If any film in recent memory has approached, if not in many a fans eyes reached, perfection it would be the second entry in Chris Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight. Everything about the film contributes to building the tension and every performance is spot on, but what will forever be remembered about the film, what will stand out no matter how great everything else was is the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. When it was announced the actor would be playing the manic and insane criminal there was no shortage of doubt in his abilities but then the teaser trailer premiered and we got our first taste of Ledger's interpretation and how different it would be from Jack Nicholson's. Ledger's Joker was a deranged lunatic of a man who only wanted to watch the world burn and does more than his part to see that ambition become a truth in the city of Gotham. No matter how many times I watch the film I find myself amazed at how much this transcends the super hero/comic book genre to become something entirely different, something more-a crime drama, a mystery, a story of love, loss, and chaos. I become more impressed with how complex the story actually is, the layers with which the Nolan brothers and David Goyer took to make sure every aspect of the story had its motivations set to serve the ultimate theories and themes that Nolan is trying to explore with his films. There was no greater experience than seeing the massive action set pieces, the swelling music, the mastery of the performances come together on the IMAX screen like they did the first time you watched The Dark Knight. There hasn't been one since and likely never will be again, but I'm hoping things come pretty close this week.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) contemplates what it
means to be Batman.
At the end of Batman Begins when Gordon handed over the joker card to Batman we knew what was coming but not necessarily what to expect. Never did I imagine the film that would follow would be the defining moment of my movie going experiences. I literally felt privileged to be alive during the theatrical release of such a film and have the opportunity to see it as many times as I wanted to in the format it was meant to be seen in. For two and a half hours I was on the edge of seat in pure escapism and overtaken by the scope with which the film was operating. Nearly every scene has am iconic shot, or moment, or piece of dialogue to it. The opening bank heist scene, the "hockey pants" fight scene where a director finally acknowledged issues with the batsuit and made the change to best one yet for the most practical of reasons. There is the introduction of the "white knight" Harvey Dent and how he has come to the aid of Batman yet Bruce Wayne can't help but to dislike him because he takes the affections of Rachel away. Aaron Eckhart likely had one of the more difficult arcs to pull off but it was always destined to be overshadowed by Ledger's insane villain. Still, the Harvey Dent/Two-face transition for me is what helped the story match the visuals and the music in scope. The sequence where Batman kidnaps Lau from his secure office building in Hong Kong by plane or the one where the Joker crashes the fundraiser or when he blows up a hospital. The car chase where the batpod is first revealed and that moment when the 18-wheeler flipped. It was astonishing, mesmerizing, it had a power over you as a viewer. The freakish and disturbing antics of the Joker keeping us guessing as the plot thickens and comes to an unconventional climax that left your mind lingering with thoughts and questions that were a chilling surprise to how much a man in a bat suit could resonate with you.

The Joker was Heath Ledger's finest performance.
I saw the film no less than six times in its theatrical run and though I try my hardest not to allow my excitement and anticipation blind me from seeing any issues the film might have, it was truly hard for me to find any kind of major fault with the movie. Sure, it had a few issues in the second act, it might have drug a time or two, but it picked itself back up and Nolan understood his project so well that he never allowed the bleakness of the whole thing to outweigh the fact that it was entertainment or the fact that it was entertainment to outweigh what he wanted to explore in the Batman mythology. What he set out to make with the first film carries over in that every aspect was grounded in reality. This is a completely plausible story where a man makes himself more than a human being in the eyes of his enemies to scare them into seclusion. Christian Bale dug even deeper into his role the second time around, he became Bruce Wayne and in doing that was able to become the true identity of the man in Batman. Maggie Gyllenhaal took over duties for Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in a move I usually don't like at all, but Gyllenhaal left me wishing she had played the role in the first place. I look back, trying to imagine Holmes delivering the dialogue and the performance needed to make Rachel as great of an emotional pull as Gyllenhaal did in The Dark Knight and it just isn't possible. Then you have the trio of support for Wayne/Batman in the form of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman. Oldman truly inhabits the skin of Gordon in this film and Caine, in his somewhat limited screen time, delivered a nuanced and emotional performance that is strong when it needs to be and light only when necessary. Freeman does his thing, but adds an extra bit of charm in a few key scenes early on that allow us to look past his persona and buy into him in this world. Regardless of how good anyone else was in the film though it all comes back around to Ledger. That first real introduction to the Joker where he crashes the mob boss meeting and makes a real impression on everyone by inserting a pencil into a mans head is one of the greatest introductions to a character ever put to film.

Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey Dent
(Aaron Eckhart) attend a fundraiser for Harvey. 
What would the film have been had Ledger not died months before its release? Did his death make the Joker he portrayed on screen all the more scary? Likely, a bit, yes. Still, four years later his performance sends chills down my spine. I don't know that the film would have been as massively successful money-wise and that will be a debate that goes on forever, but regardless of the loss of Ledger, the film is and would have been considered the pinnacle of comic book adaptations and left its audience anxiously awaiting what would come next. We have almost reached the point of seeing what that follow up will be and despite Nolan's efforts nothing he could have done would have been able to top what he made here. It is clear he put everything he had into The Dark Knight and with his third and final installment he will no doubt bring what will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest trilogies of all time to a fitting close. There is something to be said for a film that did what The Dark Knight did but it is hard to put into words what a huge impression this movie left on me. I love the film to the point I could watch it with my eyes closed and still find it beautiful due to the soaring and grim soundtrack that evolved from the first film. It is a gorgeous movie in every demented sense of the word. It is an emotional rollercoaster, an exquisite film that demonstrates the kind of chaos and terrorism a truly disturbed individual can bring to the forefront of society. It is a mirror to society, a political commentary with hints of understanding to public perceptions and terrorism that gave it a more urgent cover to the psycho crime drama that its presented as. It is a masterpiece.

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