Right away, you notice that Gotham is different than the city you saw three years ago in Batman Begins: there probably is mud and muck here too, but you can't see it from atop those soaring skyscrapers, all glass and shimmer. In time you will find the Batman here, looking down on his city, but you don't find him as the movie opens. Instead, you see the Joker's henchmen swinging between buildings as you might expect Batman to do so, en route to a superbly staged bank robbery that is as much homage to Hollywood's grand heist tradition as it is to comicdom's most notorious homicidal maniac, the guy you spot even before he's said anything, just from his gait, and the way the camera lingers on him as he's standing at ground level waiting for his ride: the Joker. And just from that walk, those awkward movements, and (in a few minutes), the way that robbery turns out, you know Heath Ledger has got something special in store for you.
Gotham remains different even after the Batman makes his appearance -- this sleek city is a far cry from the dark, almost period urban setting director Christopher Nolan gave us in his first Batman film. And yet the transformation is appropriate: the Gotham of Batman Begins was pre-Batman, whereas this city is a more hopeful one, watched over by the guardian symbol who has taken the fight to the city's criminals since his first appearance. Even Bruce Wayne lives here now (for the moment anyway), in a modern penthouse very far from the living past of Wayne Manor, its neo-Gothic bombast doubtless weighing Wayne down. Life, in short, is getting better: not only is the odd dealer too scared to sell drugs on nights when he can see the Bat-Signal, but Batman's appearance seems to have energized the citizenry as well, which has its own hero: District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), with a face built for a political poster, yet possessed of a genuine passion for crusading against Gotham's mob bosses.
Better? Nolan riddles The Dark Knight with discordant notes right from the start: not only does the film begin with that Joker-planned robbery, but we are soon in a claustrophobic car-park, where Batman has been beaten to a crime scene by a copycat, wearing a similar costume and wielding a gun. The real deal is having none of this, and beats him to a pulp, drawing no distinction between criminals and those whom Batman has inspired to take to costumed crime-fighting. One laughs when Batman quips at the copycat's expense, but a little uneasily. For the Batman plainly thinks he is a law unto himself, and that isn't very comforting.
The Joker is a lot more than uneasy, and decides that he wants to subvert Gotham's new order, not just the Rule of the Bat but the (newfound) Rule of Law. Unlike conventional comic book villains, however, the Joker doesn't want to bring Gotham's order crashing down because it's a first step to world domination, or because he wants to loot a lot of money, or even because he has a personal grudge against Batman, or anyone else. The Joker does what he does simply because. Or, as he memorably puts it towards the film's end, he's like a dog chasing cars, and wouldn't know what to do with one if he caught it. Or, one begins to suspect, the Joker exists because Batman does; that is, the new order -- symbolized by the caped crusader, and comprehensive in its grasp, not limited by national borders or jurisdictions (just ask the Hong Kong-based gangster whom Batman abducts and returns to Gotham) -- engenders its own entropic desire, not a polar opposite so much as a dystopic twin of sorts. No wonder this film begins with the Joker, but concludes with Two-Face.
The quintessential Two-Face story in the Batman comics involves an obsession with doubling: for instance, Gotham law enforcement authorities might be called upon to solve the kidnapping of the twin sons of a wealthy industrialist, suspended near statues of Castor and Pollux, at 2AM, and ... you get the picture (Batman usually does). What is the meaning of this man in The Dark Knight? Two-Face, that is to say Harvey Dent after half his face is burnt away, leaving a maniacal criminal whose crimes are governed by the results of a coin toss, is obviously a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure, a two-in-one man, but in Nolan's movie he is far more: he is, quite simply, the border between Batman and the Joker. "I believe in Harvey Dent," Bruce Wayne intones at a fundraiser, repeating one of Dent's election slogans -- but the Joker believes in him too, as we see when he visits the scarred Dent in hospital, expressing hope that Dent will now see (his) light, and even letting his own fate be decided by Dent's coin toss. Both have good reason to: Two Face's "Batside" is reflected in his obsession with the coin toss, a compulsion to abide by the rule; his "Jokerside" is of course symbolized by the randomness of the coin toss, the fact that the outcome of any particular coin toss is unpredictable, and potentially anarchic. [The old Dent was a cheater: like Jai in Sholay, he carried a two-headed coin that ensured he always won; the new Two-Face might cheat by tossing again if he doesn't like the result of a particular toss, but hasn't completely rigged the system.] By the end of the film, the Joker has won the "battle for Gotham's soul," as he taunts Batman -- Harvey Dent is irremediably Two-Face, and the latter's rule fetish is firmly in the service of violence, revenge, and madness.
Violence, revenge, and madness: these terms could apply to Batman as well as to Two-Face (the first and third of these would apply to the Joker, but not, as Ledger plays him, the second), and in a further illustration of Nolan's vision of Two-Face as a "double" of not only Joker but also Batman, it is fitting that at film's end, Batman offers himself up to Commissioner Gordon as a kind of substitute Dent, willing to take responsibility for murders Dent has committed. Batman, that is to say, becomes a sacrifice for Dent, a man who has previously himself been sacrificed in the cause of struggling against Gotham's criminals. [Two sacrifices, the earlier of which was made in the context of a choice posed by the Joker to Batman: he could either save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) or Dent, both kidnapped at the Joker's behest and held at two different locations, but facing identical predicaments. Nolan is clearly a keen student of the Batman comics, and this joke is very much on (the man who will become) Two-Face: he is a victim of the quintessential Two-Face crime (i.e., centered on the number "two"), the very crime that transforms Harvey Dent into Two-Face.] In sum, The Dark Knight is about Harvey Dent/Two-Face more than it is about Batman or the Joker -- because Dent/Face is in himself "about" Batman and the Joker, and hence about Gotham, a symbol of hope doomed from the start (not least by dramatic irony: the audience always already knows Harvey Dent as the man who will become Two-Face).
Batman can claim no victory here, and is reduced to salvaging a propaganda victory from the wreckage of his hopes for Dent's redemption of the city. The public must never know what Dent has done, Batman convinces Gordon, and hence it is best that Batman bear the blame for Two-Face's crimes, so that the public's faith in Dent's heroism can continue undimmed (presumably Gotham's Finest will announce Dent's death, although he is very much alive, and slated to re-appear in the third Batman film). This is dark stuff indeed: Batman's resort to symbolism -- he initially dons the look of the nocturnal bat, because criminals are a "superstitious, cowardly lot" -- has reached its logical conclusion: the symbol at the cost of truth, propaganda at the cost of an informed citizenry. At film's end, as near the beginning, Batman is a law unto himself.
The late Heath Ledger has rightly garnered most of the acclaim for his sensational turn as the Joker, and it is impossible to begrudge him any of it: his Joker is unsettling because he himself appears unsettled -- from his gestures, to the restless way his eyes dart around, to his sudden laughter -- and sure of nothing except that the world needs some murderous shaking up. Jack Nicholson, eat your heart out: the definitive cinematic Joker is here. But Ledger's performance should not detract from Aaron Eckhart's pitch perfect incarnation of Harvey Dent and Two-Face. It isn't easy to hold your own in a film where you are neither the hero, nor the most flamboyant character, but Eckhart manages it with ease. Ledger perhaps had the more challenging role, but Eckhart's tough boy scout-turned-psycho is the most complete story arc in the film.
Amidst Ledger and Eckhart, many have complained that Batman has been sidelined, but to an extent this criticism misreads the function of the caped crusader in Nolan's film. In The Dark Knight, as in the work of legendary 1970s Batman writer Denny O'Neill (nowhere more memorable than when his writing was married to Neal Adams' artwork), Batman is almost more symbol than man, and often a quasi-mystical symbol at that (O'Neill's influence on Nolan is marked: he and Adams "re-introduced" Two-Face in 1971, the most schematic of Batman villains, after decades of neglect, making him a permanent part of the Bat-canon; O'Neill's creation, Ras's Al Ghul, also makes an appearance in Batman Begins). As a symbol, Batman almost definitionally doesn't have much to do; so far so good, but Nolan is open to some criticism, because he could have made Batman more cerebral -- the film utterly dispenses with the "detective" aspect of O'Neill's Batman -- and, because there is nothing for Batman to figure out in this film (partly because of the contemporary Hollywood addiction to positing ten second magic technological fixes to seemingly insoluble problems -- "Can't find the Joker?! Why, let's rig up a megacoolwidget that'll do the job!"), he seems to be permanently reacting to the Joker's plans. In the O'Neill comics, Batman's sleuthing activities prevented him from being trapped into a static iconicity. In the dark world of this film, the dynamism of the World's Greatest Detective is absent; consequently, Batman isn't sidelined here so much as inert, a "mere" symbol. But for all that, Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne and Batman as seamlessly as he did the first time, with hardly a false note. If Batman isn't all he ought to be, that is no fault of Bale's. The other characters are uniformly well acted: while Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Alfred (Michael Caine), and Gordon (Gary Oldman) essentially reprise their roles from the first film (not a bad thing), the new Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a vast improvement over her previous avatar as Katie Holmes -- in toughness, personality, and screen presence.
All in all, films based on comic books don't get better than this -- and yet that sort of praise is almost condescending. For The Dark Knight isn't simply a great comic book film, but a darn good film, period: in its metaphysical ambitions, its visual grandeur (dependent on old-school location filmmaking far more than the soulless SFX bonanzas that dominate cinemas these days), and its deep-rooted assumption that detailed characterization matters. It's time the rest of Hollywood learned something from the guys in latex tights.