A dark cloud looms over The Dark Knight. Even if Heath Ledger hadn't died earlier this year, Christopher Nolan's superhero sequel would have been notable for its ultra-serious exploration of morality, and for the often startling levels of violence (physical, emotional and psychological) that it displays throughout, but the young actor's passing seems to have added an extra layer of tragedy to a film already mired knee-deep in death and fatalism. This film steps outside the comfortable surroundings in which we expect to find summer blockbusters, delivering a complicated and fascinating cinematic experience that takes the central character to some dark places, forces him to break his own rules, and then watches as he tries to cope with the consequences of his actions. For Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his crime fighting alter-ego, this is a step into the unknown, and that void of uncertainty is personified by The Joker (Ledger), a harbinger of chaos who arrives in Gotham with no past, no motive, and only a keen desire to spread terror and destruction in his wake. As Bruce's butler Alfred (Michael Caine) astutely observes "some men just want to watch the world burn".
The biggest advantage for Nolan in returning to this story is the absence of necessary exposition. Batman Begins suffered from a clunky opening hour that showed us how Bruce learned his craft under the tutelage of Liam Neeson ("to conquer fear, you must become fear!") and the film only started to lift off when he began using those skills against Gotham's criminal underworld. The Dark Knight has no such obligation to set the scene, and Nolan, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, pitches us straight into a city that has changed in unexpected ways since Batman began taking law enforcement into his own hands. He has inspired a number of copycat vigilantes, and the mob (led by Eric Roberts) has reluctantly joined forces with the unpredictable Joker to finally kill the caped crusader. Batman still has honest Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) on his side, and the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Ekhart) offers a second ray of light in this murky place, but the burden of responsibility, and the increasingly hostile reaction of the public, has left Bruce Wayne wondering how much longer he can continue to live a double life.
Early in The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent remarks "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain", and this line becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy both for him and Batman. Nolan's chief interest in this film is to explore the self-imposed boundaries of those who wish to do good. Dent and Wayne are after the same thing, coming at it from different directions, but they both find their values being corrupted during the course of their battles with The Joker, and film grows darker and more introspective as it charts their fall from grace, to the point where I found it almost suffocating. The Dark Knight is a curious breed; it's surely the most subversively weird and thematically ambitious mainstream movie for many a long year, but I can't quite take it to my heart. While I have nothing but respect for Nolan's attempt to raise the bar for superhero movies, to practically redefine the genre, I think he falls somewhat short of those bold ambitions, and The Dark Knight is ultimately a much easier film to admire than to love.
It just feels so cluttered, so hectic and full of incident that Nolan can't find a smooth way to move between his plot points. His transitions are frequently abrupt and rarely graceful, he often cuts away at a point that leaves us with a nagging gap in the narrative, asking "how did that guy get out of there?" or "where are we now, exactly?", and he employs at least one outrageous cheat to overcome a particularly sticky story point. There's a lot going on in this film, and while Nolan does find time to alight on some striking, lyrical imagery – like The Joker gleefully leaning out of a police car, the despairing sight of Dent lying face down in gasoline, or the frequently breathtaking IMAX-filmed cityscapes – the film is more often in a desperate hurry, leaving the audience to play catch-up. The other big, big problem that arises from his direction is his handling of the film's action sequences, a major weakness in Batman Begins that is only partially remedied here. Nolan has no idea how to shoot these aspects of his picture in a coherent manner, and most of the combat scenes consist of a flurry of limbs, edited into oblivion, before somebody winds up on the floor. The opening bank heist, to be fair, is skilfully staged, but Nolan appears to be less sure of himself with each subsequent set-piece, as his inability to establish spatial awareness and to maintain it via the editing again comes to the fore. A useful comparison would be Paul Greengrass, whose work on the Bourne films has seen him utilise rapid editing techniques while never losing sight of where his characters are in relation to each other. In contrast, two of The Dark Knight's biggest action scenes – a car chase and a climactic skyscraper battle – are crippled by confusion, with the latter sequence being a flat-out disaster, additionally hampered by the use of a dreadful Bat-vision gimmick. These sequences should be the film's highlights, but Nolan doesn't come close to making them work.
Instead, The Dark Knight's highlights are to be found in other areas, parts of the film that make better use of Nolan's directorial skills. As a filmmaker, one gets the sense that the explosive demands of blockbuster cinema are the parts of the process that interest him least, and he's a far more potent director when he's simply exploring the dynamic between two people, with this being particularly true when one of those two people is The Joker. Heath Ledger's performance dominates The Dark Knight. He is both funny and disturbing, bringing jolt of electricity to the picture every time he appears; his smeared makeup and lank, greasy hair presenting a very different Joker to any previous screen incarnation of the character. Ledger employs a lizard-like flick of the tongue and a stiff, shambling gait in his walk, delivering the kind of instantly memorable performance that transcends genre, in much the same way that Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman did over 15 years ago.
The Dark Knight's finest moments occur when Ledger is allowed to go face-to-face with the other characters, pushing their buttons, getting under their skin, and espousing his own twisted philosophy. In these scenes Ledger is vivid and eerily charismatic, and he brings the best out of his co-stars, firing up Bale's Batman in their interrogation room scene, exuding genuine menace as he holds a knife to the mouth of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, not at her best but a step-up from the useless Katie Holmes), and partaking in perhaps the film's best encounter, next to the freshly-scarred Harvey Dent's hospital bed. As Dent, Ekhart gives the most surprising performance in the film, displaying a presence and sensitivity that has eluded him in previous roles, but I wish the filmmakers could have made better use of Two-Face, whose development is rushed, or at least saved him for a later instalment. One unfortunate effect of having so many distinctive, nuanced performances in the film (Michael Caine is reliably excellent, and Gary Oldman is superb) is that they relegate Batman to the position of fourth or fifth most interesting character on show. Bale remains a fine Bruce Wayne, but the deep growl he brought to Batman's voice in Begins reaches ridiculous levels here, even threatening to make his lines inaudible, and he is often absent or a bystander in the film's most interesting confrontations.
One confrontation that doesn't quite come off in The Dark Knight is a face-off between two rigged boats that The Joker sets up as a kind of social experiment late in the film. I didn't buy this situation, or the easy way it resolved itself, but The Dark Knight's exploration of such moral complexities does develop into its most compelling aspect as the film progresses, far more so than its muddled narrative or its obvious political overtones. Where do you draw the line, the film asks, between doing what's right and doing what must be done? Do we get the heroes we need or the heroes we deserve? The Dark Knight, for all its flaws, is a serious, provocative film made for adults (I can't quite believe it has been rated 12A. Don't bring any young kids), and I already feel like I need to see it again, to find out if I've missed some key element that will bring the movie together in a more satisfying way for me. Although I can't quite get on board with the critics hailing it as a masterpiece, the very fact that the biggest film of the year is such an ambiguous and conflicted piece of work does make it feel like some kind of achievement. To get an idea of The Dark Knight's worth, just ask yourself this question: how many blockbuster movies have left you wondering, as the credits rolled, who, if anyone, has emerged victorious from the events you've just seen? And at what cost?