This second installment of Christopher Nolan's dark, vengeful and complicated Batman had some heavy expectations looming over it. First shoe to fill: Batman Begins. The return of Batman in 2005 was welcomed and well-received by both die-hard fans and casual moviegoers, setting a new standard for all superhero flicks—not just Gotham's caped crusader. Second shoe: The second-to-last performance in the short but bright career of Heath Ledger. Since his passing early this year, all eyes have been on The Dark Knight, in which Ledger portrays superfiend Joker—a role last filled impeccably by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. There's been buzz on the Web for months of a posthumous Oscar nod for Ledger—a rare honor since there's only been one such win in Academy history to date (Peter Finch for his leading role in Network, 1977). It’s high praise for Ledger, especially since The Dark Knight was just released last week. Expectations skyrocket.
The Dark Knight opens in the same straightforward fashion as its predecessor—a quick flash of the Bat logo and on with the story. With Batman (Christian Bale) on vigilant watch, crime is finally down in Gotham City. But the addition of a superhero has some side effects Bruce Wayne wasn't expecting: copy-cat vigilantes and motive-less supervillains. And Batman isn't the only one fighting to save the city—newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has been dubbed Gotham's white knight, seeking to put away mob bosses and petty criminals left and right, with the help of Assistant D.A. (and Bruce Wayne flame) Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Taking advantage of Batman's unique talent for catching bad guys, Dent employs his help and charges nearly every mob leader in town with multiple felonies, prompting the Joker to step in with a plan to destroy Batman—unleashing a criminal force unlike anything the caped crusader anticipated.
The Dark Knight succeeds in every way Batman Begins did and triumphs where Nolan’s first Batman flick fell short. With foes to face from the start, we finally get to see Bale work his shadow-loving crime fighter from all angles. Bale keeps Wayne's anger in check, but just barely—a dynamic that plays well against Ledger's psychotically blissful Joker. Ledger's performance has been the most talked about, and for good reason. He's great, but his talent is matched by the entire cast. An Oscar nod for Ledger wouldn't surprise, but his is just one of many performances that make the acting quality of The Dark Knight stellar.
A prime example is the very smart recasting of Wayne's lifelong friend and grounding love interest, Rachel Dawes. Katie Holmes was passable in Batman Begins, but Gyllenhaal is splendid. Her presence gives Dawes a refined, mature quality Holmes lacked, providing the audience reason to believe Wayne would put his life on the line for her. Eckhart also prevails, using his charm and good looks to keep Dent both lovable and loathable, as needed. It's hard to call any one actor the star of The Dark Knight—they all shine.
Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, who co-wrote the movie, pack a lot of story into 152 minutes. At times, The Dark Knight seems so jammed with action, character development and plot turns that the end surely seems near. Then the Nolan brothers add another level of depth, resulting in a satisfying screenplay that’s never slow or heavy-handed. Batman's character comes far in The Dark Knight, paving the way for the next installment of Nolan's vision of the self-made superhero. Mega-fans can debate where it’s headed, with a few teasers hidden in The Dark Knight to aid the discussion. There's at least one reference to the Batsuit holding up against cat claws and a brief cameo by the youth who could one day be Batgirl—but Nolan hasn't given any real-world hints as to Batman's next epic saga. As The Dark Knight has outperformed its predecessor, the next Batman movie has a few more extra-large shoes to fill. Hopefully, Nolan et al will continue the trend and take their time writing, producing and shooting the next chapter—we'd rather wait a few years than see Batman fall from grace, again.
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