Let's face it - this is one huge film. The eye-opening first movie set the precedent, and the absolute corking work that Nolan did between the two movies (The Prestige, must watch BTW), the great press Ledger's role has been getting, posthumous or not, all add up to a gargantuan expectation level that the film has set for itself to leap. Add to it the fact that in a summer laced with great comic book action films, this is the one that it all has been leading up to. Batman, for all his darkness, is the one superhero everyone must root for.
It is huge, yeah, but it's also big; clocking in at a trifle more than 2 and a half hours, this is the equivalent of a full-blown Bollywood film - minus the song breaks, anyway. It's also big considering the sprawling mass of narrative and characters it encompasses. A film where the less important roles are being played by spandex veterans like Michael Jai White, you can tell the roster keeps getting bigger. "I hear ya," you say, "but how good is it?"
Despite a bloated running time - and this hubris has to stop by the way, Hollywood, the way extra money in a sequel means extra stuff, whether it makes sense or not - the film joins Iron Man
and Hellboy II in the superhero films this year that have transcended their genealogy and become the benchmarks for superhero fiction. Much like Iron Man, too, this film is all about the tone, though the similarity ends there, because the tone here is as dark as it gets.
The new film starts Bruce Wayne (Bale) rebuilding his Batcave, and alternating between a husk of a Playboy personality and dressing up as a flying rodent. The arrival of a new criminal was heralded in the last few minutes of the first film, and Knight continues on with that introducing us to the maniac who, when he sets his plan in motion, changes everything about Batman, and new-to-the-scene hero Harvey Dent (Eckhart).
This is where Nolan does his magic best: the narrative is dense and layered, and the characters are continuously pushed by the events of the film forward towards becoming darker shades of gray. The movie relentlessly continues down this path until all the major pieces on the board are approaching black. Amongst them standing tall is the conflicted but inexorable Batman.
The conflict that he faces this time is more internal: that of a man very much in love with the control his vigilantism gives him, but seeing his approach work less and less effectively than Harvey Dent's. With every lawful tactic, Dent is a better messiah for Gotham than he finds himself to be. His longing for that elixir that he thinks Dent has is increased by his pining for a normal life - internalized as Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal, finally giving a better girl than Holmes). Bale takes this conflicted persona and wraps it around his presence to become Bruce Wayne, and a better interpretation of the character than any.
Even while surrounded by great supporting talent (Oldman, Freeman, Caine), Bale seems to own the proceedings, which Bruce/Batman are supposed to anyway, and it is to great credit to the complete cast that they make this feel much more like a noir thriller with a conflicted main character than any of the previous campy interpretations of the character on film.
While we talk about the cast, let's take a moment to talk about The Joker. It is possible for people to fall over themselves in praising a dead celebrity for a role that ostensibly drove him to it, but the fact is barring all sad news, Ledger has created the most definitive version for the character. This interpretation of his is the new benchmark for all future Jokers, bar none. This Joker is much more purblind to his own impetuousness veering towards insanity, and by extension that much more dangerous, and relishing it.
This creates for great character beats when Joker and Batman are presented as two sides of a coin to us. Given that Harvey Dent's sad tale begins at the end of that dynamic, it makes it that much more poetic. The two characters are played off as similar people with different methods, and that not only gives an edge to Joker hitherto missing from famous takes including Nicholson's, but also makes this Batman a slightly deranged one, and I love that.
Supplying the meat of these characters' moments, and for that matter for that of all characters, is the screenplay. While it makes a lot of choices that could have been excised and given us a leaner, tighter film, the character beats are amongst the best in the film - making it a superhero film with a soul. The writing gives all the characters enough meat, without overshadowing any one, which is great, though Chris Nolan deserves an extra special pat for the tone of the film.
Nolan plays the film like a gritty crime drama, and though he gives in to fan-service by way of IMAX shot sequences, it is the real gritty approach that makes Batman a proper crime film and not a guilty pleasure like the early versions of the character. This makes us believe in a Batman so resourceful, trained and driven that he can kick Adam West's and indeed Clooney's ass with both eyes closed, and hands tied behind.
It's pointless to say it is a must-watch, but it is very necessary to give a fair warning. If the film was purloined off of some of the useless moments, including a bravura set piece in Hong Kong, and if some of the throwaway moments showing Gotham's protector one too many times standing watch over the city were excised (it does tend to get tiring) this would have been a perfect superhero film. As it stands it is still one of the best superhero films, and the second time a billionaire playboy alter ego has stood tall as the year's best. IMAX it, those of you who can, because it really is that good.