With "Batman Begins," director Christopher Nolan remade the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, figuratively and literally. Now, with the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers with "The Dark Knight," a pulp epic with mythic overtones for the darkest of comic book heroes.
The Batman ( Christian Bale ) has cast an aura of fear across the Mob of Gotham City, a modern metropolis that evokes the gangster thrillers like the Godfather, with a rotten foundation under its magnificent cityscape. He doesn't trust many people in the corruption-riddled halls of justice, but he takes a chance on the man called Gotham's White Knight: crusading new District Attorney Harvey Dent ( Aaron Eckhart ).
Right into the battle comes the Joker ( Heath Ledger ). With stringy hair, greasy makeup over the smile carved into his cheeks and a garish, street-battered suit, Ledger portrays a volatile psychotic nothing like the Joker of Jack Nicholson's showboating exhibitionist in Tim Burton's "Batman." His dialogue is filled of expressions of a scytzophrenic patient full of Vicodine, his tongue darting in and out like a lizard, his posture so at ease in the chaos of his capers it's disturbing.
Nolan delivers the expected plot of a big-screen superhero spectacle, from a sharp bank heist executed (in every sense of the word) with impersonal efficiency by a masked gang, to a high-speed ambush in an underground tunnel, to a nearly incomprehensible rescue operation where the good guys are working at cross-purposes. But "The Dark Knight" is also a tighter, smarter, more focused film than "Batman Begins," and Nolan has become a more effective director since his Memento days.
A number of action scenes were photographed with large-format IMAX cameras so the film could be release in select IMAX theaters. The shift is subtle but effective, filling the enormous IMAX screens with floor-to-ceiling images that take advantage of the size, clarity and visual effect of the format.
Either way, the film's details and grace notes fill the outsize tale with defining moments that ground the characters and elevate the conflicts. There's the cocky attitude of Bruce Wayne at a fundraiser, followed by Wayne's discreetly dumping a glass of champagne like a prop no longer necessary. Or the Joker's lumpy stumble, like a distracted kid trying to get a broken toy to work, while explosions erupt around him. And just when the film seems to wrap itself up, Nolan upends expectations and escalates the stakes and the sacrifices, making the film a little to long but still interesting.
Superhero films have been getting increasingly sophisticated and decidedly darker as they become (for better or worse) a full-fledged genre. With "The Dark Knight," the cinematic superhero spectacle comes closest to becoming modern myth, a pulp tragedy with costumed players and elevated stakes and terrible sacrifices. It's the new gold standard for superhero genre.