In his 2005 hit Batman Begins, writer-director Christopher Nolan revived the venerable comic book action hero with a dark, "film noir" approach. Now he's back with a second installment that pits the caped-and-masked crime fighter against one of his most memorable villains. Alan Silverman has this look at the new film The Dark Knight.
Gotham City, like many of the world's urban communities, is plagued by a violent criminal underground. What it has that most cities lack, however, is Batman, a mysterious crime fighter who wears a hood and mask to hide his true identity.
Behind the mask, he's a billionaire playboy; but in his high-tech suit of armor and with super-sophisticated gadgets (that only a billionaire could afford), he operates outside the law to bring the evildoers to justice.
"Batman should not be necessary. In a good, civilized society, Batman isn't necessary," says Christian Bale, who returns as Batman and Bruce Wayne.
"He's a lonely man. He has suffered a great deal," explains Bale. "The more that he commits to Batman, the more he pays a price in his own personal life; but I think he has an addiction to it as well. Whilst his ideal is to leave this Batman creature behind, I think it has become an addiction as well. There is a duality throughout."
New to the Gotham scene: Aaron Eckhart as district attorney Harvey Dent, determined to use the justice system and not a vigilante like Batman to end the violence in the streets; but then both must face a bizarre new menace.
"The Joker" wears, not a mask, but surreal clown make-up to cover grotesque scars that shape a permanent, sinister smile. Behind that grin ticks a psychopathic genius with plans to end the rule of law.
"The Joker is just gleeful to come up against the Batman because everyone else has been too easy," says Bale.
Bale says The Joker pushes Batman to the limit and really keeps him guessing about what will come next; and he says that was exactly the approach the late Heath Ledger took in creating this memorable villain.
"We never wanted to have caricatures. We never wanted to have the actor peeking through, winking at the audience and showing 'hey, what a great time I'm having playing this funny, larger-than-life character,'" Bale explains. "We wanted to stay serious and dramatic with each of the portrayals of every single character. Heath was wonderful with that. He completely immersed himself [and] stayed under. When he was The Joker he was the character throughout with absolute commitment to that and portrayed him in a way that has not been portrayed before."
Jack Nicholson gave the character a theatrical flair in the 1989 film Batman and Cesar Romero had an appropriately campy take in the 1960s TV series; but The Dark Knight writer-director Chris Nolan says he and Ledger wanted to create a fresh and darker Joker.
"It was very apparent to both of us that it was going to be something very different than what had been done before ...something very frightening, very palpably real and potentially dangerous," Nolan says. "We focused in on this idea of The Joker as a force of absolute anarchy: somebody devoted to chaos, who truly does take pleasure in tearing down the world around himself. That's the fear we wanted to inspire in the audience. That's the threat we wanted to underlie everything in the film; and Heath was able to put together a number of different attitudes for the character and, in the process, create an iconic representation of The Joker. The Joker does need to be iconic and Heath understands that very much, but he never loses sight of the humanity of the character. The character is a real human being and therefore is a real dangerous force."
The Dark Knight was the last film Heath Ledger completed before his death from an accidental overdose in January at the age of 28 and the film is dedicated to his memory. The cast also features Sir Michael Caine returning as Bruce Wayne's trusted butler Alfred; Gary Oldman again plays the upright police detective Gordon; and Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, who devises Batman's clever gadgets and powerful machinery like the Batmobile. New to the cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Bruce Wayne's childhood friend and would-be lover Rachel Dawes, who was played by Katie Holmes in the 2005 film.