The Batman series took quite a knock on the 1997 release of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin.

The dark under-city of Gotham was lost beneath the torrent of flamboyant characters and that controversially nippled bat-suit. It caused a furore among fans of the original source material who believed that the character had lost its soul.

It was this outcry from fans of The Bat that triggered Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of the character in the celebrated Batman Begins (2005). Gone were the pointless sidekicks, camp villains and useless love interests that littered Schumacher’s films.

Nolan’s Gotham is a gritty one, perhaps even too gritty, but it’s a welcome change from the camp style of the previous two installments. Instead we have gorgeous set-design and camerawork, with Gotham looking darker and better than ever. The gloom provides a fantastic backdrop for Nolan’s twisted plots.

The record-breaking hit The Dark Knight continues the trend of shadow and chaos in what seems to be a doomed city; this time with The Batman taking on two villains – The Joker and Two-Face – who featured in earlier films but have now been completely reworked. Forget Jack Nicholson’s brilliant Joker in Tim Burton’s original, as this new version is entirely more maniacal, and in a contemporary twist, has been reconstructed as a manipulative terrorist.

I prefer this new idea for the character, who is now no longer the trigger of Batman’s various neuroses, but rather a mysterious nihilist intent on destroying the city from within.

As expected, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the deranged villain is a show-stealer, and almost all of his scenes are a pleasure to watch. Aaron Eckhart provides a good performance as Harvey Dent, but his role simply does not have the scope to compete with Ledger’s screen-time.

However, both provide dastardly scenarios that tend to have far greater weight than the often banal actions of the villains from Nolan’s last Batman effort.

The Dark Knight also presents us with much better character interaction between the heroes. Bruce Wayne’s on/off love interest, District Attorney Rachel Dawes, performed so insipidly by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, is now played by infinitely better actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She brings greater sincerity and strength to a role that could have sunk into the typical ‘damsel-in-distress’ cliché.

Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine go through the motions as Batman’s confidants, but are given more substantial roles. The dishy Bale has eased into the role of the disturbed protagonist, and impressively enough, provides some believability to the over-the-top concept of a billionaire who also just happens to be a superhero.

The dialogue throughout is appropriate for a superhero film, minus one absolutely awful speech by Michael Caine’s Alfred: He lectures how the world may not like The Bat’s methods to counter terrorism, but that it is Batman’s duty as a hero to do so in any way he can. Non-American audiences will groan at this crude ‘war on terror’ metaphor, but it a minor speed-bump in an otherwise tight script.

The film plays as a constant rush of climaxes, so don’t expect much breathing room between plot points. Audience members not entirely familiar with the Batman mythos might have trouble keeping up thanks to the many intricate sub-plots, some of which could have been excluded.

One of the opening sequences involves an entirely pointless cameo from the Scarecrow, who could’ve been used in later films to much greater effect but is simply wasted in this blink-and-you-miss-him role.

And while Ledger’s performance is indeed very good, especially in some of his final monologues, it’s weighed down by some weak jokes and maniacal laughter that border on embarrassing. I doubt that this role has the clout to earn the Brokeback Mountain star the posthumous Oscar that his fans have been buzzing about.

Despite these problems, The Dark Knight is certainly one of the best films in its genre, with a beautifully dark and mysterious cityscape, a significantly better cast than its predecessor, and action sequences that will keep fans of superhero extravaganzas more than happy. Those who appreciated Batman Begins will most likely adore this sequel; one which improves on its precursor in almost every aspect.

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