Believe the hype.

Believe every second and every word of every overwhelmingly positive review you’ve no doubt read or heard by now on The Dark Knight, and then multiply that by the biggest number that comes to your head, and even then you won’t have a clear idea of just how good and surprising this film really is.

Now, far better than me have been attempting to thrust the film into an unreachable realm of expectation, but let’s face it; the expectations on this film are so high and the buzz around the film so unrelenting, that no movie could hope to satisfy all those seemingly unsatisiable expectations, could it? Well, few movies have stepped up the way Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film does. Let me be clear when I say that, FEW movies have ever, or will ever live up to every ounze of unfair expectation befallen onto it, but The Dark Knight does. And it’s a unique buzz to be sure. It’s not just the rabid comic book geeks (like myself), or the film lovers or merely casual fans of the first film, but also a legion of supporters for the late and great Heath Ledger. Gone well before his time, the actor’s performance as the Joker launched into legendary status within weeks of the actor’s tragic death, but I am willing to bet that had Ledger not passed away, that it would have garnished the same reaction. We’ve all been feasting on the images and trailers and poster art of Ledger’s dark and twisted portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, and as good as it looked in those, its even better on screen.

The plot, of course, follows the Joker’s exploits from the concluding scene of Batman Begins (2005), as he slowly builds a reputation for anarchy in Gotham City. Batman (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) have been tracking him down, and are joined by the new and ambitious District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt). Dent is Gotham’s white knight, the city’s true hero and one unselfishly willing to do what it takes to stop the spread of crime and terror in Gotham. The three men combine resources to do a respectable job of cleaning up Gotham’s streets until the Joker comes along and throws a serious monkey-wrench into there plans and begins a psychological assault on the citizens of Gotham, the police, the D.A. and Batman himself, promising to keep killing high profile targets until Batman turns himself in and takes off his mask. His methods are highly effective, and soon the people of Gotham, ignoring all the good Batman has done them, now call for his head on a platter, willing to give in to the Joker’s demands.

But words don’t describe the emotion you will feel while watching this film. The raw emotion will have you buzzing along with the high octane action sequences, laughing at the uncomfortable humor and squirming in your seat, often all in the same scene. Nothing can prepare you for what awaits you when you sit down to watch this movie.

Nothing.

Nolan has crafted the newest masterpiece of our time (sitting side by side with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy). It’s quite simply one of those once in a blue moon films that comes along at the perfect time and knocks everyone, and I mean everyone, geeks and all, on there collective asses and bends them to its unrelenting ass-kickery and the gut wrenching drama within it. This is more than a Batman movie, more than a comic book movie and more than any other term you want to apply to it.

It’s a compelling and emotional character drama, a wonderfully crafted crime drama on par with the best Hollywood has ever offered, a film about modern terrorism and the price of fighting it in a post 9/11 world and also a wonderful superhero movie. When I say that it comes along at the perfect time, its because I don’t think the pre-9/11 world would’ve accepted this film, at all and especially not as a superhero film, but the world is ready for it now and thats what fuels the fires, so to speak, and what makes the movie so gutwrenching to watch at times. It’s a film completely devoid of hope or redemption and it really sets out to just kick us all in the nuts and leave us numb, to which it succeeds greatly in doing. No matter what Batman or the Gotham police do in the film, things get worse. It’s really a comment on today’s society and how easily the frabic of that society, the glue, can come apart when terrorists know exactly where to hit you. It’s a film about terrorism as much as anything…emotional terrorism.

The Joker isn’t scary because he wants to kill a million people. He’s scary because he kills only a few important ones, dramatically so, and knows just how to push the right buttons to get the response he wants and bring the city to its knees, ready to break at the seams. He is a self-proclaimed agent of chaos, spreading the fires of his soul to the streets of Gotham for no other reason than he wants to do so. He is crazy, psychotic and scary. He is also by far the smartest guy in the room, or any room, and has this shit planned out step by step and is way ahead of the Gotham police, Harvey Dent and Batman the entire film. He’s so far ahead of everyone else, and the audience for that matter, that things seemingly unrelated to Joker at all come back and are suddenly apart of his longterm plan, and not in a “out of nowhere” way either, in a “holy shit! that crafty mother f—er!” way. Joker isn’t just a comic book villian or the “bad guy”, he is pure unadulterated evil, and Ledger plays him as such. Where film villians, especially those in comic book films (i.e.: The Green Goblin) often come off as overplayed and cheesy, Ledger’s Joker is a breath of terrifying fresh air.  The Joker comes off as a wild animal that has been caged up for months, if not years, foaming at the mouth, twitching his tongue and building up the anger and hate and now wants to take it out on you, me and everyone else. And thats exactly how he should be. As Alfred (Michael Caine) points out to Bruce, “Sometimes, people just want to see the world burn.”

Not so surprisingly, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989 now comes off as clownish and cheesy and well…Ledger’s Joker would kick his ass in a second. Unlike that film, the Nolan brothers (who wrote the screenplay for Knight) don’t bother with a useless origin story for Joker, he simply shows up and starts spreading anarchy in all directions, blowing things up, killing high level officials, and upping the anty with each move he makes. And like all great devilish characters, we sorta root for him, in a way, and we unwillingly start to identify with him each time he tells someone a shocking narrative from his past. The thing to remember about the character, as many writers have always said about the Joker and its certainly the case in The Dark Knight, is that when he tells a joke, he really should be the only person in the room laughing. Perhaps one of the few moments in the film where we’re allowed to laugh with the Joker, is in one of the first scenes, when he performs a gastly “magic trick” in such a casual, unflinching way that we can’t help but uncomfortably laugh. Simply put: Heath Ledger’s performance is something you couldn’t expect, and haven’t seen before and will never see again. It’s pitch-perfect. It’s so perfect in fact, that you didn’t know it before you saw it, but afterwards you’re like “wow, that was the Joker!”

As much as Joker does steal the show, the film is really Harvey Dent’s, it’s his story as much as Batman’s, and just as Nolan effectively made you forget the first film was a Batman movie for the first hour (with the Bruce Wayne origin tale), he makes you forget what you know will eventually happen to Dent in this movie. We know the story, we know who he becomes, but its done so much more tragically in this telling than ever before. It’s like a greek tragedy really, and Aaron Eckhardt knocks his performance as Dent out of the park every bit as much as Ledger does with the Joker. Dent represents the everyman, the blue collar worker and he stands up and fights for Gotham and makes a difference, so much so that he even makes Bruce believe in him and that the city may no longer need Batman. By the time the Joker’s boobytrap does disfigure Harvey you’re invested in him, and you believe in him as much as Gotham does and well…you feel bad for the guy. The physical transformation of Harvey into Two-Face is disturbing, unsettling and gruesome and Eckhardt plays the change very well.

It’s the eerie line the film often crosses, that makes you feel like you’re actually watching the six o’clock news, that makes the film so powerful and so effective. Even when the good guys feel like they’re winning and doing real good, it actually turns out that Joker just let them think that and turns everything on its head again. We may not understand why the Joker is doing what he’s doing (nor should we), but we quickly understand that noone in the film, not even Batman is safe. There are a fair number of notable and surprising deaths in the movie. Through it all, the Joker is unrelenting, as the film itself is also, and just keeps coming at you. The Joker has engaged Batman in a psychological war of wits, and for the entire film, he wins it. His goal in the end, of course, is not to force Batman to turn himself in, but cross the lines he swore never to cross, and each small defeat Batman suffers in the film (and there are plenty) makes him tread dangerously close to that line of becoming nothing more than a vigilante.

Never before has a superhero movie shown such a fallen hero as Batman in this second film from Christopher Nolan. Batman fails in almost every conceivable way during the course of the movie. Every choice he makes is either only a temporary save or effectively spells doom for someone else. It’s alot like the war on terror when you sit back and think about it, and its what the Joker represents. Anarchy. A world without rules. Why terrorists are so effective is they know how to hurt the rest of us. As the Joker points out in the movie, the reason he can’t lose, despite all of Batmans intelligence and strength, is because he (the Joker) has no rules, no codes and no morals. The rest of us and Batman do. The only choice is to give in, thus letting the terrorists win, or keep fighting them and creating more in the process. Its lose-lose. Again, a lot like watching the news nowadays when you think about it.

Not since the first “Lord of the Rings” movie in 2001 has a genre-event film so poignantly echoed the sentiment and realities of the post 9/11 world as well as the events within The Dark Knight. Batman, despite popular opinion (still largely based on the horribly unredeemable 1960’s TV show), has always been like the rogue cop, willing to go out to the edge and do the dirty work noone else can, but while he may teater on the edge of the line, he never crosses it. This film unflinchingly displays the criminal and terrorist reaction to the world fighting back, as was beautifully set up in the final speech from Gordon on the rooftop to conclude Batman Begins. The criminals won’t back down without a fight, and we get caught up in an eye for an eye war with them, we get dragged down to there level. By the end of the film, Batman (and the audience) gets as close as possible to that breaking point and the rules of Nolan’s epic Batman franchise once again shift to the left quite unexpectedly.

As I said earlier, the film is utterly devoid of hope or redemption and will leave you feeling a bit like you just watched your dog get run over and then got kicked in the nuts on a cold January afternoon in a snowstorm. It’s a calculated struggle of good versus evil and the meaning of both. It’s a portrait of the global landscape today and the constant feeling of helplessness at the hands of would-be terrorists. And its simply one of the finest crime drama’s ever made that also happens to be a superhero movie. And in the world we now live in, why would we want anything else from our superhero movies? The Dark Knight is not only the greatest superhero film to date, but easily the best film of 2008 and quite possibly one of the best films ever made.