Conversations and debates have gone on and will continue for many years about films and their sequels, boiling down to the question: Is the follow-up better than the original or does it pan in comparison?
"The Dark Knight," the latest entry into the Batman franchise, joins some heavyweight films that answer 'yes' to the former.
The wear and tear, physical and emotional, of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) leading a double life as Batman is starting to show. He doubts his morals and abilities, despite the support for the opposite by his resourceful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and gadget guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). For all the bad guys he's taken down, Gotham City continues to bleed fresh wounds of crime, corruption and violence.
And like a shark sensing that blood, a new face of mayhem and criminality enters the scene, the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger). He's stealing from the mob, but doing so by wooing Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) and the rest of the mob bosses into part of the plan: take down Batman.
Batman and Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) seem to be the one son the straight and narrow, the true good guys wanting to bring an end to the destruction of their city. They find help with new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a man of good, decent and righteous justice. With their fragile, their unofficial alliance aims to bring the heads of organized crime in, hoping they spill the beans about the new character running amuck.
Meanwhile, Dent has fashioned himself a new lady, Wayne's former love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The billionaire superhero longs for a time when Batman isn't needed, and Dent may be that opportunity for Bruce to show Rachel that Gotham now has a hero without a mask.
However, at what cost Dent is willing to break those laws he appears to abide by and fight for begins to blend to gray as the Joker continues to bring Gotham to it's knees. Bruce also must contemplate the moral judgment of whether what he is doing is still good or entering into the realm of evil.
As a comic book movie, "The Dark Knight" doesn't just trump nearly everything before it-it transcends those and the genre. This is a mature character study of a tragic hero. As grown up and mature a superhero flick we shall ever get, this film raises the bar and redefines the formula for what future movies of the genre must study. Going beyond the borders of a single genre is tricky work, but director Christopher Nolan seamlessly blends modern crime drama into the mix. Shades of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" and Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" can be found throughout, with hints of classic film noir and gangster flicks.
Hell, toss in a little Shakespearean tragedy to boot.
Like the previous Batman film, "Batman Begins," Nolan and his crew have assembled a cast of old friends and new for this. Bale was an interesting albeit brilliant choice for the role in "Begins," bringing great, deep emotional and brooding psyche to the character of Bruce Wayne; he was born for this role. Caine and Freeman are the wise sages, providing wisdom and guidance for our eager yet callow hero. Gyllenhaal was a fine replacement to the silly and mediocre performance by Katie Holmes in "Begins," although there are much better lines given to her. Oldman as the trusted future commissioner is greatly expanded and used more thoroughly, not just cracking jokes about wanting his own Batmobile. Eckhart is a fine, debonair addition, showing a deeper side to the future double-sided villain.
And yet with this ensemble piece, one does indeed stand alone, above the crowd.
All natural acting criticism for "The Dark Knight" focuses on Ledger, it's late, fallen anti-hero. With buzz surmounting even before filming was completed (yes, the word 'Oscar' was tossed around even before his untimely death), Ledger was poised to give a 180-degree interpretation to the clown prince of Gotham to that of the memorable turn by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's "Batman."
In comics, though, the Joker did not merely crack a joke and kill, destroy, etc.; the mayhem and pure acts of sadism he committed were the punch lines. And Ledger triumphs in his more accurate interpretation, a mix of growls and high-pitched cackles this side of James Cagney in "The Public Enemy" and Alex in "A Clockwork Orange."
The definitive scene involves the Joker revealing himself to the mob, and a magic trick with a pencil he shows one particular gangster. Comical initially but shows Ledger's interpretation dead-on: this guy is psychopath to the max.
Playing the role as an outcast in high school who is just too damn sly and intelligent to argue with, Ledger's Joker cannot hold water against Nicholson; both are two different sides to the same coin. And yet, Ledger gets the last laugh, a deep performance that will remain in film history as one of the best villains ever.
More than just your friendly neighborhood superhero picture, "The Dark Knight" does what "Spider-Man 3" failed miserably at: to portray a character we, as audience members, have dedicated so much conviction and faith to relate to with the internal cracks, struggles and imperfections that seem all too familiar.
This is that type of movie that shows great elements of filmmaking coming together and producing something special, the finest comic book film since "Spider-Man 2," one of the year's best films. But a much deeper movie than just your average comic book adaptation, a blend of motifs from different genres but never jumbled and messy. At 152 minutes, the time flies by.
It is too bad that time caught up with Ledger. He left in his wake a tragic performance that defines more than just his career but the essence of motion picture villainy.
This film is all you'd hope for and more thanks in part to it.
You don't even question it. It just feels right.
And all the more dark.
This is one of those sequels that surpasses its still-great predecessor: "The Godfather, Part II," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Aliens," "Bride of Frankenstein," The Bourne Ultimatum."
Batman can now join the party.