The Film: The Dark Knight (Buy it from CHUD!)

The Principles: Christopher Nolan (director), Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

The Premise: Organized crime in Gotham is on the ropes ever since the appearance of the mysterious Batman. With the rise of District Attorney Harvey Dent threatening to put an even greater damper on their operations, they place their hopes in a man whose only desire is to watch the world burn: The Joker.

Is It Good: If objective quality were a thing, and scientists discovered a way to measure to it, The Dark Knight would surely be somewhere in the top 100 films of all time. I said yesterday that I have greater affinity for Batman Begins, if only because that feels closer in tone to my preferred “Batman.”

But The Dark Knight did something that few other comic book films have or will ever manage: it transcended the genre and became a cultural event. Fans literally campaigned for Harvey Dent, scholars debated the motivations of The Joker, and the idea of what a comic book movie could and should be was forever changed.

Is it worth a look: You want to know how Nolan accomplished this feat? Ironically, he did it by not setting out to make a comic book film. The Dark Knight is a crime film through and through, one that manages to stay nestled in reality without paying too much unnecessary lip service to its pulpy roots. Heath Ledger’s Joker looks nothing like the clown prince of the comics; Batman is wearing high-end SWAT gear. Only Two-Face, charred and chewed thanks to surprisingly realistic digital makeup, looks like he could have walked out of the comic book. Yet it’s all eminently familiar.

Leaving the soundstages and sepia hues of Batman Begins, Nolan grounds Gotham in the reality of Chicago – framing his crime epic in a manner not dissimilar to Michael Mann’s Heat. And while Batman Begins was a hard PG-13, it has nothing on The Dark Knight – perhaps the darkest, most violent film that’s ever been bestowed such rating. A lot of deaths happen off-screen, but think about what’s implied: Joker slices a man’s face open, blasts a cop in the head with a shotgun, blows Batman’s girlfriend to bits, burns a dude’s face off, and then bests it all by tying a cohort atop a pile of money before soaking him in gasoline and burning him alive. How many PG-13 comic book movies get away with such mayhem?

It’s not without troubles: the film’s overly melodramatic in parts, the score dominates the entire movie to the point where a little silence would have been appreciated, and the third act falls a little flat before Gordon’s monologue raises it back to greatness.

It’s the kind of film you can write 5,000 words on and still have more to discuss. We could go on forever about the “war on terror” overtones. The film’s good enough that it would’ve found an audience regardless of one of the most tragic celebrity deaths of all-time, but Heath Ledger’s demise was still very much on the hearts and minds of fans at realease. A very selfish part of me laments we’ll never see his Joker again, or the third Batman film he would have been a part of. Nothing he’d done before could have prepared us for his brilliance here. The best compliment I could give an actor: never once did I see Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, I only saw The Joker.

How long does it take to cement a legacy? Ledger did it in 152 minutes.

Random Anecdotes: For all his love of the format, Chris Nolan’s affinity for practical stunts have led to the destruction of one IMAX camera in each of his last two Batman films. One camera costs $500,000. In 2009, there were only 26 such cameras in the world.

Cinematic Soulmates: THIS