It's a shame when a piece of work is overshadowed by the surrounding circumstances; but in all kinds of media, an artist's final, great work takes on a kind of mythical stature, almost beyond reproach. The Dark Knight, marred before its release by the death of Heath Ledger (and now the apparent inter-family fisticuffs of Christian Bale), will now never receive the respect it truly deserves. Instead it will forever be marooned between the 'underrated' and 'overrated' camps, with Ledger in particular deified simply because of his tragic end. It only makes it all the more tragic because The Dark Knight is an unquestionably brilliant film, which could have easily earned its acclaim without Ledger's unfortunate demise.
When we rejoin Batman's story, Gotham has changed, in many ways for the better; with Carmine 'The Roman' Falcone out of the picture, an association of crime families of various ethnicities are steadily being worn down by Jim Gordon's police force; a parade of Batman imitators are on the loose; and a gallavanting new District Attorney named Harvey Dent is not only helping fight the war on crime, but dating one Rachel Dawes.
The Dark Knight is darker than virtually any superhero film you'll see, and that includes its predecessor. In the comics he calls home, Batman here is in many ways the antithesis of Superman; unafraid to use brutal torture when necessary, reliant on planning and skill rather than superpowers, a willing hate figure rather than a public American icon, and this comes to the fore in the film. The realism quotient is considerably dialled down from the previous film, but the performances absorb you enough to allow for suspension of disbelief. What's more, the film is slightly too long, detracting slightly from its climax. The only real weak link in the film is Christian Bale, whose performance has taken a step down since Batman Begins; his ordinary speaking voice more and more like Keanu Reeves, beneath the mask he could be virtually anyone. This is in start contrast to Heath Ledger's extraordinary turn as the Joker, for if Batman Begins was Bruce Wayne's film, then The Dark Knight is truly The Joker's.
The Joker has been portrayed in various ways both in comic and cinematic form. Previously, the most popular Joker on film was Jack Nicholson's, with the only minor complaint being that he was a bit too funny. What becomes clear in The Dark Knight as you slowly get to know the twisted psyche of The Joker is that he was simply funny in the wrong way. Ledger is unrecognisable beneath the makeup and scars, a hideous psychopath but one who, terrifyingly, is not only seemingly right most of the time but hilarious at all the wrong moments. As his twisted psyche unravels itself before you, you almost feel yourself descend into madness along with him. It's not just the way he carries himself, the way he hobbles in the way of a man crippled not physically but emotionally, the way he invents his own backstory as he goes along, but it's also the minor touches - the haphazard way he shoots accomplises early on in the film; the brutal (yet again, funny for all the wrong reasons) pencil scene; his almost nonchalant attempts to gun Batman down.
Ledger's stunning Joker could've saved a far lesser film, but luckily the rest of the cast, writers and special effects pull together to make Dark Knight more than worthy of his performance. This is not a superhero film in the traditional sense, because Batman is barely a hero to anybody, and at many times a target of public ire. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)'s transformation shows not a traditional villain, but a man at the end of his rope being pushed over the edge, and Eckhart almost steals the film from Ledger. Maggie Gyllenhall, replacing Katie Holmes, is more than serviceable as Rachel Dawes, and Gary Oldman excels as Commissioner Gordon, given a more central role in this film. Combined with a tense, Shining-esque score and Christopher Nolan's hard-hitting direction - and a truly great story turn midway through the film - The Dark Knight is almost cinematic alchemy.
With an Oscar-worthy central performance by Heath Ledger - and, indeed, a secondary performance by Aaron Eckhart also worthy of one - The Dark Knight is as good a superhero film as you'll ever see. In fact, it transcends its genre, an all-round excellent film within or without its boundary. A must-see.
Five stars out of five.