When "Batman Begins" burst into the scene 3 years ago, it seemed amazing and frustrating in equal parts. Amazing, as here was a Batman movie that really did its homework. Frustrating, as well, it only shows Batman beginning. What next? To answer that question, Chris Nolan brought together Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart to make not only the best Batman movie ever, but also possibly the greatest superhero movie ever.
As gathered from the trailers, the film is set a year after Batman Begins. Batman has succeeded in capturing several high-profile gangsters and money-launderers, with the subtle aid of the police. He has cast such a shadow on Gotham crime that Mafia men do their business in the daytime, scared of the night. With a heroic new DA ready to overtly take on crime, it seems Bruce Wayne will shortly be able to abandon his Crusade. But into this mix comes a man known only as the Joker - no alias, no identity and no backstory. And then.... well, watch the film to find out.
The film belongs completely to the Joker, as played by the late Heath Ledger. How effective is his performance? The short answer is terrifying. This man makes you grateful it's only a movie you're seeing. Ledger brings to the role a kind of vicious evil that reminds you of A Clockwork Orange's Alex, Saw's Jigsaw, Fight Club's Tyler Durden and Damien from the Omen series. Even more disturbing, his acts of terror - blowing stuff up and sending out videos of tortured captives - are just that: the sort of things you'd expect from men who sleep with AK-47's in Waziristan or Baluchistan. And true to his comic roots, this Joker has no desire for money, power or influence. He exists only to create chaos, to "watch the world burn" as Alfred puts it.
It's hard to appreciate the rest of the acting talent on screen, overshadowed as everyone is by Ledger. Of the main cast, Bale is amazing as Batman. His on-screen intensity has to be seen to be believed. Aaron Eckhart is equally great as Harvey Dent, the "White Knight" of Gotham. We all know from the comics the fate he is destined to meet, the person he will become. Nolan keeps it suitably tragic, foreshadowing the arrival of Two-Face with Dent's increasing strain and his habit of (playfully) tossing a double-headed coin when making vital decisions. He is equally excellent following his gruesome transformation. I wished at the end they had given this guy his own movie to appear in. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all do full justice to their roles as Alfred, Gordon and Lucius Fox. Special mention must be made of Eric Roberts - he's her brother - who plays Sal Maroni, the new Boss of Gotham's Mafia.
Nolan makes use of the awesome acting talent and supports it with first class writing and directing. Gotham - as shot in Chicago - is a grim, predatory metropolis, in desperate need of hope. People respond to shootouts and explosions the way you'd expect real people to. Tension is maintained throughout the film by use of news reports. The film tackles real life issues of terrorism - the bombings and mutilation videos Ledger sends in - and the appropriate responses to it - Batman tries to track Joker by hacking into Gotham's cellular networks. As the critics have remarked, you want to compare this film to Heat, Se7en and Zodiac as much as other superhero flicks.
This movie transcends the conventional rating wisdom of stars, thumbs and adjectives. All I can really say to sum it up is - I enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it. In the theater. The next day. Watch it.