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The Dark Knight Returns: Spoiler-Free Review!

I am almost speechless.

For the past two and a half hours I had my brains pretty much blown out the back of my head by the The Dark Knight in IMAX.

This is a SPECTACULAR film.

It is dense. It is dazzling. And boy oh boy it is dark. It is SHOCKINGLY dark — not in terms of gore but in terms of how brutal it is towards all of the major characters in the film. I’ve heard people compare this sequel to The Empire Strikes Back (sort of the geek Mount Olympus in terms of a sequel), and one way the two are very much alike is that both films are not afraid to pretty much beat the hell out of “our heroes,” both physically and emotionally, for pretty much the entire running time.

This is a Batman story. And the best Batman stories, in my opinion, are the downbeat ones. But the Batman movies to this point, even the very excellent Batman Begins, have always seemed to be rather afraid to veer too far away from the happy ending. In the films we’ve seen previously, Bruce Wayne and co. always seem to be able to find fairly painless ways out, narratively, of the troubles they find themseves in. But not here. Time after time in The Dark Knight, our characters are faced with difficult situations and impossible choices, and no easy exit is presented to them. This makes for an extraordinarily compelling film.

There’s great action in this movie, no question. But this movie isn’t driven by action set pieces. It is driven by STORY, and by CHARACTER. The scenes that I can’t stop thinking about aren’t the car chases (they are awesome) or the fight scenes (they are bone-crunching). Its moments like the scene in which Batman and Jim Gordon must confront a deranged, hopeless man with a gun to the head of an innocent. Or Bruce Wayne’s dinner with Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. Or the Joker talking about his scars. Those are the scenes that are staying with me long after the lights went up in the theatre. And it is those sorts of intense emotional moments that propel the plot forward, rather than just fight scenes leading to more fight scenes.

Its a long movie, but I was on the edge of my seat right from the opening bank heist through to the absolutely note-perfect ending. Seeing the movie in huge, loud, glorious IMAX certainly enhanced that, but I simply cannot imagine anyone watching this movie in any sort of movie theatre not being intensely gripped by this film. I suppose some might complain that the film is too downbeat. But for me, this is the most perfect filmed realization of Batman I have ever seen. Can I say again that this film is SHOCKING? There are some narrative turns about two thirds of the way through this movie that had me absolutely FLOORED. I will say no more about that.

Instead, let me take a moment to praise the cast. As you’ve certainly heard by now, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is astounding. When Batman Begins ended with the promise of the Joker in the sequel, it seemed impossible to imagine any actor trying to compete with Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance in Tim Burton’s Batman. But after seeing Ledger’s depiction of the character, Nicholson’s version seems as silly and light as Cesar Romero’s. This Joker is SCARY. I loved the look of the character. I loved the way his origin was dealt with. I loved his laugh. This IS the Joker.

Similarly, Aaron Eckhart to me IS Harvey Dent. This is not a background, wink-at-the fans cameo the way Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey Dent was in Burton’s Batman. No, Harvey is CRUCIAL to the story being told, and the way the narrative weaves the tale of his fate with that of the Joker is very clever and very powerful. THIS is the way to incorporate multiple villains into your movie, all you Batman and Robins and Spider-Man 3s out there!! Eckhart brings such life to the character, and such charisma, that it is positively torture (in the best way, of course!) watching Harvey Dent slip down the path that we know is his destiny.

Everyone else is great as well. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and of course Christian Bale as Bats himself, are all excellent. Once again let me lavish praise on the script — not only are all these actors terrific, but each character is given a strong arc to play. Each character has his or her own journey in this movie, and none are extraneous — every one is, in his or her own way, essential to the story being told.

And what a story.

In case you couldn’t tell, I was pretty much giddy watching this film unfold. This is the Batman movie I always wanted to see. I don’t know when I’m going to see a movie next, but I know for damn sure what I’ll be seeing: The Dark Knight, for a second time.

Oh! And!! Before the movie was an AMAZING trailer for Watchmen! I am still dubious that this extraordinarily complex graphic novel — probably the greatest graphic novel ever written — can be faithfully adapted into a feature-length movie…BUT wow was this trailer stupendous. I will post a link once this beauty finds its way on-line..

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