I would have liked for this review to have gone up at Comics Bulletin, but due to the vagaries of international release dates, I missed the Slugfest by a week. Still, what are blogs for?
(I don't give scores for things here, but over at CB I do, and this would get four bullets out of five.)
I didn't much like Batman Begins. The cinematography and editing were ill-judged, relying on far too much in the way of MTV-style fast-paced cutting and never letting the audience get a good look at what was going on. What plot there was was choppy and confused, veering listlessly from storyline to storyline, with a feeble attempt to tie everything up into a cohesive but nonsensical whole by the end. Katie Holmes had barely anything to do, which is something for which I suppose we should be grateful, because she was awful, and Christian Bale was dull as ditchwater, sleepwalking his way to a paycheque as Bruce Wayne, and growling like a disgruntled terrier as Batman. Worst of all, the film overreached for po-faced seriousness, thinking somehow that this meant it was more intelligent and highbrow than its predecessors, when there was in fact nothing to it below the grime and darkness. All that said, the film looked quite good (except for the lumpy Batsuit), when we were actually allowed to look at anything for more than a picosecond, and both Gary Oldman and Michael Caine were excellent in their rather undeveloped roles.
So yeah, I wasn't exactly leaping with excitement over the sequel. Indeed, I was much more excited about Hellboy II, which is due out in Britain sometime in 2017, I believe.
So I was pleased to discover that The Dark Knight is a vast improvement over the first film, particularly in terms of writing and editing. This time, we actually get to see Batman now and then, and yet the film-makers retain that slight sense of him being an unnatural, otherworldly presence by occasionally showing him from the perspective of the common person, so we'll be sitting in a car with a family when a black shape whizzes by (the Batbike), or we'll follow a boy's line of sight up into a darkened corner to see a pair of eyes looking back, and the vague shape of something huge and dark perched up there. While the idea of Batman as an elusive phantom is hugely important to the mood of this revamp, it's also good to actually see him once in a while; after all, that's what we've paid our money for. All that said, some problems remain; while the action scenes thankfully now make sense, the editing elsewhere in the film is a bit choppy, with scenes switching abruptly for no particular reason.
Christopher Nolan wrote the previous film by himself, but is joined by his brother this time around, and the improvement in the writing is astounding. The Dark Knight is actually about something; competing concepts of order, chaos and justice, as embodied by Batman, the Joker and Harvey Dent respectively. The clash between these philosophies, and the way they change and develop as a result of that clash, is what drives the plot. And there is a plot this time around, which is a blessed relief after the seemingly random nonsense of the first film. On the other hand, the dialogue is a bit choppy at times, with characters occasionally breaking into speeches about their feelings and motivations, instead of conveying them through their actions.
Christian Bale's performance also shows marked improvement. Bale seems to have less to do in this film, but does seem more comfortable in the role. His Bruce Wayne is much improved, although his Batman retains that ridiculous growl. Furthermore, I suspect that the film-makers have told him to emphasise his mouth movements when he speaks, to make up for the rigidity of the cowl, but he's gone a bit over the top, and most of the film consists of him looking like he's chewing on tobacco while having some kind of facial spasm.
Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent is a tad disappointing, as he's potentially the strongest character in the film, but instead is not given enough to do. He hovers around as a sort of contrast to Batman, and to a lesser extent, the Joker, until his accident, when he just runs around shouting a lot. In this film, Harvey is the negative space that defines Batman's role, and while that works, it does short change the character somewhat. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a huge improvement on the pudding-faced Katie Holmes, since she can at least act, but the character remains underwritten and largely pointless.
Of course, the performance everyone will be talking about is Heath Ledger's Joker, and while it is definitely a strong role, I think that's more down to the writing than Ledger. As mentioned above, the writers have given the Joker a philosophy and meaning, and to me it's that philosophy that drives the character, rather than the actor; while Ledger was a good actor (although I'm not sure he was quite as good as all the hysterical tributes following his death suggested), any quality actor could have done a portrayal of similar strength given the material. For me, it is Gary Oldman's Gordon who steals the film with a very human and natural portrayal of a simple man trying to do his best in a world gone mad. Oldman is quiet, thoughtful and real in the role, a humble hero, but a hero nonetheless. Towards the end of the film, when Gordon speaks of Harvey Dent as being the pure white knight, the "best of us", he seems to be speaking about himself, but is too modest and down-to-earth to perhaps even realise it. It is Ledger who will inevitably receive all the plaudits, but it's Oldman who deserves them.
The film also drops some interesting hints and potential continuity seeds. Early on, we see a nascent Bat Army, reminding us of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, there's an oblique reference to the new armour being cat proof, and the weasely ex-employee of Wayne Enterprises who discovers Batman's true identity has more than a hint of Riddlerishness to him. I'm probably reading too much into that last one, but I suspect we will see him again in some capacity, if not a costume, and I'd be very surprised if we don't see Catwoman in the next film.
All in all, Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster remains the better film, I think, and the 1966 movie is more ingenious, but The Dark Knight is nonetheless a good solid film, and it has convinced me that this update of the franchise is worth doing. I eagerly anticipate the inevitable third instalment.