I saw it back on opening weekend, and saw again last Tuesday, and have been meaning to write a post on it, once I got my thoughts together, but nothing got in the way. Some points:
—This was the most realistically set Batman movie yet. Begins was set in a substantially more realistic world than the Burton-Schumacher films, with their art-deco city models and candy-colored villains, but even Begins has an ancient secret society, fear-inducing flowers, fancy e-trains and a cityscape that is obviously invented. This film, on the other hand, is just completely filmed in Chicago. (I remember thinking during the opening shot, when the camera draws in close on a large, black monolith of a building, how this must be a symbolic portant of the coming tradegy of the story or something, and remember that I have seen that building before, while driving around Chicago.) The characters are drawn as professionals working within the halls of power in an incredibly corrupt city, with the shadings such real people carry, not as broad caricatures. There are no secret societies mentioned, the fear-compound makes only a brief cameo in the beginning, the Joker as portrayed, has none of the science fiction elements from the comics. No white skin and naturally green hair, or lethal laughing gas leaving a rictus grin. Just a psycho with knives, guns, and bombs. With all these changes the major casting change, replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhal, didn't really bother me at all. the films almost seemed to be taking place in different worlds.
—There has been a lot of writing trying to pick apart the films message or politics, which is fun and all, but I think that reading the film has having any kind of positive suggestions about society misses the point of the story. The film isn't political, but personal; it is a tradegy. The plot of the movie is: three guys try to take on a force of chaos, and fail. That's it. In fact, though a first viewing kind of obscures this, the conclusion of the movie is the moment [SPOILERS!!!] where the bombs go off in the warehouse, and Rachel Dawes dies. In fact, if I were to pin the climax to any one moment, it is the shot of the Joker sticking his head out of a cop car in the dawn light, with redlights flashing behind him. Not only has he won, destroying all that the characters care about, but he has gotten away with it. Everything that happens after that shot is denoument; just the characters sorting out the after effects of the Joker's victory. Dent goes insane and accepts the chaos, Gordon realizes he is impotent, even with his newfound powers, (he can't even save his family) before it. But Batman, to his credit, and making him the ultimate hero of the story, decides to just keep on battling the chaos anyways, even if he can't stop, and just might be destroyed by it. It's less a story about political systems than the cruel whims of fate, set within the halls of power.
—Ah, the Joker. Like just about everyone, I think Ledger was amazing in this movie, and totally deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, if not just Best Actor. Damn, he is good. Every choice he made was sublimely creepy, and he still managed to be funny while menacing, which doesn't seem like it is possible. I have replayed the pencil trick in my head hundreds of times now. Also, Nolan did just a superb job in shaping the character. This Joker, while differing from the comics version drastically in surface details, still managed to fit in all the thematic touches of the Joker of the comics. There was the Joker as needing the Batman as a reason for being (which I think comes mostly from Dark Knight Returns), Joker as psychoterrorist trying to drive the world as crazy as he is (Killing Joke), Joker wearing ridiculous costume while on assignment. They got that the Joker's entire shtick is doing things that are violent and cruel, while using the rhythms of comedy to suggest they are supposed to be funny. Sometimes it is funny, like with the pencil trick, and then sometimes it just seems mean, which is really all it ever is.