At a bank in Gotham City where a large amount of mobsters' fortunes are kept, there is a robbery being staged. The thieves arrive in clown masks and have been instructed well, intimidating the staff and what few customers are present, easily breaking into the vault and... shooting each other once their part of the plan has gone into effect. One employee (William Fichtner) decides to play the hero and advances on two of the criminals with a shotgun, but he is abruptly cut down even as he shouts that they are insane to want to take on Gotham's underworld - and he's right, for The Joker (Heath Ledger) has arrived.
The death of a film's star before it is even released should be a handicap, but actually, as the producers of Rebel Without a Cause found when James Dean died, it can actually enhance the film's reputation and make the public all the more keen to see it. And when the deceased actor is working at the top of his form, as Heath Ledger was with The Dark Knight, it makes the tragedy of his early demise felt all the keener, especially as here he plays The Joker as if it were the role he was born to inhabit, announcing a new phase in his career that was never to be.
It's a tribute to Christopher Nolan's second Batman film after Batman Begins that as you're watching, the film doesn't become The Heath Ledger Show, for as with the previous instalment there is a fine ensemble cast assembled who each contribute more than adequately. Gary Oldman was back as Commissioner Gordon, the Caped Crusader's inside man when it comes to the police force, as was Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, who builds all Batman's hardware, and of course Michael Caine's wise and witty Alfred the butler who does his best to keep billionaire Bruce Wayne grounded. As for the title character, once more Christian Bale was suitably monolithic; here it's a difficult role to make sparkle, and Bale doesn't even try, offering a menacing good guy who becomes an unintended liability to the people he wishes to protect.
Two sides of the same coin is how we are intended to view Batman and his arch-nemesis, and here's the main problem with the film: it doesn't treat the audience with the intelligence to see the themes and relationships between the characters. Instead, Nolan and his co-writers David S. Goyer and brother Jonathan Nolan prefer to spell out all those allusions, metaphors and motifs as if they were composing a dissertation on the classic comic book icons, putting leaden dialogue into the mouths of the cast that leave us in no doubt that Batman represents order and The Joker represents chaos, and ordinary people are not lesser than the villain because they have a simple moral code that he does not contemplate.
On the other hand, this film can be said to be doing justice to those famed arch-enemies within the confines of this dour cityscape that they stage their never-ending battles on. Not only that, but one of the comic's better, more complex bad guys gets a far more decent crack at the whip than he did in the previous Batman Forever: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the district attorney and non-caped crusader who it appears, for a while, will manage to bring down the gangsters until he reckons without something worse and is transformed into Two-Face, a conflicted man who cannot see anything in any terms other than right or wrong. Again, it's far too blatant for comfort, but couple all this chin-stroking about the duality of mankind with spectacular action scenes and you do get something that demands to be taken seriously, and if there is any comic book hero worth taking seriously it is Batman. Music by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.
British director specialising in dark thrillers. Made an impressive debut with the low-budget Following, but it was the time-twisting noir Memento that brought him to Hollywood's attention. 2002's Al Pacino-starrer Insomnia was a remake of a Norwegian thriller, while Batman Begins was one of 2005's biggest summer movies. The hits kept coming with magician tale The Prestige, and Batman sequel The Dark Knight was the most successful movie of Nolan's career, which he followed with ambitious sci-fi Inception and the final entry of his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises. He then attempted to go as far as he could with sci-fi epic Interstellar, another huge success at the box office, which was followed by his World War II blockbuster Dunkirk.