The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

It's no accident that the
skyline of Gotham City figures prominently in so many scenes in The Dark
the second Batman movie from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. It's
seen from above when Batman glides from building to building, and from below as
the Joker skulks through streets that the residents deserted in panic. But it's
just as conspicuously present in the film's many scenes of executives and city
officials meeting high above the general populace, like gods determining the
fates of those below. Where Batman Begins was largely about the considerable personal
toll exacted by its hero's decision to fight back against the forces of evil
while adhering to a code of honor, The Dark Knight expands those weighty
themes to city scale.

As the film opens, Gotham
still needs Batman (played again with intensity and vulnerability by Christian
Bale), though its champion's influence hasn't been entirely positive. Organized
crime has practically gone corporate in response, and a group of clumsy Batman
wannabes have done little to stop it. Then there's the Joker, a mysterious new
criminal who wants to foil the forces of law and order for reasons he keeps to

What the Joker lacks in
transparent motives he makes up for with enthusiasm. Playing a self-described "engine
of chaos," the late Heath Ledger treats the iconic comic-book villain as a man
who sees life as a dark joke, but takes care to tailor his punchlines for
maximum impact. It's an unnervingly thorough performance, from the character's
serpentine habit of licking his lips to the hitch Ledger throws into his stride
that makes him like a wounded, angry animal. It's nightmare stuff with
real-world roots, both in the randomness of his destructive acts of terror, and
the imperfect systems designed to stand in his way.

Basing his schemes on the
corruptibility of cops and criminals, Ledger's Joker homes in on the few who
appear beyond his reach, particularly Batman and district attorney Harvey Dent
(Aaron Eckhart), a fearless enforcer of the law poised to make real changes to
the city. Matters are complicated by the fact that Eckhart now shares a bed
with Bale's lifelong love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, subbing in for Katie
Holmes). But to the film's credit, Nolan isn't afraid to keep matters
complicated. The script, which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, has the
unapologetic density of a good crime novel, with major and minor characters
alike getting their due. Bale and Gyllenhaal have only a few scenes together,
but they establish a tangible chemistry, and Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and
Morgan Freeman make significant contributions as Bale's confidantes and

Nolan lets the film's
spectacular action scenes seem like the natural consequences of the conflicts
between characters, conflicts that build until Gotham becomes less a setting
than a stage for an operatic conflict between tortured good and contented
chaos. As strong as The Dark Knight's setpieces are—and they're all pulsing
showstoppers of a kind not seen in Batman Begins—the real tension
comes from Nolan's willingness to let that battle's ultimate outcome remain in
doubt even as the credits roll. The film's capes and cowls suggest one genre,
but it's a metropolis-sized tragedy at heart.

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