In a summer jam-packed with superheroes, Batman has made a couple of smart moves. He's waited until everybody else - Ironman, The Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy - exhausted themselves, letting anticipation build. And he's kept things serious, refusing to stoop to comic-book high jinks. If anything, The Dark Knight is even more serious than Batman Begins, which revamped the Warner Bros. franchise back in 2005, and Batman Begins didn't exactly go in for biff-bam-pow shenanigans. I criticized director Christopher Nolan for it at the time, said both he and Batman needed to lighten up a little bit. But now I wonder whether Nolan isn't on to something. The Dark Knight takes itself very seriously, but these are very serious times we live in, and you don't have to scratch very deep beneath the movie's surface to find a theme on everybody's mind these days: How far should we go to get the bad guys?
As always, the Caped Crusader is willing to go pretty far, but he does have his limits, and there's a new guy in town who's prepared to test those limits to the breaking point. Like James Dean before him, Heath Ledger is making a posthumous appearance on the Big Screen that can only add to his legend-in-the-making. We always knew the Joker was a freak, but Ledger finds parts of himself that maybe even he didn't know were there. Technically speaking, there's the makeup, which gives a smeary, smudgy I'm-melting quality to this psychopathic clown. Add a darting tongue that can't stop licking its chops, a voice fueled by laughing gas and hair last washed in the womb. But it's the sense of commitment, perhaps verified by Ledger's premature exit from the stage, that puts the whole thing over. His Joker is a powder keg of pure evil. He's going straight to hell and wants to take everybody with him.
In the meantime, he's around a lot, explaining himself to us in that way supervillains have. But the movie clocks in at over two and a half hours, so there's plenty of time for everyone. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return as Batman's staff of two, Alfred the butler and Lucius the inventor. And they both sprinkle comic dust on what would otherwise be a rather grim proceeding. Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced lightweight Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne's once and future queen, and if the script had given her much to do she'd undoubtedly have done it. But it's Rachel's current boyfriend, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who gets the most substantial subplot. Dent's a straight-arrow type - the White Knight, if you will - who's ready to go after the Mob, which has been putting the squeeze on Gotham City. And the movie sets up a good-cop/bad-cop rivalry between Dent and Batman, one fighting within the law, the other outside.
Eckhart doesn't exactly burn up the screen after Dent's altogether unconvincing transformation into Two-Face Harvey, but it doesn't really matter at that point because there are so many ideas in play - the nature of evil, what it means to be a hero, how the fight for justice can pit one group of people against another. Like a creature that's sprung fully-formed from our ids, the Joker likes to blow things up for the hell of it, so how do you deal with him? Humanely? Christian Bale, in my opinion the best Batman of them all, could still stand to loosen the screws on the Batsuit a notch or two. (The voice sounds like Clint Eastwood gargling rocks.) And I wish they'd give Bruce Wayne more to do, make him a true counterpart and counterpoint to Batman. But Bale is able to find the gravitas, even the sadness beneath the gravitas. And he's handsomer than ever, a GQ model with a brain attached.
The movie itself has gone rather plain. Shot mostly in Chicago, it hasn't dressed the locations very much, and if the filmmakers were going for kitchen-sink realism, all I can say is the water's running. We're a long ways from the demented funhouse of the Tim Burton films, which put the "Goth" back in "Gotham." But the effect is to ground us in the real-world implications of a city teetering on the brink of total chaos. If only to relieve the Windy City familiarity, the movie sends a whole new line of Bataphernalia our way, including a titanium-fiber suit that's supposed to make it easier for Batman to get around. I've never noticed him having a problem in that department, but anything that lightens his load is all right with me. "Why so serious?" the Joker likes to ask his victims before sending them off to that great comedy club in the sky. If you're expecting frothy entertainment, the joke's on you.