Our comic-book-movie culture is 30 years old (it kicked off in 1978, with the Christopher Reeve Superman), and in those three decades of speed and light and destruction, of well-coiffed demigods in bodysuits zipping through the air and shimmying up walls, comic-book films have yielded more than their share of spectacle and thrills yet virtually nothing in the way of mystery. But in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s ominously labyrinthine and exciting sequel to Batman Begins, good and evil aren’t just separate forces — at times, they’re a whisper away from each other — and the movie exudes a predatory glamour that makes the comic-book films that have come before it look all the more like kid stuff. The Dark Knight is jammed with thorny underworld conspiracies, obscenely oversize tank-cars, and action scenes that teeter madly out of control, all blanketed by the psycho-anarchic musings of a villain so warped he turns crime into a contest of Can you top this? At two hours and 32 minutes, this is almost too much movie, but it has a malicious, careening zest all its own. It’s a ride for the gut and the brain.
Batman (Christian Bale), that snake-hiss-voiced vigilante who plays out the vengeful fantasies that Bruce Wayne can only dream about, has now gone a good way toward cleaning up Gotham City; he has even inspired copycat Batmans. Then why so serious? Our hero is regularly referred to as ”the Batman” (a phrase lifted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel), with that the suggesting he’s less a superhero than a sinister urban creature — just one among many. The woman Bruce loves, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has been driven away by his moonlight escapades; she’s now the squeeze of the lantern-jawed, shining-knight DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). What’s more, thanks to Batman’s crime-fighting spree — which the honorable lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) winks at under the table — a void has opened up. Into that space steps the Joker (Heath Ledger), a sick puppy in smeary clown makeup who wants to make the world feel his pain.
Bale, all steely reserve, once again captivates as the haunted caped crusader who must shed morality to beat the devil at his game. But just as Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was anchored by the joy-buzzer glee of Jack Nicholson’s party-down Joker, The Dark Knight takes its cue from its Joker and his deadly circus of chaos. Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing, scary-funny performance begins with the creepiness of his image: the greasy long hair, the makeup that looks as if he’d drawn it on with crayons, then messed it with tears. That ghostly rotting paint job covers his scarred smile (explained by a backstory that gives you the willies, even if he just made it up), and the disturbing thing is that when Ledger’s Joker talks, with those ”Ehhh, what’s up, Doc?” vowels that make him sound like Al Franken crossed with a nerdish pedophile, you realize that the icky sloshing sound you hear is him sucking on his cheeks; he uses his attachment to those scars to fuel his sadistic (and masochistic) whims. This Joker may be a torture freak, but he also has a lost quality, a melancholy hidden within those black-circled eyes. He turns slaughter into a punchline; he’s a homicidal comedian with an audience of one — himself. In this, the last performance he completed before his death, Ledger had a maniacal gusto inspired enough to suggest that he might have lived to be as audacious an actor as Marlon Brando, and maybe as great.
The Joker organizes the riffraff mobsters of Gotham City, but only to use them as bait, creating a whirlpool of corruption that sucks everyone down. He’s an improv maniac, with no grand plan; his ultimate joke is to show that nobility won’t hold in a world of disorder. At moments, the film’s center doesn’t hold. The deranged twist of what happens to Harvey Dent, for instance, seems at once too much and not enough. Mostly, though, that’s because the movie didn’t need it. Bale’s seething, demon-saint Batman, locked in his dance of death with the Joker (”You complete me!” says the villain, and for once he isn’t kidding), is already an indelible figure of good battling it out with the darkness, right there in his own heart. A-