It was like standing in line for a ride at an amusement park. My fiancée and our friends arrived at the theatre a half hour early to see the IMAX version of "The Dark Knight" and the line for the sold-out showing was hundreds of feet long. Luckily we'd managed to get there just in time so that we didn't have to wait outside in the sticky Indiana humidity as the line was forced to snake outside the building.
And oh were we ever in for a ride that would prove itself exactly what everyone desired: the signature cinematic experience of the 2008 summer season and the greatest superhero film ever made.
Writer-Director-Producer Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" jumps right into the story, not even bothering with some tedious origin story for its antagonist the Joker (Heath Ledger.) A gang of clown-masked thugs robs a mob-controlled bank. The Joker is an unpredictable wild card, an enigma to the various organized crime factions in the city. Yet they're intimidated by both Batman (Christian Bale) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart,) the new aggressive district attorney. So they decide to work with a madman.
Dent represents many things for a conflicted Bruce Wayne. As Batman, Wayne sees in Dent an heir - someone who's willing to take on Gotham City's corruption and fight crime the right way so that he won't be needed. As Wayne he's tortured that the woman he loves, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes,) is dating Dent.
With the Joker Batman finds a threat he cannot really understand. In the first film, "Batman Begins," Wayne began his crusade fighting against corrupt, evil men who wanted power and money. The Joker is a different animal. He's a criminally insane freak who's described best by Wayne's confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) when the butler says "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
And so over the course of the film the Joker begins a mission to generate as much chaos and carnage as possible, assassinating politicians and civil servants, planting bombs around the city, and manipulating the media.
Nolan's restart of the Batman franchise, 2005's "Batman Begins," set a new standard for the superhero film, being the genre's first genuine drama. It dealt with its characters and ideas with a seriousness worthy of the numerous Oscar-caliber actors that brought the world of Batman to life like never before.
"The Dark Knight" raises the threshold even higher. It's two and half hours long and so good that I wouldn't have minded it being even longer.
Of course Ledger's performance is one for the ages. Expect a Best Supporting Actor nomination and maybe even a win. His Joker makes Jack Nicholson's in Tim Burton's "Batman" almost forgettable in comparison. This Joker will become one of cinema's most iconic villains. There were plenty of indicators that Ledger had this kind of potential. Many are familiar with his role in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" but fans should also make a point to see the even more impressive 2006 Australian film "Candy" in which he portrays a heroin addict. "Monster's Ball" also showed early on his ability to handle dark, serious material.
What made the sequel's predecessor so exceptional was the emotional and intellectual depth of the themes it explored. By introducing the Joker as Batman's foil and delving into the nature of the character as it does with Ledger's portrayal, "The Dark Knight" is the most philosophically serious and important of all superhero films.
The conventions of the genre generally are thought to turn off the brain with their explosions and silly, spandex-clad supermen. We usually go to these movies for escapism, not intellectualism. "The Dark Knight" challenges all that, though, by presenting both Batman and the Joker as what they are: the embodiments of order and chaos. That's the conflict here, not good versus evil like we'd find in Superman and Lex Luthor.
Batman represents control, and authoritarianism. He goes to extremes to prevent crime - actions which translate to torture and Big Brother-style eavesdropping. The Joker is pure anarchy. He doesn't want money or power, just madness. Just compare their appearances and origins. Batman wears the carefully-designed black costume and we understand exactly why he's doing what he does. We know from where he came. The Joker just appears out of nowhere. His hair, clothes, and make-up are all a mess. We cannot understand his actions except to just label him what he is: a psychotic.
The film finally puts Batman where he belongs. Batman isn't a hero in the traditional sense. The Batman of "The Dark Knight" challenges just what it means to be a hero. Are the methods that Batman employs acceptable given the circumstances posed by the Joker? What are we to do as individuals and a society when we encounter the threat posed by a terrorist like the Joker? The film does what great films and great art are supposed to do: pose the questions, not preach simple answers.
The ideas aren't all the film has to offer, of course. Those wanting escapism can still find it. The movie's action is mind-blowing and Nolan takes advantage of the IMAX format. When Batman travels to Hong Kong to retrieve a businessman with critical ties to the Gotham mob the stunts are unforgettable.
After the film my friends and I went out to dinner and much of our conversation involved the picture's ideas and the sheer experience of it. It's hard to imagine any other response. Viewers are going to be talking about the landmark "Dark Knight" for a long time.