Just because Batman began again doesn’t mean his life’s been easy. Stealthy though he may be, fighting crime after hours while elaborately attired as an insectivorous winged mammal has a way of attracting attention. People want to know who this guy really is. Suspects include Abe Lincoln and Bigfoot, but actually he’s the orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne. Or the actor Christian Bale if you want to get technical.
And yes, in The Dark Knight, Batman’s purposeful, gadget-abetted, vaguely libertarian vigilantism has shown results, but still he’s got his work cut out. Gotham City keeps going to the dogs—and to the copycats and copybats who want to get in on his act. Now it’s not just the ever-bolder criminal syndicates he has to contend with, but a ragtag amateur army of dork knights, too.
Who’s laughing now? Christian Bale’s Batman faces off against Heath Ledger’s card-carrying maniac in The Dark Knight.
“Why don’t you hire them and take the week off?” his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sagely suggests. Yet the young master doesn’t budge. It’s official: He’s been fully reclaimed by filmmaker Christopher Nolan as the most earnest of comic book superheroes (even the fumingly humorless Hulk has nothing on this guy), and now he’s just asking for some joker to come along and ask, “Why so serious?”
That would be the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, and as agile, as balls-to-the-wall and, for lack of a better term, as batshit crazy as everyone said and hoped he’d be. In the same way Jack Nicholson’s turn in the role for director Tim Burton in 1989 so immediately made clear a once-great actor’s decline into fatness and complacency, Ledger’s haunts with the expected reminder of how rotten it is that the movies have lost him. With help from an unnerving soundtrack, Ledger’s Joker tingles spines with reckless abandon, making a strong argument that losing one’s mind doesn’t at all preclude a career as a criminal genius.
So it’s no wonder that the otherwise highly capable Gotham police Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) decides to call for Bat backup. That’s right: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Gary Oldman. Nolan has achieved a grand trifecta of actorly intensity.
He’s also got Morgan Freeman again as Lucius Fox, supplying the gadgets and gravely monitoring their ethical implications. Nolan even upgraded Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s not entirely persuasive as an assistant district attorney, but certainly is alluring. Her new lover and boss (Aaron Eckhart) is the brave, upstanding prosecutor Harvey Dent, to whom Bruce hopes to hand over the city savior gig. “Gotham needs a hero with a face,” he says. There’s some grim foreshadowing there, but you need to see it
The Dark Knight is a movie that speaks to the exhausted, chaotic fears of our age. In fact, it won’t shut up about them—our age may be over by the time this movie is done speaking. Like some comic books, it really wants to explain its view of the world—what sort of hero its fictional city deserves, and needs, and has. The script, written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan, is polished, occasionally pleased with itself and overlong. But it offers a terrific opening sequence, many thrills, some surprises and a few remarkable transformations of character.
By movie’s end, it’s safe to say Batman’s life has gotten even harder. So has waiting for the next sequel.