Batman Begins (2005) was a damned cool film for many reasons but the best thing about it was the fact that it made Batman cool again. After some woeful Batman films in the 1990s - including a horrific attempt by Jim Carey to single-handedly destroy the franchise with his embarrassing interpretation of The Riddler (Batman Forever) - what was required was a film that gave Batman the respect he deserved. Batman Begins hit the nail on the head in this respect and turned out to be one of the best superhero movies in living memory. Maybe even the best.
The question for the sequel was simple: could it deliver amid the heightened expectation? Now that we knew what to expect, would the impact be quite the same? Perhaps more importantly - given that so many Hollywood sequels fall flat on their faces - could director Christopher Nolan deliver a sequel worthy of the first film? The simple, immediate answer is yes to all three.
The premise for The Dark Knight is simple: the Joker has arrived in Gotham, and is looking to - putting it rather bluntly - fuck some shit up. And fuck some shit up he does - in great style. There's no doubt that Heath Ledger delivers a brilliant performance as the Joker and almost completely steals the show. He allegedly spent a month alone in a hotel room getting into character, and it shows. Every giggle, every gesture, every word: all are delivered perfectly. Subsequently, his interpretation of the Joker is one of the most psychopathic, unnerving and entertaining performances of a villain in film history. That the Joker makes this movie is in little doubt - he's the ultimate criminal, because he cares about nothing - not even money, as we see - and that includes his own health and safety. His only goal is to prove that no one is incorruptible, no one is so pure they can't be soiled and dragged down to his level. It's an interesting slant, and Ledger works it very well indeed - as do the director and writers.
That's not to say the other cast members don't play their own significant roles as well. Christian Bale is as good as ever as Batman, Aaron Eckhart turns in a very strong performance as Harvey Dent (his character progression is handled very well and makes for riveting viewing), Michael Caine is once again perfect as Alfred, while Oldman and Freeman shine as Lt. Gordan and Lucius Fox. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal failed to convince for me; believe it or not, I actually preferred Katie Holmes more as Rachel Dawes. I never really sensed any real emotional connection between Gyllenhaal's character and Batman, but then again perhaps this was deliberate.
The plot itself is well constructed, with quite a few threads and one or two surprises. There are some extremely cool sequences, and once again we get to see the Batmobile in all its glory...as well as a rather cool bike. Despite the impressive effects and set-pieces, it was the human element that really worked for me. For example, the sequence with the two ferries was a brilliant idea, and when that scene finally resolved itself I felt like standing up and applauding there and then. The script is also strong, with some good lines (most delivered by Ledger).
Another strong element is the way Batman is presented. He's not an out-and-out superhero, and the movie reflects this. He does things other superheroes wouldn't do, and subsequently he possesses a dark edge that materialises as the film progresses. I've never really read any of the comics, but I understand that the Batman of this movie (and the first film) is far closer to the actual character than any of the previous films. The film crew should certainly be applauded for this, and also for managing to largely steer clear of CGI.
So, great set-pieces, good script, some excellent acting and a strong plot - sounds like The Dark Knight is a complete triumph, right? Well...not quite. Not for me. I'm not even sure why I think this, apart from being aware of a few minor quibbles (didn't really like Gyllenhaal as Rachel, as I said, and thought that the film lacked the truly climatic ending that the first film had). Maybe I just enjoyed the development and creation of Batman that the first film offered, as opposed to him already being established. I'm not sure really.
Still, The Dark Knight is a very good film and a worthy sequel. Like most others, I look forward to the inevitable next instalment...