Review: The Dark Knight

Other trailers (with more pictures) are available but this first teaser best sets the scene for 2008's most anticipated, most successful film. The fear, the anarchy, the darkness. The Dark Knight is a technically accomplished, sometimes stunning movie that sets a new standard for summer blockbusters. But I left feeling slightly disappointed. That is a measure of its success, for the questions it raises are not typical blockbuster fare.

The film begins - and ends - with Batman seeking to make himself redundant; he is not an avenging angel but a guardian. He wants Gotham to save itself - that it may be well and he may return to a normal life. Is it his tragedy that that this time will never come? He may no longer be called by the death of his parents, but he will always be by the life of his city. Organised crime is just the start of it, terror is coming.

Gotham itself is no longer the twisted comic character of Tim Burton's films but EveryCity, a canvas to paint our fears on. This is the shadow of 9/11 and 7/7: we no longer have to imagine a place where terrible things can happen; we have seen them happen where we live.

But have you ever seen anything like this Joker? Hype too often inflates something worthy to a place it doesn't deserve but Heath Ledger's performance is astounding. He dominates every scene he is in and lurks in every one he is not. He stalks, stabs, and slathers; twists, taunts, and terrorises. The grotesque make-up, the hyena laugh and the shock horror all contribute to a terrible creation but it is eyes that haunt: doleful, dark, empty of joy and full of amoral malice. Ledger spent a month alone in a hotel to 'find' this character, it is a career-defining achievement.

But it is the film's greatest strength that leads to its greatest weakness. How can Batman compete against the Joker? Christian Bale is a compelling actor but he comes off second best to Ledger throughout. Perhaps this is because he isn't allowed to explore the heart of his character successfully. The credits will tell you that he plays the part of "Bruce Wayne/Batman" but really he has three parts to play: his two public personae, and the real man. Playboy and caped crusader are both masks, who is he really? The film asks the question but cannot, quite, find an answer. At 150 minutes long it ought to. Three characters played by excellent actors know the truth of Batman's identity (four if you include Bale) and there's plenty of time for exploration. Yet the middle act drags through this process and the film is generally more satisfying in standard blockbuster territory such as a fairly superfluous action sequence set in Hong Kong. This is the first Batman film not to have the word "Batman" in the title; it may be the first Batman film not to have Batman really in it.

And here's why that's important. As magnificent as Ledger is, his character is simplistic and quickly explained: "Some men just want to watch the world burn". The Joker believes any and all can be corrupted, as he has been: “I’m ahead of the curve”. He tells us that he tortured people to show their true character before they died, we see him pushing people (good and bad) to abandon and betray their principles. This is where he takes Batman to, and we can identify with this. Wayne/Batman isn't simple: his motives and actions are complex and their consistency is challenged. As people who have moral choices to make (perhaps trying to be "decent people in an indecent world"), we share his tension. But we are left feeling unconnected, and so the film seems to lack emotional depth.

The film concludes with Hans Zimmer's superbly brooding theme music reaching its crescendo, and with Batman making the hero's hard decision. It's not the first heart-wrenching choice he's had to make, and yet you still don't feel for him or with him. He runs into the darkness, as far from us as he has been all film, and that - despite stunning set-pieces, perfect performances, and the serious asking of serious questions - is the great disappointment.

You can listen to a great exploration of this film and assessment of the questions it asks in light of the gospel by James Harleman of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, here.