Holy shit, Batman!

This ain't your grandpappy's dark knight

Not only has 2008 become the year of the superhero movie, it may actually be the first time one gets both the Best Picture and Best Actor nod at the Oscars. Simply said, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has redefined, in spades, what we expect from the comic-book genre. It's an intense, ambitious, and sprawling movie that comes awfully close to greatness.

From his hellish vision of Gotham under siege to his morally conflicted heroes to Heath Ledger's unforgettable performance as the clown prince of crime, Nolan (Memento, The Prestige) has created a film that is as rich in text as it is in subtext, channeling cinema's bleakest and greatest crime films into a summer popcorn flick.

Picking up shortly after his Batman Begins (that is, early in the caped crusader's career), Nolan presents Gotham's dark knight (Christian Bale) as both a source of hope and concern for the city's denizens. While crime is down in the corrupt metropolis, his actions have inspired less-capable copycat "Batmen" vigilantes to take the law into their own hands while mobsters band together in mutual survival. Into this powder keg steps two new players, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an incorruptible D.A. with a real shot at cleaning up Gotham, and the Joker (Heath Ledger), a freakishly sadistic lunatic who promises to assist the beleaguered criminals but offers only ever-increasing chaos. As the violence escalates and innocents die, the Joker offers Batman a way to end the madness: take off his mask and turn himself in. Less a contest of wills (though there's plenty of that), the Joker, it turns out, is waging a war for the soul of Gotham.

What makes The Dark Knight rise above the superhero genre is Nolan's attempt to layer his story (co-written with brother Jonathan) with themes of identity, sanity and sacrifice but ultimately the consequences of choice. As the Joker offers each character in the film a choice (none of them good), Nolan sadistically illustrates the awful consequences of these choices, putting everyone and everything in his crosshairs.

What eventually becomes clear is that when a madman makes the rules, it's best not to play along. This fuels the film's questions about power and how we justify its use. Allusions to our current struggles with surveillance, public perception and terrorism are thrown into the mix, adding political immediacy to Nolan's psycho noir. If Batman represents the rule of law and the Joker is pure chaos, how far should the hero bend to thwart the villain's plans? It's a question our country wrestles with today.

Ultimately, what will make headlines for The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger's uncompromisingly twisted portrayal of the Joker. Far from Jack Nicholson's shameless mugging, this is a chilling performance that avoids caricature or camp. Ledger plays his twisted clown as a vicious and calculating monster who is committed to nothing less than the unraveling of society. He's as unreasonable as he is unknowable, a point cleverly made clear in a series of ever-changing monologues about his "troubled" past. It's a remarkable performance that drives the entire film and demonstrates the remarkable range this tragic young actor had yet to exploit.

Bale once again takes the role of Batman seriously, balancing the brooding hero against the shallow playboy. But while his confident performance bests past actors, his gruff, tough-guy growl is too forced, sometimes laughably so.

The rest of the cast is excellent, with gutsy Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing drab Katie Holmes as love interest Rachel Dawes, and Aaron Eckhart earning special praise for making real the thankless role of virtuous Harvey Dent. His eventual emergence as Two-Face is far less compelling than the Joker but ultimately provides The Dark Knight with a stronger thematic conclusion than the genre's typical hero-versus-villain showdown.

Along with all its psychological and thematic underpinnings, Nolan thankfully proves himself a capable action director as well, creating engrossing fights and chases that eschew fast cuts and trick editing. Little of it is original, but the force of the philosophical weight behind these sequences gives each confrontation lots of juice. Similarly, the director also makes breathtaking use of IMAX technology to give his exterior shots of Gotham a scope and vastness that makes clear Batman's inability to protect it all. See it on an appropriate screen if you can.

Ultimately, there's so much that's good in The Dark Knight it's a shame that its missteps — a pointless overseas subplot, a climax that doesn't gracefully build from the narrative — undermine its bid for masterpiece status. Worst of them is Nolan's inability to muster much emotional warmth for his characters. With each bruising twist of his plot we wince but never truly feel their pain. It's a common fault in all of his films and one that he'll hopefully learn to overcome. In the meantime, it's clear that this visionary director is one to watch as he transcends and transforms every genre he tackles.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].