If superhero films reflect collective fantasies regarding the current state of the world, then this summer's batch—Iron Man and its advocacy of military hardware as a tool of upright intentions, The Incredible Hulk and its belief that rampaging fury can be harnessed for positive purposes—has been a particularly comforting one. No such uplifting reveries, however, are dispensed by The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's majestically bleak vision of our modern age as dissolute, fragile and teetering on the precipice of anarchy. A film about the viability of justice, the tenuousness of goodness, the price of peace, and the gritty push-pull between ends and means, Nolan's follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins—a reboot whose structural and visual missteps couldn't quite diffuse its grim grandeur or its subtle suggestions of post-9/11 quandaries—is something very close to a pop masterpiece, a noir-ish DC Comics action-adventure reconfigured as a discerning, ambiguous rumination on these terrorism-besieged times. Thrilling, heady and, as befitting its title, exceedingly dark, it's epic pulp, or perhaps more accurately, it's pulp transformed through auteurist artistry into a piercingly relevant morality play epic.
Free of origin story demands, Dark Knight immediately takes up the insinuation left hanging at last film's conclusion—namely, that Batman's extreme tactics might engender an equally extreme response from opposing criminal elements. Having turned most of Gotham's organized hoods into sniveling cowards, a situation that has given District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) an opening to become the lawful "White Knight" which the city requires, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) discovers the terrible ramifications of his vigilantism with the appearance of the Joker (Heath Ledger). Unlike his prior adversaries, the Joker is a nihilistic lunatic driven not by idealism or greed but, instead, by the irrational desire for all-consuming chaos. A madman incapable of listening to logic or engaging in negotiation, he's the criminal flipside to Batman's whatever-it-takes mentality, a foe who recognizes that power comes from fear (the prior movie's de facto catchphrase), as well as from a willingness to cross all boundaries in order to achieve one's objectives. The poster's tagline, "Welcome to a World Without Rules," is in effect the Joker's salutation to Gotham and its nocturnal crimefighter, his sudden arrival ushering in the dreadful prospect of terror unshackled from sanity. "It's not about money," he cackles to an unsettled mobster. "It's about sending a message: Everything burns."
"Terrorist" is a term uttered twice in Nolan and brother Jonathan's speech-heavy script (from a story by Nolan and David S. Goyer), but the impression that the Joker represents fanatical contemporary forces reverberates throughout. Whereas Batman (who unconvincingly asserts that he "has no limits") strains to toe the line between right and wrong, the Joker commences from a different set of standards, which is to say no standards at all save for a conviction that the societal constraints preventing man from indulging his basest instincts are flimsy and counterfeit and must be torn asunder by every available method. The Joker is, essentially, a radical extension of Batman Begins's Ra's Al Ghul, who sought to cure Western metropolitan degeneracy through a cleansing fire. And as a result, Dark Knight resounds with a throbbing topical undercurrent, its superficially good-versus-evil setup slowly revealed to be a complex examination of the ways in which democracies can, and must, combat zealotry. For Batman, the Joker poses not simply a practical dilemma (i.e. how does he stop this lunatic?) but also, fundamentally, an ethical one, centered on the necessity, and repercussions, of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
Dark Knight is a series of pertinent moral predicaments delivered via sleek procedural-genre circumstances, so that the film's attention to difficult, contentious issues—concerning violence, the application of might, and the questionable sanctity of civil liberties (specifically surveillance-free privacy) in times of crisis—is filtered through a barrage of tense, breakneck centerpiece sequences. Toned down, mercifully, is Batman Begins's sliced-to-incomprehensible-ribbons editing and choreography, as the Caped Crusader's hand-to-hand scuffles are now staged with considerably more lucidity. More striking still, the scope of the action (like that of the saga's themes) has been expanded, with Batman's hand-wringing over notions of sacrifice, righteousness and corruption given robust weight by numerous, visceral clashes (all set to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's thunderously stately score), including a muscular chase through a downtown tunnel replete with rocket launchers, flipped semis, the Humvee-ish Batmobile and a swift, versatile new motorcycle dubbed the Bat-pod. Nolan shoots these incidents—notably a Batman-Joker showdown on an empty city street—with an eye toward both electric intensity and iconographic splendor, and their dynamism is further enhanced by the director's employment of breathtakingly beautiful IMAX-formatted cinematography that, at key moments, literally magnifies the proceedings to enveloping proportions.
The narrative's expertly modulated light-dark balance is epitomized by Batman and the Joker, but fully embodied by that of Harvey Dent, a people's champion viewed by all (including Batman) as Gotham's best hope for lasting change. Dent is Gotham's legitimate above-the-board hero, one capable of successfully doting on colleague Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, more than ably replacing Katie Holmes) in a way the tormented, dual life-ensconced Wayne isn't. The prospect of Dent cleaning up the streets, though, is obliterated by—spoilers herein—a second-act tragedy which mutates him into the coin-flipping Two-Face, a vengeful madman furious at his unjust fate and convinced by the Joker (during a phenomenal hospital-room encounter) that "The thing about chaos—it's fair." Tragically confirming his own prior opinion that "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain," Dent comes to exemplify communal hopes dashed, a disheartening symbol of the inefficacy of traditional methods (such as the anti-conspiracy RICO charges he used to indict Mafioso kingpins) in an unconventional battle, and of the old world order's irrelevance in the face of proliferating disorder.
In Dent's destruction lies the film's estimation of the chances for decency to survive against unrepentant wickedness. This overarching air of gloom and doom, however, is complemented by unsentimental pragmatism, an edge supplied by Batman's struggle—which also engulfs loyal compatriots Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)—to inspire Gotham by giving it a guiding image of unassailable virtue. The dawning realization that setting this example might be both impossible and counterproductive plagues Batman (once again brought to tortured, brooding life by Bale) as well as the film, which inevitably wends its way toward a climax in which solutions for intractable problems are rooted not in rah-rah heroism but, rather, in making, as trusted Wayne butler Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, "the hard choice." It's a stance that's doggedly conservative (in a political sense), positing the circumnavigation of laws as the only truly effective course of action against enemies not beholden to sensible codes of conduct. Yet if Dark Knight ultimately backs Batman into a by-any-means-necessary corner, it does so while simultaneously (and morosely) acknowledging that the decisions he makes, regardless of their immediate success, carry with them enduring, potentially harmful consequences.
Dark Knight thrives on such controversial ideas, but they wouldn't provide a sinister, deranged kick without the Joker himself, and after months of postmortem anticipation, Ledger's final completed screen performance wholly lives up to the hype. His mouth scarred into a warped grin, his tongue erratically, hungrily licking at his lips, and his wet tangle of hair swaying in sync with his unhinged mannerisms, Ledger's malevolent outlaw is perversity incarnate, a smiling sadist whose mordant humor and playfulness merely accentuate his twisted maliciousness. There's a beautiful ugliness to the actor's turn, his psychopath fearsome less because of his unpredictable cruelty or the gleeful enjoyment he takes from behaving inhumanly than because of the canny, demented intellect that underscores his plot to expose mankind's barely inhibited viciousness. Eighteen years after Jack Nicholson's over-praised, distinctly Jack-ish personification of the dastardly purple-clad jester in Tim Burton's Batman, Ledger returns the character to his demented The Killing Joke graphic novel roots, conjuring up a transfixing, indelible portrait of our worst terrorist-extremist nightmares. Like Nolan's exceptional sequel, he presents us with a world without rules and, in the process, rewrites the rules of what's achievable with a summer superhero blockbuster.