What a brooding pleasure it is to return to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City — if pleasure is the right word for a movie that gazes so deeply and sometimes despairingly into the souls of restless men. In The Dark Knight, Nolan’s continuation of his superb 2005 reboot of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins, Gotham has become a cleaner, better-lit place than it was when last we saw it, if a far stretch from the shining city on a hill its winged protector believes it can be. Terrified of what lurks in the nighttime shadows, Carmine Falcone’s cheap-suited mafiosos now make their dirty deals in broad daylight, while a crusading new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), has done much, sans cape or mask, to bring order and civility to Gotham’s streets. Still, there lurk considerably more dangerous crazies waiting to be loosed from the city’s mortar.

Stephen Vaughan

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You laughin’ at me?

A superhero movie of unusual psychological complexity, Batman Begins was, in the tradition of all such origin stories, about a heretofore ordinary man coming into a heightened sense of his superego. And Nolan, a great nuts-and-bolts proceduralist, was hardly content to offer up the death of a young boy’s parents as a tidy Freudian back story for what turns a Bruce Wayne into a Batman. Instead, Nolan’s Batman (played with iron-jawed intensity by Christian Bale) was the product of many wayward years in the wilderness followed by still more years of rigorous training at the hands of a Svengali-like master, Ra’s Al Ghul. It was Ra’s who inspired in his disciple an entire life philosophy based on empirical justice and the conquering of earthly fears. Only then, quite late in the day (and the running time), was young Wayne ready to begin to be Batman. At which point, in a twist that now seems perhaps a touch too Shakespearean (by way of George Lucas), the pupil found himself forced to use the master’s teachings against the master himself.

This time, nothing is nearly so cut and dry. Whereas the radicalized Ra’s, with his arsenal of dirty bombs and his urge to eradicate Western “decadence,” was a supervillain of the sort anyone who reads the papers has been conditioned to expect, the Joker of The Dark Knight is all the more terrifying for not having a plan or an identifiable motive. A committed anarchist in a smear of crimson lipstick, a dusting of floury foundation and pools of Louise Brooks eye shadow, this Joker isn’t the ebullient prankster of Batman movies (and TV shows) past but rather a freakishly disturbing embodiment of those destructive human impulses that can’t be explained away in an evening-news sound bite. His only rule is to show others the folly of rules, the absurdity of striving to impose order upon chaos. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” observes the ever-wise butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), after likening the Joker to a Burmese bandit he once pursued through the jungles of Rangoon. Except this Joker doesn’t merely want to watch; he wants to strike the match.

By now, of course, you know that the Joker is played by Heath Ledger in the last role he completed before his death, this past January, at the age of 28. And it is perhaps the best compliment one can pay to this gifted young actor to say that his performance here would have cemented his legend even if he had lived to see the film’s release. The Joker enters into The Dark Knight gradually, at first a tangential figure in a not particularly interesting subplot about mafia money-laundering. But even then, Ledger seems to make the film grow larger whenever he’s onscreen. Having shown a penchant for the chameleonic as the sensitive, soft-spoken cowpoke of Brokeback Mountain and the terminally good-vibrating surf-shop owner of Lords of Dogtown, Ledger here again invests himself in a character from the inside out, lending the Joker’s every physical tick and vocal inflection a signature flair.

No wonder Ledger was reportedly exhausted after finishing work on the film; watching him, you can see how demanding he is of himself, how much he refuses to play any predictable beats, whether the Joker is casually advising a room of armed thugs to not “blow things out of proportion” while outfitted in the latest in suicide-bomber haute couture, or slicking his hair back with his hands and sashaying across the dance floor to greet the comely assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (played, in less milquetoast fashion, by Maggie Gyllenhaal, pinch-hitting for Katie Holmes). But the genius of the performance is how fully Ledger convinces us that the Joker is capable of doing anything at any moment — even, if the occasion calls for it, to stop being the Joker.

Writing three years ago about Batman Begins, I wagered a guess that Christopher Nolan was the sort of kid who liked to take apart his toys to see what made them tick. Look at his films, and it’s clear that the adult Nolan likes to take people apart in the same way — he reduces them to their ideological cores, and places them into conflicts that stem as much from within as without. And in making the transition from the low-budget independent films on which he cut his directorial teeth to the realm of studio tent pole projects, Nolan (who co-authored the Dark Knight screenplay with his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan) has sacrificed none of his abiding obsessions. Like the amnesiac amateur detective who occupied the central role in Nolan’s Möbius-strip sophomore feature, Memento, the Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight is increasingly gripped by an existential crisis, wondering whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story. And like the rival illusionists who pursued each other across decades and continents in Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige, the longer Batman and the Joker engage in their battle of wills — the one confident in the inherent goodness of people, the other equally certain that man is but a savage beast — the more the distance collapses between them. Triangulating their position is Dent (played by Eckhart with gleaming, Kennedy-esque righteousness), whose idealism is tested — as ours might well be — when the Joker’s nihilism hits a touch too close to home.

That makes The Dark Knight sound like heavy stuff, and it is. But I should add that Nolan also delivers the kick-ass goods, from an opening bank heist à la Michael Mann to a climactic episode of vehicular mayhem à la William Friedkin. And that part where the Batmobile transforms into the considerably more versatile bat pod? Wicked awesome! Those scenes and a few others have been filmed, for maximum visceral impact, in IMAX, though even in standard 35 mm, Nolan is as muscular a movie stylist as any at work today. So The Dark Knight will give your adrenal glands their desired workout, but it will occupy your mind too, and even lead it down some dim alleyways where most Hollywood movies fear to tread. By the end of this second installment in that rare franchise that one hopes won’t end anytime soon, Batman seems to have less in common with his superhero brethren than with those old frontiersmen, like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards and High Noon’s Will Kane, who were left, at the end of two hours, to ponder the uncertain destiny of principled men in an unprincipled world. And as he rides off into the darkness before dawn, we may well wonder where, but for the grace of Batman, go we.

THE DARK KNIGHT | Directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | Written by JONATHAN NOLAN and CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, from a story by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN and DAVID S. GOYER, based on characters appearing in comic books published by DC COMICS | Produced by EMMA THOMAS, CHARLES ROVEN and CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

To read about the late actor Heath Ledger and his work with L.A. art collective the Masses, click here.

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