The Dark Knight (2008)
Preceded by: Batman Begins (2005)
After revitalizing Gotham City (which in essence was well buried by Joel Schumacher in 1997) through easily the deepest and most intricate study ever of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character in Batman Begins three years ago, Christopher Nolan now consolidates his position as the man who transformed the superhero genre with this intense, jam-packed follow-up entitled The Dark Knight. This time Nolan wants to have it both ways, as Batman continues his soul-searching (Bruce Wayne, incidentally, seems more than content with his dubious lifestyle) while having to deal with two of the most notorious villains in Gotham history.
Heath Ledger replaces Jack Nicholson behind the mask of The Joker, and the talented Aussie introduces an altogether different wrapping for a superhero villain. Hand in hand with Nolan's stark, realistic narrative, Ledger makes The Joker an unpolished, nihilistic misanthrope with deep psychological wounds which, quite effectively, are never really opened. Ledger owes far more to a tradition of character acting embodied by the likes of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and his current cast member Gary Oldman in a number of films from the early 1990s (notably Leon and True Romance) than he does to Jack Nicholson's far more playful and joyous Joker from Tim Burton's Batman. Ledger's Joker, like Nicholson's, is also seemingly enjoying himself, but his actions are not the result of desires, they are completely compulsory, driven by an inner hatred for everything living. His mask is indeed a mask also for his soul - his smile merely a mechanical device. Due to the massive proportions and psychological depth of Ledger's performance, he threatens to overshadow Batman and the essence of the superhero realm, but he manages not to become counterproductive at any time throughout the film. The suffering which is apparent in Ledger's Joker echoes out in the void left by the late actor. Along with Terence Stamp's General Zod, Ledger's Joker is the best superhero villain in the history of the genre.
The action in The Dark Knight is cleverly creative and Gotham looks shamelessly good. The wide range of characters make up an array of types which spice up Nolan's world. What is perhaps most impressive with this film is the thematic and narrative width it offers - even if just in tiny portions, The Dark Knight offers discussions and anecdotes about most anything imaginable. It is traditional and innovative, conservative and relevant all at the same time.
As with Batman Begins, Nolan combines imminent realism with austere stylistics. He brings the action genre one step closer to our emotional centers, but he also has trouble limiting himself in the process. The Dark Knight is an all-encompassing film of proportions which are hard to contain and control, and at times Nolan isn't up to the task, despite his impressive vision. After an overwhelming middle part, in the midst of deep psychological character studies of neglect, loss and mental dualism, and right in the middle of harrowing sociological experiments, The Dark Knight at some point has to switch focus back to the title character and his caricatured voice and lines. Nolan has succeeded in making the superhero genre perceptibly realistic - almost to a degree where Batman seems out of place in his own universe.