Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…
Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.
Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.
Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.
* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.
* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.
* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”
* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.
* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.
* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”
* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.
* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.
* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.
* “Why so serious?!”
* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.
* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”
* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.
* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”
* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”
* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.
* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.
* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.
* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.
* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.
* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.
* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.
* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.
* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.
* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.
* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.
* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.
Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.
Ten school buses out of 10.
Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…