Right from the start the film undermines your expectations and rarely provides a linear storyline, instead choosing to depict the competing forces -- order, crime, anarchy, fate, morality -- which struggle for the soul of Gotham City. At its worst this multi-threaded approach is edgy and unsatisfying but, increasingly, it's a spectacular success.
No single character dominates, and that goes for Bruce Wayne and Batman as much as any. In the earlier film series it was generally the outlandish villains who upstaged the hero. In Batman Begins it was Bruce Wayne. Here it's Gotham City itself, and the war on crime in which Batman is just one agent. Nonetheless Batman is probably more present in this film than in any previous entry in the series. Even when the film is not focusing on the Dark Knight himself it's made clear that for good or ill he has inspired everything that happens: the copy-cats; the Mob's retaliation; Harvey Dent's rise and fall. And of course, the Joker.
It's slightly difficult to appraise Heath Ledger's performance in this film without worrying about eulogising him. He delivers a riveting take on a hackneyed character, one which occasionally recalls past actors (César Romero's hooting laugh), but which also deglamourises the character. You can't take your eyes off him when he's on screen--not because you're laughing along with him but because he's a psychopath. When I first heard that Ledger had been cast in the role I wished for someone a bit less flat-footed, but this croaky, shambling, lip-licking, hunch-shouldered performance is nothing short of revelatory.
What the script does with the Joker is every bit as good as Ledger's performance. He has no identity: no fingerprints or DNA on file, his back-stories mutually contradictory. It's as if the city has spontaneously created an agent of chaos who exists only to incite violence. He doesn't change or grow during the film. He doesn't even appear to fear death, if in dying he can bring about someone else's moral fall. He just is. Possibly my favourite artistic decision in the entire film is that the Joker has no musical theme; instead he's represented by a high-pitched whine of white noise, like a ringing in the ears that slices through the soundtrack.
The Joker presents people with impossible choices that try to strip them of the veneer of morality. With Batman he fails. With Harvey Dent he succeeds, creating an amoral agent of fate. With the public his success is mixed, most memorably in the powerful ferry sequence. Everyone in the film finds their moral compass tested and tries to walk a fine line between combating terror and maintaining their values.
What's pleasing is that the film acknowledges the messiness of the real world. In backing the mob into a corner, Batman unleashes all the responses that would, in the real world, face a masked vigilante: gun-toting copy-cats, threats against families, cop-killing, blowing up hospitals, inciting the public to fear and violence. The film creates a context in which Batman escalates the very problem he's seeking to tackle, or at the very least is powerless to act against it. There's a clear question here about the U.S. 'war on terror', as the Joker's acts of terrorism invite the public to turn on each other, and Batman to contemplate breaking his own rules. (Unfortunately the film has its cake and eats it: Batman doesn't kill, but he does temporarily violate civil liberties and then puts the genie back in the bottle.)
It's traditional to compare and contrast Batman and the Joker but it's Dent and Wayne who are - if you'll pardon the expression - two sides of the same coin. Each is rich, handsome, courageous and a symbol of hope. Each admires the other, each loves the same woman. Each has an inner demon. The parallels go further: Dent shoulders Batman's acts so that Batman can stop the Joker and, at the end of the film, Batman repays the favour by shouldering Two Face's crimes so that Dent can continue to inspire. As a consequence Batman becomes a hunted fugitive, but his ability to fight the underworld may actually be enhanced, while Dent remains a hero, allowing the Mob prosecutions to go ahead.
The theme is hammered home at the end of the film: in protecting Dent's reputation at the expense of his own Batman gives the city the illusion of the hero they need, not the real hero they deserve. In the same way, Alfred burns Rachel's letter so that Bruce can cling to his illusions about her. This is ironic stuff but the final voice-over seems 'off' somehow, and we're left with the message that giving people illusory figures of hope is better than them knowing the truth. As Wayne says: "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough: sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded." Like Abigail I'm not sure how coherent or admirable this message is.
This is a long film burdened with many parallel and intersecting threads, but it's none the worse for it. Each character enters on a separate trajectory, becomes entangled with the others, and then emerges in a new direction. There are multiple denouements, but each thread adds to the whole. There's never that Return of the King sense of overstaying its welcome. The ensemble structure means there are a host of strong performances and pleasing cameos, including a welcome turn from Keith
The Dark Knight is an intelligent, ambitious film; one that snowballs in depth and power as it progresses. While at times I found it meandering, for the most part I was completely absorbed. The tone is more consistently low-key than Batman Begins, whose stark early scenes were gradually overtaken by a more blockbuster sensibility. In contrast this sequel has no effects-laden climax. It remains strongly anchored in a hard-boiled world of crime, gangsters and terrorism.
It's by no means an unqualified success, but it's very good.