Shrouded in tragedy and anticipation, The Dark Knight deserves to be revered as much more than Heath Ledger's swan song or just a summertime blockbuster.
Declaring Christopher Nolan's Batman movie to be the best-ever comic book adaptation or one of the top action flicks of all time understates what he accomplishes.
The Dark Knight is a blast of cinematic respectability for an underestimated genre, no less than The Godfather and Stagecoach offered in their eras to previously pulp species. Strip away costumes and gadgets from Nolan's film to find themes of urban decay and horrifically random violence, as compelling as that found in those classics and in recent releases The Departed and No Country for Old Men.
The latter films are the most recent Academy Award winners for best picture. Don't be surprised if The Dark Knight lands among the finalists for next year's prize.
Picking up where Batman Begins left off, the caped crusader (Christian Bale) is fighting a losing battle against Gotham City crime. Police corruption, copycat Batmen and citizens doubting his worth make Batman more pensively determined than ever.
His alter ego Bruce Wayne longs for assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a vast improvement over Katie Holmes), who is dating her boss, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The love triangle is warped by Bruce's perception of Harvey as the city's possible savior, meaning he could hang up his cape and settle down with Rachel. Torn between love and duty, Bruce/Batman faces a hypnotically sinister nemesis.
That's when The Dark Knight'sunwanted notoriety literally becomes its wildest card.
Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is astonishing work, no matter the tragic circumstances that followed. His death in January from an accidental prescription drug overdose kicked off speculation that playing such a depraved, unbalanced role contributed to his death. Without playing armchair psychologist, I submit that Ledger's death, though unintentional, is the ultimate actor's touch.
"Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you stranger," Joker says early on. Such lines have eerie undertones, although not in an exploitative way. Ledger's fate subconsciously informs the role of a criminal without regard for anyone's life, especially his own. The actor's death simply makes the Joker stranger.
Not that the archcriminal needed a personality boost. As written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, and inhabited by Ledger's Method madness, this Joker runs circus rings around Jack Nicholson's 1989 version.
He is the ultimate terrorist, cold-bloodedly impetuous, demonstrated by a gruesome disappearing pencil prank. Blowing up a hospital and assassinating city officials are his style, delivered with a lacerated, lip-smacking smile under evilly smeared greasepaint. In an Oscar-worthy turn, Ledger makes you laugh and shiver at the same time.
But he's only part of an ensemble perfectly cast and worded by the Nolans; at least 10 roles in The Dark Knight are keys to the labyrinthine plot. Gary Oldman underplays to perfection as honest Lt. Gordon, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman bring gravitas to Bruce/Batman's various conflicts, and Eckhart's Harvey is a slick foe for both personas.
With all this stellar drama, the extraordinary action sequences — too intensely brutal for children — can become a second thought. New Bat-gadgets allow the caped crusader to fly during a nifty witness recovery in Hong Kong — a nice detour from Gotham's grimness — and the new Batpod makes a tres cool entrance during an armrest-grabbing vehicular brawl.
The Dark Knight proves comic books shouldn't always be regarded as kid stuff or filmed as amusement park rides. The neo-Shakespearean events concluding Nolan's film are deliciously open-ended, promising he'll do it again. Bring it on.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.