Heath Ledger as The Joker is just frightening. Back in the days of the Batman television series, romantic movie star Cesar Romero was a riot as The Joker. Although he refused to shave his mustache off so that you could clearly still see it under the clown white on his face, he still seemed to relish the part of The Joker and made it look like he was having barrels of fun even when doing something as simple as dialing the phone. Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's BATMAN took a bit of Cesar Romero and a lot of Jack Nicholson and ran away with the movie. But Heath Ledger? Just frightening. Scary. Creepy as hell. Even when he's doing things that are meant to be funny, such as wearing a nurse's uniform, he can almost make your skin crawl.
All of which is to say that he delivered the goods and more for THE DARK KNIGHT, a darker, more sinister Batman movie than even BATMAN BEGINS was. Genre films about good versus evil - James Bond, Harry Potter, Superman- can only be as good as their main villain. If the villain is a dud, the movie is usually one too, or, at best, must struggle mightily to rise above average. I admit I wasn't all that keen on how The Joker was redesigned when I first started seeing pictures of Ledger, but I was wrong. The new design fits the mood of the film perfectly, and Heath Ledger is excellent in what turned out to be his last complete role (he died in January of 2008 at age 28). It was up to director Chris Nolan, star Christian Bale and the script writers (Nolan and his brother Jonathan) to live up to Ledger's performance. And they do. Despite not even having the word "Batman" in the title (and I applaud that choice), THE DARK KNIGHT is the finest, most exciting Batman film yet. It's not "fun", but we'll always have the Tim Burton films for that.
Even more than BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT takes place in the real world, not the comic book world of the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films, and certainly not the colorful, self-mocking world of the Adam West TV series. Gotham City could be New York or Chicago (where much of it was filmed), and The Joker is, for all intents and purposes, a terrorist looking to create fear and panic by killing, maiming and exploding anything in his sight. What makes this film so different than other Batman films is that we are never told why The Joker is the way he is. In the Burton/Schumacher film, we always get the villain's backstory. Here, there is no origin story for The Joker, there are no fingerprints or DNA samples on file. Even when you may think The Joker is revealing his past, you quickly learn that he's just making up stories. The Joker just is. He's simply a criminally insane individual devoting his life to chaos. Even his makeup is chaotic, slapped on his face without care as if he couldn't be bothered at creating a complete clown persona for himself. So at the heart of what is essentially a cops versus mobsters film, The Joker is literally the wild card, one character who does whatever he wants to whoever he wants for no particular reason at all. "I'm like a dog chasing a car," he tells one character. "I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught one." It makes for a much more surprise-filled film than any previous Batman movie.
The problem with all Batman films, at least those without that annoying appendage known as Robin, is Batman himself. No matter what prime actor you hire to play him - Michael Keaton, Christian Bale - we're talking about a guy in a bat suit who's kind of stiff and doesn't say much. Superman can do all kinds of corny schtick like saving kittens or what-have-you, and he always a bit chatty, even with his villains. James Bond is armed with those one-liners he always has ready after a good kill. Batman's got nothing but himself, so he usually shows up, looks serious, kicks some bad-guy butt and then leaves mysteriously. He's a great visual icon, but he's not all that interesting as a character. As he was in BATMAN BEGINS, Christian Bale is a very good "caped crusader". I'm still not sold on his deep, growly Batman voice, which seems like his way of solving the problem of Batman and Bruce Wayne always having the same voice in other incarnations of Batman. But I am not sure if it works. Like Michael Keaton, though, Bale makes for an excellent Bruce Wayne. Batman is an invented character, Bruce Wayne is the inventor, and he's a real person. He's not always a nice guy, he can be jealous, he can be petty - in short, he is human. As the film points out, he has limits. My personal problem with Bale is that, as good as he was in BATMAN BEGINS and other films such as THE PRESTIGE, I can't forget his chilling, funny performance in AMERICAN PSYCHO where he plays a seemingly utterly normal person (much like Bruce Wayne) who also happens to be a serial killer. So half the time when Bale was talking, I kept expecting him to start babbling about the wonders of Huey Lewis and the News. But that's probably a compliment to how good was in AMERICAN PSYCHO, so it's just something I've got to work through.
You got to hand it to a franchise that can count Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman among their stock company and still have enough star power left over to fill the main parts so that this trio of amazing actors does not steal the film. One of the problems of the Burton and Schumacher films is that the supporting casts - Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Danny DeVito, Jim Carrey - were always more interesting than whoever was playing Batman. This Batman series does not have that problem. For once, Morgan Freeman is not cast as the wise old man who spouts pithy advice in a voice that sounds like warm graham crackers (I've used that line before and I will use it again). He plays Wayne's gadget guy. The wise old man role goes to Caine as Alfred the Butler. Both Freeman and Caine are fine in their limited roles, though it seems that Caine's only duty in the film is to spout advice and do little else. I've come to the conclusion that I could probably watch Gary Oldman in anything. If he was in FREDDY GOT FINGERED 2, I would watch it. I can't put my finger on what it is he has, but whatever it is, he has tons of it. BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN - hell, he's the only reason to waste any portion of your life watching LOST IN SPACE. As good as Pat Hingle was as Commissioner Gordon in the other Batman films, Oldman makes Gordon a character you can care about.
For a comic book movie, the plot of THE DARK KNIGHT is fairly complex, with unexpected twists and turns throughout the film. Maybe too many - at around the two hour mark, I felt the film was wrapping up, but as it turned out, there was still time for several chases, an unexpected death and the introduction of a secondary villain. But, although THE DARK KNIGHT feels long - it is long -, it never gets boring. But another few minutes added to the film and it would probably benefit from an intermission. (Or maybe it was just the 27 trailers and commercials shown before the film that made me feel like I was sitting through.)
The Joel Schumacher "My Bat Suit has Nipples!" films - the half-decent BATMAN FOREVER and the horrible BATMAN AND ROBIN - killed the Batman franchise for several years, but with the combined talents of Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan, Batman is back. If the films can retain the intelligence and intensity of THE DARK KNIGHT, this is a good thing.
But if the bat-nipples come back, I'm outta here. - JBSuper Heroes The Secret Vortex