Despite not having as much screen time as some of the other leading actors, Ledger covers the whole film with his presence.
It's saying something then that the other new character introduced here, Aaron Eckhart's heroic district attorney Harvey Dent, doesn't just disappear into the Joker's shadow. A lot of that is thanks to the Nolans who have made Dent the thematic heart of the film, the mirror that Batman and the Joker are reflected through. He's a Greek tragedy waiting to happen and Eckhart gives one of his best performances to date building up Dent's likeability and heroism, a heroism that's all the more potent because he's not a trained and experienced police officer or superhero. He's more of a regular man, doing the best he can in an increasingly violent world. Most importantly, he's the kind of man Bruce Wayne longs to be, and is beginning to realize he never will be. The Joker may be Nolan's favorite, it certainly feels that way watching the movie, but Harvey Dent's story is the one that's had the most thought and care put into it. It's no accident he gets almost, if not as much, screen time as Bruce Wayne himself.
Which is one of the few – not quite negative, just not entirely positive – things in the film. It's certainly a Batman film, and it's certainly about Batman, but it's not only about Batman. Which is undoubtedly a good thing, Nolan's ensemble story-telling enriches and deepens the world he has created and the story he has set in it, but at the cost of Batman's prominence. Which isn't to say he doesn't get any character work. Nolan and company have been careful to make sure everyone gets more than something to do; it's one of the things that make the movie so good. Bale's as good a Batman as ever, though his strengths are most in play when he takes the mask off and becomes plain old Bruce Wayne again. Part of that is the nature of Batman himself. He's the ultimate straight man, incapable by nature of having a sense of humor, or showing anything of what he's feeling. It's a problem that often translates to Bruce Wayne as well, as it's never entirely clear whether he's actually feeling what's happening to him or if he's just putting on an act, for himself as much as anyone else. Nolan's done the best he can trying to give Bruce Wayne as much to do as Batman, including a few pieces of daylight skullduggery, making sure the audience always knows there's a man inside all that black somewhere. It's most readily apparent when during his scenes with faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) which are always hands down Bale's and Bruce Wayne's best scenes. The two have great chemistry together. But it's also readily apparent how apart Bruce is from all the other characters in the film, including his unrequited love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and that distances him from the audience as well.
As the main hero it seems like Batman should be at the center of the action as much as possible, but instead he shares the limelight with Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as often as not. Still what's not as good for Batman is very, very good for "The Dark Knight." The superb ensemble Nolan crafted for his first ensemble film was one of the keys that elevated it above its brethren, and he makes even better use of it. Caine is as solid and wry as ever as Batman's oldest friend and ally. He's perfectly believable as the one real figure of authority in Bruce Wayne's world, imparting wisdom and sarcasm in equal measure. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes for a fine love interest, playing off the conflict she feels between the two men in her life, and Morgan Freeman is still perfectly cast Lucius Fox, the head of Bruce Wayne's company. And if neither of them gets as much to do as the rest of the cast (Freeman in particular noticeably vanishes for most of the middle) they still get quite a bit. Each gets one scene to really shine in and Gyllenhaal in particular gets more to do than the love interest in action film ever does.
But it's Oldman's Lieutenant-cum-Commissioner Gordon who really shines among the supporting cast. Nolan and Oldman have recast him as a man of action, taking part in Batman's adventures rather than standing by and passing along information. More important though, and its true of all the characters and is probably what makes the movie work more than anything else, they explore how these events affect Gordon, and his family, on a personal level and the price that they sometimes have to pay. It would be easy in less steady hands to resort to bad melodrama, but Nolan never looses sight of what he's after and the result is something that's truly affecting as often as it is spectacular.
And it is spectacular, make no mistake. Nolan and his production team have crafted a beautifully looking film, and come up with some fantastic action sequences to fit into it. Like the first film, the highlight is a long chase sequence in the middle as Dent and Batman enact a daring plan to draw out and capture the Joker. The only downside to it is that, once again, the climax is a bit weak in the face of what's come before. Part of that's because its separated into two pieces – one focusing on Joker and one on Harvey Dent – and it does feel more drawn out than it should. The thematic and action climax of a story really should be of a whole, otherwise there's an inevitable feel of treading water and things being stretched out longer than they should. "The Dark Knight" doesn't ever really feel it's two and a half hour running time, but there is a definite point where it feels like it should be over, but isn't. It is interesting, though, that the only real missteps in the film are the pacing of the action sequences (the other being a subplot about Hong Kong that's necessary to the plot but could have been done a lot more efficiently) rather than the story. It's usually the other way around in these types of films and it shows that Nolan has eye right where it should be.
All in all, though, these are fairly niggling complaints. "The Dark Knight" isn't perfect, but no film really is, or could be. Still, while someone, someday might make a better superhero movie, the bar has been set very, very high. "The Dark Knight" isn't just the best movie of the summer, it's the best movie of the year so far, and everything else is going to have to try very, very hard to top it.