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In the battles between ever stronger Gotham City Mobsters, a new force appears: The Joker offers the mob family leaders his services if they want to get rid of the Batman, and to make sure they can avoid their pension money to be stolen by a Hong Kong crook. The Batman has an ally on his side, though, the rising star of Gotham’s DA office, Harvey Dent. Dent, Batman and police chief Gordon come up with a plan to arrest the Joker and put half of Gotham’s mafia into jail.

Now – I watched the movie less than 12 hours before writing this, but it is already very hard to get the strings and pieces together. In order to create a breathless atmosphere, a situation where every plot device forces the next upon itself, there is a multitude of characters, plot lines, motivations and events sometimes converging, sometimes diverging, not all of them towards a joint finale, but creating interim peaks of attention, leading one to believe that the audience has reached the grand showdown. This has upsides and downsides. Of course the feeling of constant irritation and the generous number of set pieces linked to the culmination points makes an often breath-taking movie experience. I sometimes wondered, however, whether the authors know where they are actually going. Building up the Joker to be the prime villain, getting rid of him at some point and still having plenty of movie runtime available is irritating. Replacing him as key counterpart with a character that does not have half the gist and power might be called a plain-out mistake.

As very often in sequels of franchise movies (and let’s call this one the second part of Batman Begins to make things easier, even though there are some earlier Batman installments that are really fun to watch and have an equally interesting interpretation of what a comic book movie should be like – I love both Jack Nicholson’s Joker as well as Danny de Vito’s Penguin!), the sequels tend to overload themselves with plot, drama, twists, even production design and props: this one is perfectly designed, of course, but has a tendency to look like a James Bond movie, only that it is Morgan Freeman who needs to give the “Q” role, being the master of gadgets and cars.

The key problem for me: The Batman is a very good comic book character as a principle. He is the invisible force of the night, turning up suddenly, disappearing as quickly. He usually does not use lethal force when fighting, but has such superior fighting skills that he more often than not can come with his fists to a gunfight and still leave it as winner. This, to be honest, does not transport very well into film. Especially because he is just a regular guy, without any superpowers other than his couple of billion dollars at his avail, what he achieves aqnd how he achieves it is a display of incredible skill. Put on film, this stretches the boundaries of credulity too much, and what he does, how he fights, borders on ridiculousness. To expose these abilities to the realism of movie means that you have to provide concrete skills and protection – leading to the authors mocking the character themselves when allowing Fox to ask Wayne whether in the next iteration of his armour suit he wants to be able to move his neck.

The reason for all these Batman films over the years being very successful, and the character apparently now being next to immortal on film, might be that this kind of regular guy who as of himself is really not very interesting as a superhero, means that you can put all the creativity into the other characters surrounding him: especially the villains. It is very easy to be a fantastic villain facing off Batman, because Batman himself has not enough esprit to shine himself (is this reflected in the choice of actor: I spent half the film trying to remember the name of the Batman actor, being tortured by the notion that he is being treated as the hottest lead actor of the moment in Hollywood. I could not for the life of me remember it, and you know what: because he is not the hottest actor of the moment. He is also pretty non-descript, a “pretty boy” as the film recognizes. Look at his oevre, is there anything memorable beyong “American Psycho”? But in this perfect for playing somebody who is not supposed to be recongnized when the upper part of his face is hidden behind a carbon fiber mask). He is a cinematic screen that gives more brilliance to anything or anybody reflecting in his armour. That was true for most of the previous villains – even Schwarzeneggers Ice Man is more memorable that any of those Spiderman or in particular Superman villains (yes, I know, Lex Luthor… but all I remember is that Kevin Spacey looked bored in the film. What great evil did he do? Anything spectacular? Can’t remember…). And this Joker may be the most brilliantly written and played superhero villain in quite a while – not because is has flying skateboards or giant steel tentacles, but because he has a wicked character and a more wicked sense of humour. And because he needs the combination with boring Batman to be complete. Heath Ledger’s acting is, indeed, marvellous, in particular because he is very physical: the slumped shoulder even in the opening scene, where you can identify the weirdo by just the way he is walking, most brilliantly when leaving a hospital after blowing it up, in a mock slapstick walk that is decorated by the nurse costume he is wearing. When talking, he is smacking and spitting, you can hear his body at work. And all this in a much more naturalistic way than any of the other characters, which makes the threat emenating from him more immediate than the possible protection by everybody opposing him.

In the end: Too much Harvey Dent, too many twists and turns, a lot of “knight” before you get to the “dark”, but most certainly a rewarding cinema experience. With a bit of courage, you give the film to an editor who takes out one or two characters and gives you a much better 110 minutes film. Maybe that’s an idea for a truly courageous “director’s cut one disc edition”?

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