How many people remember when Batman was a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek TV show about a somewhat pompous “Caped Crusader” who battled absurd over-the-top villains? That era seems pretty distant now.
The Dark Knight is the latest and darkest in a series of movies in which Batman is a grim, somewhat alienated hero, struggling furiously against a dark world dominated by corruption, inhumanity and madness.
(I don’t mean to suggest that the lighthearted Batman was the “real” Batman who has been lost. The Batman story always had dark elements. Batman, after all, is the guardian of Gotham City, and “Gotham” was the name of the English town that was famous in the late Middle Ages for being inhabited solely by lunatics.)
In any case this movie manages to be grimmer than any of its predecessors, and is definitely not for kids.
The main reason that I am giving it such a high rating is the performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. I have seen a number of portrayals of The Joker (who is, after all, Batman’s most popular opponent) but this is the first one that really scared me. Ledger manages to get beyond the usual shtick of laughing maniacally while committing crimes. He creates a character of enormous intelligence and boundless capricious cruelty, a nightmarish being who revels in the destruction of people’s souls.
If Heath Ledger gets an Oscar for this, it won’t be a sympathy vote. He earned it.
The other main characters are competently portrayed, though they don’t rise to the same level. Christian Bale is an annoying smirking Bruce Wayne and a grim, upright Batman. Aaron Eckhart plays the glamorous District Attorney Harvey Dent, a media darling who seems almost too good to be true. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks adorable as the girl that both Batman and Dent are in love with.
Michael Caine gives the normally minor role of Alfred a little extra depth and mystery. Morgan Freeman shines in another secondary role, Bruce Wayne’s business manager and weapons supplier Lucius Fox, who sometimes seems like the only really sane person in the story.