So, I imagine I should have chimed in sooner on this one, since I saw it last Tuesday at a critics' screening, but since I don't think anyone is checking this for daily updates, I didn't get around to it until now.
Upfront, I feel like I should throw a couple of disclaimers in here. Truth is, I'm not really a fan of the superhero/comic book genre. Even back in the day with the Christopher Reeves-era Superman, I just wasn't terribly impressed. I've largely avoided most of these films, but even when I caught Spiderman on a plane, I just felt like I would never quite understand what so many loved and appreciated about these films. To each their own I suppose.
I've never seen the predecessor, Batman Begins, so when I got the call, I figured I'd go since it was free, but I wasn't really looking forward to it like so many apparently have been. And, I figured that for all the hype that was attached to the film, I would have the ability to be a bit more objective than most.
I have to say though, I was really quite impressed. I think a lot of the credit for this should go to director Christopher Nolan. I think he did a stellar job in bucking the trends and cliches that I (negatively) associate with the genre, instead opting to maintain a sense of realism. Now, I can't exactly call a film about a dude flying around town dressed as a bat "realistic" necessarily, but the glossy veneer is stripped away, the story is gritty, and a lot of the staging makes it seem as though it could really happen.
The cast deserves a good share of the praise as well. As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale does a pretty good job as the man beneath the mask. I had a slight problem with him, or more specifically, his voice when he was in the Batsuit. He almost sounded like an obscene caller than anything else, and it did elicit a few unintentional laughs from me. But, from an actor I tend not to care for, I have to say that Bale did a strong job. Now, I would be interested in seeing what half a dozen other actors could do with this, but, Bale's fine.
In that same vein, Nolan is able to get a nice performance out of Gary Oldman, who is another actor I tend not to care for. I think Oldman can be a fine actor, but only when there is a strong director there to reign him in. All too often he's completely over the top, so he often comes off as a laughable cartoon to me (see: Hannibal, Bram Stroker's Dracula, True Romance, The Professional, etc.) But he gives a solid, understated performance here, which I was pleased to see.
As I mentioned earlier, I've not seen Batman Begins, but it seems that the consensus is that Katie Holmes was a clear weak link in the cast, but I don't think the same can be said of Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is, as usual, quite good in her role. Although her role, in retrospect, seems a little underwritten, it never shows, which I think is a testament to how skilled of an actress she is. And it's nice to see that unlike most of her performances, she has a film and a cast around her that measure up to her performance.
Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent factors into the film a lot more than you'd think - arguably the most important role to the story, and he does a perfectly respectable job. I think Eckhart has a pretty good niche cut out for himself as the straight man who brings a little more wit and a little swagger to the table, so he's never quite a bore, but never outshines the rest of the cast. And he carries this along pretty well.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, don't have a whole lot to do, but they do it well, and clearly seem to be having fun with it.
But, of course, the real story here is Heath Ledger. His version of The Joker pretty much reinvents what you come to think of as the comic book villain. He brings his usual intensity to the role, making The Joker a diabolical manic presence and walks the line between "creepy, but oddly funny" with precision like I've never seen. He isn't necessarily in the film a whole lot, but that's sort of what makes it effective to me... sometimes the fact that you know the villain is lurking in the shadows is more suspenseful than it is to have them in the forefront the entire time. But when The Joker does appear, you don't need that looming score to let you know that something big's about to happen. He is that scary music personified.
Some credit really does have to go to the screenplay though as well. The story takes so many unexpected turns that it makes it stand out. And I think one of the reasons why I find that the superhero/comic book genre is so shitty is that you're almost conditioned to expect things to play out in a certain way, this throws the long-held conventions out the window, and opts for the more challenging route.
So, this one defied and exceeded my expectations in every way. And while I'm prepared to go back and check out Batman Begins now, I think (simply based on what I've read about the original, that this is one of those freak circumstances where the sequel surpasses its predecessor.