Screenwriters: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 152 mins
"What doesn't kill you makes you stranger." So says The Joker as he crashes onto the scene, quite literally, in the opening minutes of Batman caper The Dark Knight. 'Strange' is both his armour and his weapon, drawing in the morbidly curious with his garish makeup and anguished eyes, inviting them to speculate on the nature of his demons. And then, the punch-line... Of course the allure of The Joker is only heightened by dubious virtue of being Heath Ledger's final completed role before his untimely and somewhat mysterious demise. Make no mistake, this film belongs to him, but it would've been so even if his life hadn't been so suddenly cut short.
The tipping of the balance starts with the script. In the prequel Batman Begins (2005), writer-director Christopher Nolan afforded Christian Bale the luxury of digging deep to find levels of existential angst beyond the Bat Cave and its obvious Freudian symbolism. Along with the requisite CRASH, BANG, POW, Bale's mere imposing stillness was riveting to behold. He still has the presence, but the sequel doesn't leave him much room to show it off. Instead, Nolan looks outward to the institutions of government and organised crime, which have come to coexist in Gotham City, and how the arrival of a certain psychedelic psycho shakes up this dodgy power structure. More than a comic-book adventure, this is a sprawling crime epic.
Bruce Wayne consciously takes a back seat, officially hanging up his bat cape, when Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is appointed District Attorney. Dent launches a different kind of war on crime, fought in the clear light of day with a briefcase and a two-piece suit - no mask. Wayne lends his support to this so-called White Knight of Gotham after he begins to sense that his own brand of vigilante justice is fuelling disorder. Thankfully, this does involve slipping on the black rubber and knocking heads together when nobody is looking. Nolan certainly doesn't skimp on action, injecting the adrenalin at regular intervals and further upping the ante with the Bat Pod - a thundering superbike that rolls off walls on impact.
The Joker simply uses a twisted sense of humour to lift the pace, especially in a densely-plotted first act, where Nolan draws links between the local mafia kingpin (Eric Roberts), the kingpin's accountant (Chin Han) and the cops on their payroll. He barges in on one of their basement meetings and asserts his mastery with a vanishing pencil trick that'd make Penn and Teller squirm. It's black comedy in its purest form. An excess of facial tics aside, Ledger has impeccable timing and the way he bobs around the place - like a Jack-In-The-Box on a broken spring - is wickedly unnerving. He describes himself as an "agent of chaos" and, whenever he's on screen, there is a powerful and thrilling sense that anything could happen.
Michael Caine (as Batman's pearl-dispensing butler) notes that some men aren't driven by money, they only want to "watch the world burn". The post-9/11 connotations are rife, including a sombre reflection on Big Brother-style surveillance delivered by the great orator Morgan Freeman (playing Wayne's tech expert Lucius Fox). In any case, The Joker loves playing up to the camera. But there is one key difference between this terrorist and the Al Qaeda mob; The Joker believes in 'nothing' and that makes him a fascinating contrast to Batman. Our hero has vowed not to kill so the drama is amplified when he revs up his bike and comes roaring at The Joker on a direct collision course. And for once, The Joker doesn't twitch.
By contrast, Dent's rebirth as the rancorous Two-Face feels half-hearted in spite of Eckhart's talents. Nolan is just too hasty in flipping the crazy switch to get the ball rolling on the grand finale. More could have been made of Dent's rivalry with Wayne and their mutual affection for Rachel Dawes. But at least Maggie Gyllenhaal, with her steely backbone, feels a more worthy match for The Caped Crusader than Katie Holmes. Of course Batman's real soulmate will always be The Joker. It's that symbiosis between 'good' and evil which haunts the film, along with a brash yet enigmatic performance by Heath Ledger (making The Scarecrow look like Worzel Gummidge). Never mind who's left standing, The Joker has the last laugh.