Christopher Nolan follows the sombre origin myth of ‘Batman Begins’ with a less introspective, more frenetic sequel. Once again there are lots of ideas on the boil, this time mostly to do with community action and leadership, but an endless flow of bullets, bombs and bat business drowns out most debate. Right from the off, Nolan sidesteps the analyst’s couch and plunges us straight into battle.
He starts with a disorienting bank robbery and from there barely allows us to breathe – or think, even – over the next two and a half hours as we swing from the US to Hong Kong and back to the streets of Gotham. Here, the crime rate is soaring, it’s always night, and any daylight leaves you squinting. It’s always downtown too; the city is inescapable, a confusing mix of the pedestrian and the paranoid.
For this sequel, there’s a whole lot of story going on, which reduced to basics involves the wildly unpredictable Joker (Heath Ledger) wreaking havoc on Gotham. This perverse clown’s keyword is chaos – crime without sense – and there’s more than a nod to the post-9/11 order. ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn,’ chips in one onlooker. Later, when a good guy turns bad and half his face is burnt to reveal bone and sinew, it’s hard not to recall those images of charred bodies in Iraq.
Ledger makes a great, freaky Joker, with dirty, lank hair, a voice that soars and dives, and a tongue that slithers and salivates. Two scenes stick in the mind: him walking away from a doomed hospital in a nurse’s dress right before an explosion, and later hanging out of the window of a speeding car, tasting the air like a reptile, with the soundtrack falling silent in tribute, freezing this psychotic, iconic villain in time and allowing for a moment of sadness amid the noise. If he wins an Oscar, who’d begrudge him that tribute?
Meanwhile, Christian Bale’s stately if unmemorable Bruce Wayne/Batman reassumes relationships with Michael Caine’s affable man-servant Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s man-sage Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman’s modest cop, Lieutenant Gordon (whose quietness is drowned out by the film’s bombastics). New to the scene are District Attorney Harvey Dent (a slick Aaron Eckhart), who Wayne wants to promote as a human alternative to his vigilantism (an interesting sideline on the need for humility and choice when picking a leader), and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a replacement for Katie Holmes’s Rachel Dawes, but she barely gets a look-in.
It’s all very monumental, and the film’s more self-conscious moments, of which there are many, would provoke a giggle if you weren’t distracted by yet another explosion, chase or ratcheting up of a score that shrieks importance.
The challenge that Nolan has set himself is to make a comic book film that’s serious, entertaining and popular. It’s a tall order, but an admirable one. ‘The Dark Knight’ is a film that’s fantastic on the action front, seeds its acrobatics in its own reality, and always feels relevant even when its ideas are drowned out by clatter. That said, every once in a while, you’d like to be able to lean into the screen and tickle somebody’s ribs.