Words cannot sum up how utterly I was blown away by “The Dark Knight” at the first showing this morning, and yet I am going to try to describe it — without spoiling anything.
This film demands repeat viewings, to take in everything, and I am sure it will get plenty of return trips from moviegoers. I am still trying to sort through all that I saw and felt, so maybe I should start with the first impressions I took away.
This is easily the greatest Batman movie ever made, which is ironic because this is so utterly NOT a superhero or a comic book movie. It’s an urban thriller that is layered with complexities, plot twists and turns, strong characters, compelling performances and a hypnotic, nonstop momentum that belies the fact that the film is two and a half hours long.
No act, move or decision by any character in this film feels arbitrary or is left unexamined. The movie is dark and never pulls its punches. It is decidedly not for children, even though I saw a number of them in the theater today. Parents who complained 16 years ago about how dark “Batman Returns” was should know that film was like Sunday school compared to what unfolds here.
Mentioning “Returns” makes me think of inevitable comparisons between those early Bat-films and what Christopher Nolan has done here. First, I was shocked by how utterly I had forgotten Jack Nicholson’s Joker after watching the late Heath Ledger on the screen today.
Many people have said it already, but that makes it no less true: This is how the character will be remembered from now on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me just say that Ledger’s work is brilliant and he gives a performance you’ll never forget. He is helped, of course, by a great script, powerhouse direction and strong turns from all the other actors.
I was most impressed by the silence from the audience once the movie began. There was no chatter, no one talking or fiddling around with their cell phones. The crowd was really into this film.
And thankfully, Batman does not take a back seat to the villains. This is Christian Bale’s movie as much as anyone else’s. It is really an ensemble piece, and there are no weak links in the cast. The story is really about Gotham City, rather than Batman himself, though no previous Caped Crusader was ever put through the wringer quite like this. It almost has the feel of one of those great 1970s urban cops and bad guys movies. At the same time, the themes and issues it explores are extremely contemporary.
And yet, it’s the little moments in between the big action scenes that seemed to hold everyone’s attention. Like the conversation between Batman and the Joker when Joker has been put in jail at one point. Or the love triangle between Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent, and how a handwritten letter provides such an emotional moment, not just because of what it says but because of when that information comes in the story, and who knows the truth about what the letter says and who doesn’t.
Like “Batman Returns,” this is the second film in this Batman series and its fate also will likely determine the course that future films take. Like “Returns,” this also is arguably an example of taking familiar characters and situations and weaving them into a story whose agenda is really not superhero-ish; like Burton, Nolan is out to do something much different than just film a comic book.
The difference, at the risk of being a smartass, is that Nolan did it right.
Both “Returns” and “The Dark Knight” have, to different extents, a feeling of noir, which is basically the idea that there are no more heroes left in the world. “Returns” was a fairy tale-like attempt at exploring that idea, and because it was marketed as a kids movie, parents were taken by surprise by the unexpected dark, mean-spirited story that unfolded. And its concepts and ideas, though promising, were not fully explored or satisfyingly developed.
But “The Dark Knight” is unfailingly adult on every level. It is dark, funny, compelling, gruelingly suspenseful and at times unflinchingly painful. It’s the fastest two and a half hours I think I have ever spent, and between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry, you’ll be emotionally drained by the time it’s over.
And more than ever, it makes me want to see where a third film will go. To not make any more after this would be too cruel — even though this one will be hard, if not impossible, to top.