I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight tonight. Here's the short, spoiler-free version for those who haven't seen it yet: Absolutely bloody brilliant.
Now for the spoiler-filled analysis...
I think this probably rates as my favourite Batman film. Heck, beyond that, it rates as one of my favourite films from the last few years. I've been a fan of Christopher Nolan since Memento, and I did enjoy Batman Begins a lot when I saw it on DVD a few weeks back, but I wasn't quite prepared for how good The Dark Knight actually turned out to be.
There's been a lot of hype surrounding Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker, following his accidental death back in January, which is normally the kind of thing that would send my bullshit radar into hyperactive mode, but I have to say, having now seen the film, that all the hype is entirely justified. Ledger gives an edgy, uncomfortable performance of real dementation and menace best summed up by the early line "What does not kill you makes you... stranger." His Joker doesn't have Nicholson's bombast, rather a chilling, almost calculated madness: a measured, but extreme sociopathy, instead of a random, uncontrolled psychopathy. This will certainly be the role that Ledger will be most remembered for, not just because it was his final role (or rather the final role he completed filming), but because his presence, while arguably underused, totally permeates the film and gives it its rotten core. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. While Jack Nicholson's Joker was overblown and faintly ludicrous, this incarnation is much more believable as a real person, rather than a comic book stereotype. That's both credit to Ledger and the direction in which Christopher Nolan has taken the franchise.
I also really like Christian Bale in the role of Batman. He's well suited to playing the billionaire playboy and the brooding superhero. His Batman is more akin to the tortured version of the Tim Burton films than the flashy, camp Joel Schumacher Batmans, and again, the Bale Batman is a better rounded and more believable character.
As for the film itself, well, it's not quite perfect, it's maybe a good twenty minutes too long, but it's so densely plotted that it's difficult to know what you'd cut. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Heat (clearly a good thing in my opinion) in terms of pacing and the quality and depth of the cast, though obviously The Dark Knight has a lot more set pieces. I particularly enjoyed the opening bank heist, the abduction scene in Hong Kong and the interrogation scene, and the set piece where the Joker is trying to kill Harvey Dent in the armoured car is very nicely done. The cast is uniformly excellent (though I've never really seen the appeal of Maggie Gyllenhall and was quite pleased - if surprised - that they killed her off) and the overall pacing of the film is good.
There were a couple of big stand-out moments for me, and they all centred around the Joker. The first is the "magic trick" with the pencil when the Joker goes to speak to the criminal convocation. It's not done graphically at all, but the implication is there and pretty hideous. It really made me wince, and question how the film got a 12A certification. It's not the kind of thing you really want to let a young kid kid see. The "Why so serious?" speech and conclusion is likewise done non-graphically, but is pretty questionable for a 12A film. In a 15 certificate, fine, but imagine if you're a parent bringing an 8 or 9 year old to see the film and you had to explain to them what just happened... Other moments I liked were the Joker's conversation with Two Face in the hospital, his escape plan from the police station (especially the way he goaded the detective into fighting him so he could get out of the interrogation cell) and stand-off between the two booby-trapped ferries.
It will be interesting to see how the move the franchise on in the next film, since it's pretty much unimaginable to see anyone else in the role of the Joker now. Of course, they've still got plenty of other villains to play with, but it will be amazing if they manage to top The Dark Knight.