I couldn't help but enter yet another Batman movie with a huge amount of scepticism. After all, I thought Christopher Nolan's first attempt at redrawing the caped crusader's screen persona, the much-lauded Batman Begins, was the most overrated superhero movie I'd ever seen. It was illogical and action sequences were always given priority to the detriment of character and plot. Then there was the death of Heath Ledger. Before the film had even come out there was talk of a posthumous Oscar. The praise-filled reviews he has received have an air of collective grief, combined with a belated realisation that the Australian actor should probably have got more plaudits for Brokeback Mountain. But surely he couldn't be a patch on Jack Nicholson's brilliant turn in Tim Burton's dystopian vision of Gotham City. Speaking of Burton's Batman, it featured the same two villains on display here, The Joker and Two-Face, so Nolan was setting himself up for a fall by inviting direct comparison with easily the best on-screen depiction of the comic book character to date. But holy cow! From the opening scene I had to dump my cynicism. Not only is this the best on-screen adaptation of Batman, it's the superhero movie to which all other action flicks featuring powerful men in tights must from now on be compared.
The Joker is the first principal character we see, and yes, Ledger is mesmerising. Initially I wasn't so sure as he pops up only sporadically: robbing banks, double-crossing the mafia, and desperately trying to get Batman to reveal his alter ego. In these scenes, asked to be the epitome of evil, his delivery is great, but it all seemed too one-note to live up to the hype. It's when The Joker takes centre-stage and sets his master plan in motion that Ledger wows. There are two scenes in particular that will stay with me. One takes place in a police cell where he flips effortlessly from the hunted to the hunter, and the other, in Gotham City General Hospital, had my emotions running haywire. Comic timing is something that I'd never associated with Ledger, but as he wanders through the hospital I was in stitches. Nicholson played the villain with the same sense of delirium that he brought to his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Ledger by contrast plays him as a twisted narcissist. Remarkably his laugh and wry physical delivery manages to pay homage to Nicholson and then just give even more: more evil, more chaos and more fun.
With all the column inches devoted to Ledger, I feel sorry for Aaron Eckhart, who is as deserving of praise. He plays the district attorney Harvey Dent, who is linked to Batman by the fact he is dating Bruce Wayne's former squeeze, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, another fine performance). Not only is Eckhart delightful to watch, the plot revolves around him. The Dark Knight is about the failure of the government and politicians to live up to expectations, the permeable line between good and evil and coping in a world where there is disappointment around every corner. It is through Dent that this is shown. In the Company of Men and Thank You for Smoking demonstrated that there is no actor working today better at hiding evil behind a smiling, pretty-boy exterior.
Christian Bale has also grown into the Batsuit. His Batman is a brutal vigilante who doesn't always make the right call and is desperately in need of the wise words provided by his trusted butler, Alfred (Michael Caine). Bale is far more human for all his failings. Also successfully reprising roles are Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. The characters are treated with care and have story arcs that take them far beyond cartoon caricatures.
Nolan himself shows the authority and control that was lacking in Batman Begins. Most blockbusters are content to jump from crash mayhem to exploding skyscrapers without rhyme or reason, but Nolan is as concerned with the troubled personalities, the bad relationships, guilt and obsessions as he is with the special effects. The action sequences are like being injected with a shot of adrenalin straight into the heart. Those watching the film on IMAX screens will get even more of a thrill from sequences shot using cameras catering to the larger format with an added depth of field. The benefit from using these cumbersome and heavy cameras is not just aesthetic. The cost and difficulty of filming in IMAX has led Nolan to concentrate on quality over quantity, and the benefit is felt in whichever format the film is seen. Not since Terminator 2 have I been so blown away by a combination of special effects, story and adventure.
Even Nolan's Gotham successfully tries something different. It veers away from the gothic style promoted by Burton and the graphic novelist Frank Miller to become a modern metropolis with the skyline of New York, the bridges of London and the sun of Rome. The film ends with Batman running - hopefully he's heading straight to another adventure with Nolan at the helm and Bale in the black leather. Although it's hard to think how they can improve on this one; a new high for the summer tentpole movie.