In case you haven't already noticed, 2008 has been an exceptional year for superhero movies. It started with Iron Man, inarguably one of the best movies ever made based on a comic book character. That was followed by the very entertaining reboot of The Incredible Hulk, Will Smith's peculiar, if uneven Hancock and the wildly inventive Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
That trend reaches its peak with The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's visually stunning, super serious and, yes, very dark follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins. That film may have been the fifth to bear the Batman moniker since 1989, but it was actually the first to focus on the Caped Crusader. The others—particularly 1992's Batman Returns, 1995's Batman Forever and 1997's Batman & Robin—were more about the villains, which is why the franchise got progressively worse as it went along.
But under Nolan's watchful eye, the revamped Batman series just keeps getting better, although The Dark Knight arrives with already sky-high expectations. That, of course, has a lot to do with Heath Ledger, who plays Batman's most notorious archenemy, the Joker. When Ledger—an Oscar-nominee for 2005's Brokeback Mountain—died in January from an accidental drug overdose, his performance was elevated to mythic status before anyone had sent he movie.
Now that it's out there, it's safe to say that Ledger's fearless, disturbing take on the Joker makes Jack Nicholson's over-the-top turn from the first Batman look like a circus clown. But to be fair, if Ledger's intense performance is deemed Oscar-worthy, as some industry pundits have already boasted, then Robert Downey Jr's magnetic performance from Iron Man should be eligible too.
The Dark Knight finds Batman (Christian Bale), Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) working side-by-side in their efforts to wipe out organized crime in Gotham City. The arrival of the idealistic new D.A. couldn't have come at a better time for Bruce Wayne, who has grown weary of his brooding alter-ego. But when a ruthless sociopath called the Joker (Heath Ledger) begins terrorizing the city, Batman has no choice but to battle a foe who challenges his notion of what it means to be a hero.
Unlike Superman, Spider-Man or the X-Men, Batman has always been one of the more realistic comic book heroes, simply because he doesn't have any real super powers. His abilities aren't enhanced by radiation, he's not a mutant and he's not from another planet. He may have cool gadgets, but he's still vulnerable to physical harm. Think of him as a cross between Howard Hughes and James Bond, or better yet, as a darker version of Tony Stark from Iron Man.
Being grounded in reality is what makes The Dark Knight stand out from its cinematic peers. And director Christopher Nolan doesn't limit that realism to the characters. Save for a few CGI enhancements, all of the stunts, fights, car chases and explosions are real, and so is the city in which it all takes place—if the early Superman films used New York for Metropolis, then The Dark Knight takes full advantage of Chicago for Gotham City.
But things get tricky when it comes to the story, which is more challenging than the genre typically calls for. That shouldn't come as a surprise from Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan and whose previous films—like 2006's The Prestige and 2001's Memento—required multiple viewings in an effort to follow their dense structures. The Dark Knight is no exception, but as much as Nolan should be commended for making the story so involved, the resulting film is often convoluted and—at 2 hours and 32 minutes—exceedingly long.
The acting is strong, with intense performances from returning players Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (as loyal butler Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as right-hand man Lucius Fox). Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn't fare as well as Rachel Dawes, the love interest played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins. But for better or worse, all the attention on Ledger's performance leaves room for the film's biggest surprise: Aaron Eckhart's terrific portrayal as Harvey Dent, who, about two-thirds of the way through, turns into the graphically-scarred Two-Face as a result of a trap set by the Joker.
The existential, psychological, intelligent approach of The Dark Knight makes it less of a superhero movie and more of an epic crime drama that puts Nolan in the same league as Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann. And despite all the attention surrounding the late Heath Ledger, this is not “The Joker Show” (the character comes and goes). The tragedy is that he won't be around to bask in the glow of his amazing performance, which is only part of a spectacular film that solidifies 2008 as an exceptional year for superhero movies.