A super-hero movie this good could have been even longer than 2 1/2 hours. Especially if the extra time would have made room for a more noteworthy entrance and exit for the Joker in order to expand his story. There was not much of a story arc for him, but he was equally fascinating to watch from his first moment to his last.
“Who let the Joker out of his box?” someone in the film asks. And I wouldn’t have minded seeing the box. Christopher Nolan did the same thing with Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins. Given the overdone origin stories in previous Batman films, Nolan falls off the other side of the horse by giving us crazy people who did not become evil; they just are evil. It is fascinating how the Joker changes his story about the origins of his scars depending on who he is addressing. I was disappointed when Batman didn’t let the Joker finish telling that final version. Given the progression of the first two versions of the Joker’s tale, there is the hint of a suggestion that the Joker actually afflicted himself with his deformities. As fascinating as Ledger’s Joker is to watch, we have no perspective of him as a character. And as awesome as Ledger is, we will never know what it would have been like to watch this role without the actor’s death attached to it.
But this film is also about someone named “Batman,” who is getting short-changed in recent hype about the film. Batman gets an awesome new suit – one that lets him turn his head (so he doesn’t have to use sonar to know what is behind him). He gets a new, slightly chubbier mask. His gravelly, THX-enhanced voice remains the same: a bit too death metal (I found his grunting contest with Two-Face almost laughable). Batman is much cooler when he is not trying to explain things.
The action set-pieces are amazingly done. The film is short on digital animation. It shows Indiana Jones how shocking and exciting a spectacle like this can be with restrained CGI. The dank, grey, smoky, digital Gotham City from Batman Begins is traded in for a Gotham that is more pristine, brighter, more familiar, more corruptible. The action of this film takes place in realistically conceived space.
But the thing that really got me about this film was how effectively and compellingly it handles its exploration of shifting identities. The prominence of masks and mistaken identities abounds from the first scenes to the last. The first people we see in the movie are wearing masks. Before we see Batman, we see other vigilantes dressed in Batman costumes. A certain mask from Batman Begins makes an appearance. Later in the film, another major character pretends to be Batman. Even the Joker wears a handful of costumes (We are led to believe that there is no final mask underneath that deformed smile). Toward the beginning of the film, one of the men wearing a Batman costume asks the Caped Crusader: “What is the difference between you and me?” and the “real” Batman answers with the campy understatement of the summer: “I’m not wearing hockey pants.”
Nolan’s first Batman film explores the identity of Batman/Bruce Wayne, and his new film extends that exploration even further. There is Bruce Wayne, the private, sympathetic character. There is Bruce Wayne the brash, drunken playboy. There is Batman. And as this new film progresses, we see the creation of another Batman: the Caped Crusader is slowly becoming the Dark Knight. So even the title of the movie plays into this theme of identity. Batman makes choices that build to a new public (and, interestingly, even private) persona. One of the Joker’s strategies is to threaten to kill a prominent Gothamite if Batman does not reveal his true identity. He sends along a Joker playing cards that reads “Will the real Batman please stand up?” In the final scenes of the film, Batman does indeed take his stand.
The stage is set for the next Batman installment, not with the suggestion of a new villain (which might have been a fatal mistake), but with a new Batman, or a new journey for the old Batman, one compelling enough to carry this franchise through to the other side of Heath Ledger’s stellar performance.