Three summers ago expectations for the Batman reboot Batman Begins were very different than they are for this summer's follow-up, The Dark Knight. After Joel Schumacher's 1997 scorched earth entry Batman & Robin, the question then was could director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale successfully revive a once seemingly invulnerable franchise on the brink of irrelevance.
As we now all know they not only did they do so successfully, but did so spectacularly, and those gusty winds we all felt on the evening of June 15th 2005 were the collective sighs of relief of millions of comic book fans around the world (along with a few executives at Warner Bros. to be sure)
No good deed goes unpunished however, and as Nolan, Bale, and Warners ready to open The Dark Knight on July 18th, long since forgotten is the question "Can Batman be viable again?" This film is faced with meeting or exceeding perhaps the highest levels critical and commercial expectation since Peter Jackson's second two "Lord of the Rings" entries.
So is The Dark Knight equal to the task?
Well, yes and no.
Lets start with the "yes" first.
Yes, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker was that good. When the buzz words on everyone's lips are "posthumous Oscar" for a villainous role in a comic book based summer blockbuster, expectations can't be any higher, but Ledger cleared that bar with room to spare.
Past villainous Oscar turns by actors like Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) had iconic personas playing against type but still very recognizable. Ledger, however, is entirely transformed as the Joker. Aided only by a minimal amount of make-up and prosthetics, the actor completely disappeared into the character. So unrecognizable, you half expect to read "The Joker as Himself" as the film's final credits roll.
But that's not even Ledger's most remarkable achievement. Despite the pall hanging over the role considering his untimely and tragic death, as well as the fact the character is arguably the darkest and most disturbing villain there has ever been in a rated PG-13 movie, Ledger's performance is in a word, gleeful. His Joker is the cinematic equivalent of an Irish wake. Perhaps a little bit twisted, his performance exudes genuine joy and humor in the darkest of circumstances. It's clear the actor was reveling in the character he and Nolan created and his exuberance comes right through the screen infecting you any time he's on the screen, when the movie is at its best.
Which brings us to the "no" part, and it's a qualified "no". Make no mistake, The Dark Knight is good … very good in fact, but it also might have a hard time living up to the crushing weight of the film's remarkable early buzz.
For one, this isn't even Batman's movie … or Bruce Wayne's for that matter. In fact, all things being equal, Christian Bale probably deserves a third billing behind Ledger and the film's true lead, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight is truly the story of Dent's rise and fall … which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It’s a compelling and effective story. But moviegoers expecting to see Batman go on a journey will have to be satisfied literally, in a terrific action sequence set in Hong Kong that feels a little more "Bourne" or "Bond" than "Batman".
And that's typical of the surprising element of The Dark Knight. As highly effective as Batman Begins was, the two films "feel" very different.
For one, Nolan and this story partners brother Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer make few connections between the two films. Batman's origin, so effectively told in Begins isn't touched on here, even a little bit, and there is little sign of the first film's overarching theme of "fear".
Even Gotham City is transformed from the first film. Gone are the set pieces like "The Narrows" and the Gothic production designs like the above-ground trains that played such a prominent role in Batman Begins. The Dark Knight's Gotham is more "grounded", with more liberal use of location shooting to make it feel more like a real city in size and scope, but perhaps a little less like the city fans of the comic book are familiar with.
Nolan and crew should be credited for not just trying to recreate the first film, and making The Dark Knight very much its own experience. But at the end of the day, perhaps they will be somewhat victims of their own success.
The Dark Knight is an expertly crafted, highly entertaining success. But whether or not it will deliver the visceral thrills that Begins did and satisfy what is now a much different and higher level of expectation than its predecessor is the open question the film will have to answer to.
Oh, and there one other open question – what do to for the next film in this series, and we'll have some very specific thoughts on that matter in a couple of weeks…