It's the darkest Batman film ever. No real spoilers in my post, but I found two scenes particularly disturbing. Both pertained to hostage situations, one of which involved a premeditated setup that felt like something that Kevin Spacey's character in Se7en would do, if that gives you an idea of how dark it gets. If you are considering taking someone young to see it, the 13 in PG-13 is a very hard and real number for this one in terms of age-appropriateness, in my opinion. Heck, maybe 14, but there's no such thing as a PG-14 rating. Younger than that, and I think nightmares are a realistic possibility.
It's better than Batman Begins. Some critics are saying that it's this genre's The Empire Strikes Back. I think it's better than that. It has a formidable 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. Roger Ebert himself says that it "redefines the possibilities of the comic book movie."
It does for the superhero movie what the reimagined Battlestar Galactica has done for sci-fi. There are people who have been turned off by the new BSG because they feel it's too gritty and too, well, real: that there isn't enough gee-whiz sci-fi content. To me, that's the point: the story and the drama is at the forefront, and the fact that it's set in space with sentient machines is almost incidental.
Here, in the strangest way, you almost don't notice the special effects and costumes. They're there, but they sure aren't bright and cartoony. They're just part of the film's noir texture and fabric, as is appropriate for this tale of sacrifice. Color, when it's there, isn't garish, but faded, streaky, and washed-out - the decay of rained-on trash in the gutter.
I called it on Ledger's performance, by the way. I've said to just about anyone who would listen that, as much as I enjoyed Iron Man (and it was great fun - I was very entertained), I thought that Heath Ledger in the The Dark Knight was going to blow everything else away. You've heard the hype, and it exceeds expectations. The actor disappears into the role, and all you see is the character: he is the broken marionette; the distorted funhouse mirror that tells no truths. In my opinion, it is absolutely as Oscar-worthy a performance as Anthony Hopkins' chilling turn in Silence of the Lambs, for which he won Best Actor in 1992 (though Ledger's demented Joker is perhaps somewhat the opposite of the coldly precise, mannered, and brilliantly insane Dr. Lecter).
I'd be interested in reading the in-character diary that Ledger started keeping four months before filming started. Well before his death, his fellow cast members were praising his performance. Michael Caine said that he was amazed to the point that it caused him to forget his lines. There is Puckish deviltry and macabre whimsy in every move and action Ledger takes. He does not care who he hurts: it's all for his gruesome amusement, and even if his dance of mayhem ends and order is restored, well, that's part of the joke, too. It leaves him a world to continue to turn upside down, a fact of which this misdirecting Loki seems well aware.
I absolutely hope that he gets an Oscar nomination, and despite the unlikely odds, I hope he wins. To me, outstanding acting is outstanding acting, and the guy was a real character actor. You don't see the nuance and technique, per se ... it's not a self-aware I Am A Method Actor Watch Me Craft This Role performance - it's complete immersion: it's just the very scary, twisted Joker - the shattered prism with a million mocking reflections. At the end of the film, we still have no idea who he once was. I did a little reading, and found that the legendary Alan Moore's The Killing Joke inspired the warped depiction. Hollywood seems to be all over Moore's work these days, what with V for Vendetta not too long ago, and the upcoming adaptation of Watchmen.
From this to this, and that was just the makeup.
The script was tight, and there wasn't a bad turn in it: Ledger, Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal (ye gods, what an improvement over Katie Holmes), and especially Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent all contributed worthy screen time. Even people with the smallest parts, like the prisoner on the boat (it wasn't Michael Clarke Duncan, but the actor sort of reminded me of his work in The Green Mile), delivered solid performances.
If I didn't have an activity scheduled for Monday night, I'd be in a theater watching it again. I haven't seen a movie more than once on the big screen since Return of the King. It's the best film I've seen so far in 2008.