Sometimes a movie transcends what it's supposed to be and becomes something more, something greater. The Dark Knight is such a movie. It's a substantial work that surpasses its comic book origins and action movie brethren and asserts itself as a legitimate pop masterpiece. When you add the solemn allure of Heath Ledger's brilliant performance and tragic passing last January, The Dark Knight becomes an entity all its own. It's not just a movie but also a cultural event that has captured our interest and is eager to be embraced. Even better, it's so damn good that it deserves it.
It starts—as great movies often do, regardless of genre—with a story. The script, co-written by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is a concise exhibition of multi-layered storytelling woven seamlessly into a 152-minute saga that never drags or bores.
Crime is once again running amok in Gotham City, but Batman (Christian Bale) and police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) now have the help of popular district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who has promised to crack down on crime.
At first, their priority is a mafia-run money-laundering scheme, but soon they realize a deformed madman who goes by the name the Joker (Ledger) poses a more serious threat. Dressed in a stained purple suit, oily green hair, faded white clown makeup and with scars running from each side of his mouth up into his cheek, the Joker threatens the life of Gotham's elite and insists that Batman reveal his true identity.
Of course, we already know Batman's alter ego is billionaire Bruce Wayne. Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) also knows, as does Wayne's loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine). Assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is also in on the secret, and is in love with Wayne even though she's dating Harvey Dent.
A lot is certainly going on here, and those familiar with the Batman story will appreciate the complex depths Nolan so convincingly accomplishes. For example, when the Joker begins his killing spree, it is a legitimate dilemma for Batman to ponder the need for his own presence, and how this plays out is both smart and captivating.
The action scenes are expertly paced and executed, particularly a gravity-defying excursion in Hong Kong and an incredible sequence on the Bat cycle. Just like its predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), Batman's gadgets and machinery are born of logic and plausibility, and lend themselves perfectly to the action.
Much has been made of Ledger's performance, and rightfully so. His Joker is a frightening sociopath without feeling or remorse, and Ledger emits such a haunting creepiness that he becomes the stuff nightmares are made of. That said, the pre-release buzz about a posthumous supporting actor Oscar nomination is very premature, and let's not forget it's rare that this type of cackling, deliciously vicious role wins an Oscar.
Of course, it would add to the movie's lore if Ledger did win. But Nolan doesn't need awards to validate this astonishing achievement, as the craftsmanship and inevitable following of The Dark Knight will more than speak for itself. This is a great movie.