In my early teens I remember being something of a Batman nut. What insecure young man isn't attracted to that mixture of eroticism and vigilantism, the playboy who spends his days on yachts with Russian ballerinas and his nights beating up drug dealers and rapists? The billionaire Bruce Wayne lives an extended childhood that is as much Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria as it is Roman Abramovich or Clint Eastwood.
Yet Batman. easily the best of DC Comics's superheroes, has never produced films as good as the Superman series. The late 1990s "capers" Batman Forever and Batman and Robin were as camp and as enjoyable as watching Michael Barrymore doing panto in Eastbourne. Even the pop artish Michael Keaton films were slightly ludicrous. Yet when Gotham's Dark Knight is freed of the amateur dramatics and garish colours, and allowed to trawl the sewer of the human psyche. there is no better example of this American art form on earth.
This is the second in the latest cycle of Batman films and the critical and popular reaction is quite unprecedented. The film has already earned an improbably large figure in America, comparable to a small country's annual GDP, and over here just one cinema. the Imax in Waterloo. has already sold 25.000 tickets before the film has even been released.
Critically The Dark Knight is already the top-rated film on the Internet Movie Database and nothing in the site's history has ever shifted The Godfather from that position.
Is it that good? Well. it is pretty good. People over a certain reading age might grow weary of the necessary blockbuster script and its simplistic political and philosophical points. When their city was threatened the Romans appointed one man to protect them and suspended laws," the district attorney explains to Wayne over dinner, before his female companion replies: "And the last, Caesar. never gave up that power." Ho-hum, the old freedom versus security dilemma again.
At one point the Joker even gives Batman the "we're two of a kind, you and I" bad guy speech, while Batman's employee Lucius Fox (Batman's version of Q from the James Bond series, played by Morgan Freeman) uses the phrase "At what cost?" when looking at a new piece of snooping technology that will save lives imme diately, but have civil liberties implications. Still, I am quibbling this is an action movie, not high-brow literature.
This time around Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) are living in a city penthouse while Wayne Manor is rebuilt. Together with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (the truly excellent and perfectly cast Gary Oldman), they form an uncomfortable alliance with district attorney Harvey Dent. Dent (Aaron Eckhart, another strong performance) is presented as Gotham's White Knight who will save the city from crime. While Wayne is jealous of Dent's relationship with his ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he also wants to retire as Batman, and sees Dent as his replacement. But, of course, Batman cannot retire while terrorism threatens the city.
"He can't be bought, bullied or negotiated with... some people just want to see the world burn," is how one policeman describes the villain, and since the film's poster shows a skyscraper with an aeroplane-sized hole in the side some have suggested that this is a 9/11 film and the Joker is Bin Laden. Then again, in the Batman comics the Joker was always years ahead in the way he saw his atrocities as works of art, and his motives were always as insane and unrealistic as Bin Laden.
The film opens with a bank heist, except, this being Gotham City, the men are all wearing sinister clown masks. It is effortlessly stylish, in the way that only morally corrupt, violence-obsessed Hollywood can be, and continues this way for two and a half hours of blood-pumping, endorphins-releasing entertainment. It is cinematic Ritalin.
And here we get our first sighting of Batman's nemesis par excellence. Personally I've never been a big fan of the Joker all that prankery and cackling is irritating but Heath Ledger's portrayal is certainly the best to date. He might still look like a prat just on his way back from Camden Market, but at least Ledger has tried to make him a believably psychopath. He makes one wonder if this is what it's really like being in the company of John Wayne Gary or Ed Gem. (Since psychopaths are unable to feel empathy for someone else's pain, presumably they also cannot tell when they're being irritating.) Tragically it was the actor's last performance before he died in January. If Ledger does win a posthumous Oscar it will not be just a sympathy vote but a well-deserved honour for a talented, tragic man.