I recall very well the first time I saw Batman
, the 1989 film with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. I came out of the theater stunned. The reason was that it was the first time I had seen a comic book film in which the subject matter was treated seriously. Now I liked Richard Donner's first two Superman films, but even they treated the subject with too much of a wink. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor was a caricature and even Superman was a bit too silly at times.
Batman is a dark character who walks a perilous line between right and wrong, between sanity and lunacy. Batman was able to capture that essence. As much as I love the 1989 version, I am enjoying the new reboot even more because it takes that same dark sensibility, but casts it even more in a world recognizable to us. Instead of making Gotham City a gothic fantasyland, this new Batman is set in a city that looks familiar -- in fact, in much of the recent film, Chicago serves as stand-in for Gotham City.
Here's what I especiallly liked about The Dark Knight (without giving away too many spoilers):
1) The Joker - Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is nothing short of brilliant. He accomplished the impossible -- making Jack Nicholson's performance seem like a lesser accomplishment. What adds even more to Ledger's wonderful take on the character is the fact that the script makes the Joker simply an agent of chaos -- a character with no backstory, no origin, no conventional motive. Even if you are not a Batman fan or a fan of comic book films at all, The Joker alone is reason enough to see this film.
2) The story - what may be most striking about this film is that you could actually take Batman out of the film - substituting any clever and capable detective in his place - and the movie would still work well as a great crime thriller. In many comic book films, the story revolves around the hero and his heroics. Here, Batman is essentially one character among others that all revolve around the story.
3) Two-Face - I was extremely disappointed with the version of Two-Face that appeared in Batman Forever. He is potentially such a complex villain that the campy treatment of him there was a travesty. I still have some quibbles with his role in this film in that he comes across as almost thoroughly evil and demented. I would much rather see a treatment of Two-Face in which the duality of evil and good was at play. That makes him a much more powerful metaphor for the duality in humanity.
4) Jim Gordon - Gordon is the real heart of this story and Gary Oldman plays him so perfectly that you naturally feel drawn to him whenever he is on screen.
5) The ending - At first I wasn't sure I liked what they set up for Batman at the end of the film, but after further reflection, I have become converted. It makes me quite anxious to see what direction they go with the next one. I won't give any details here for the sake of those who have yet to see it.
The only thing I didn't like as much about The Dark Knight, ironically, was Batman himself. Christian Bale again does a great job and there are some cool scenes, but I didn't see as much of the iconic sort of Batman action as I would like. He spent a lot of the movie either driving around or walking around and punching people. I wanted to see a little more of the Ninja-like stealth and scowering of rooftops like we got in Batman Begins. But that is a minor concern. For those who haven't seen it yet, I would add that this is not a movie for children. I was planning to take my 9 year old son to see it, but then after viewing it myself first, I decided against it. This is definitely an adult version of Batman and the Joker, but it is the version many of us adults have been waiting for.