The Dark Knight (IMAX)
Warning: This review sounds hyperbolic. It's not. It's simply accurate.
Following up a masterpiece like Batman Begins is a difficult proposition. To make matters worse, as fantastic as the latter half of Batman Begins is, the first half, which follows Bruce Wayne's evolution into Batman under the influence of three very different mentors, was the more effective of the two. So The Dark Knight was not only handicapped by fan expectations, but also the difficulty of creating an original story that worked without cribbing from the plot of the greatest Batman graphic novel ever written (Frank Miller's Batman: Year One).
Since this review is being published the day after the movie came out, you probably don't need me to tell you that The Dark Knight meets, exceeds, and simply renders irrelevant any previous standards of filmmaking. It - like Wall-E, but in a completely different way - is something entirely new in the realm of filmmaking. For almost two and a half hours, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan do nothing but build and maintain tension. Unintuitively, The Dark Knight builds this tension not through a single, tight plot, but more as a series of Joker-related vignettes, each of which enhances the film's suspense while refusing to adhere to a pattern. If Batman Begins is an Apollonian masterpiece with an Apollonian villain, The Dark Knight's Joker demands a Dionysian story of excess and chaos, and the film delivers.
The Dark Knight sidesteps the problem of topping Batman Begins' character development by mostly ignoring it. Instead, it treats four of the greatest comic book characters ever invented (Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox), played by four of the greatest actors the world has ever seen (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman) like found objects. After Batman Begins, we know who they are and what they stand for, so in this film, all of them - even Bale - are moved to the background. The film's protagonists are the two new characters: Heath Ledger's Joker and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent.
Really, this is the Joker's movie. And Heath Ledger delivers a performance that may be the most charismatic ever caught on celluloid. Even as the Joker orchestrates a deadly serious and vicious series of terrorist attacks all over Gotham City - acts that left the audience stunned - he also had the audience I saw the movie with with laughing. They laughed at his jokes, at his mannerisms, at his murders. Somehow, Ledger created a monster who is not in the least bit sympathetic, whose crimes recall events such as the September 11 attacks, and yet his performance is so compelling that his sadism draws laughs. I can think of no other actor who could have accomplished it, and no other performance to rival it.
With the Joker at its center, The Dark Knight is a sickening story of human depravity that's nevertheless engrossing and, on many levels, quite enjoyable. It's a monumental achievement in all aspects of filmmaking and - particularly as I saw it on an IMAX screen - it boasts the most impressive spectacle of any movie yet created. It is as deep and as dark as the greatest of all Batman stories, and surpasses all of them - and perhaps all stories ever told - for sheer terror and suspense. We'll never know what plans Nolan and Nolan had for Joker had Ledger not been lost to us, but we're left with a document which will stand for as long as films are remembered. Which is to say, forever.