The late Heath Ledger is mesmerising as the villainous Joker in the latest, deeply dark Batman instalment
In 1995, lightweight George Clooney and director Joel Schumacher dealt this comicbook superhero franchise a near-fatal blow with their dire Batman and Robin.
Ten years later, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale rescued the legend of the Caped Crusader by returning to his origins in Batman Begins.
Now Nolan and Bale return with a superb sequel whose title is well-earned. This time, Bale's dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman is a deeply dark, multilayered personality, while Gotham City, seen mostly by night, is even darker.There is, of course, plenty of exciting action, beginning with a fiercely staged bank robbery by men in clown masks and the momentum of the story-telling rarely lets up.
But, the taut storyline, while finding plenty for Batman to do as he goes after the late Heath Ledger's vicious Joker, goes deeper to reveal him a man hoping to hang up his Bat-suit and cloak and pass the post of Gotham City's crime-fighter on to someone else - hopefully the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
At first Batman and Dent, joined by Gary Oldman's Police Lieutenant Gordon, seem to be winning the battle and cleaning up the city. But The Joker forces Batman into a position ever more dangerously nearer to vigilante than crime fighter, summed up by Dent's mordant comment: "You either die a hero... or live long enough to become the villain"
The strength of The Dark Knight is that it works eminently well on two levels - as complex and persuasive character studies of its key protagonists , and as a visceral action thriller. Bale has his dual role down to perfection, Eckhart makes his key contribution powerfully and Oldman is first rate.
Ledger, who died earlier this year and is being promoted as deserving of a posthumous Oscar, is utterly mesmerising as the twisted, terrifying Joker, erasing forever memories of Jack Nicholson's smirking self-satisfied portrayal. White-faced, hair mattered and smeared with ill-applied make-up, Ledger's scarily unpredictable psycho dominates a magnificent movie.