When Heath Ledger is on screen during The Dark Knight, you can’t look anywhere else.

Part of this is because the uncategorizable Australian actor died suddenly last January at age 28, but his final completed performance would have been arresting under any circumstances. He plays the Joker, the Batman nemesis we’ve seen in various comic book, TV, and film incarnations. This latest movie makes us see this villain anew; the Clown Prince of Crime’s appearance is unsettlingly refined and yet feral, with his greasily unkempt hair, runny self-applied makeup, and daintily tailored outfits. Inside that costume, the late actor makes the Joker into a fidgety psychopath who’s bored out of his skin by every moment not spent plotting murder and chaos. Ledger emphasizes the character’s animal nature, curling his naturally deep voice into a high-pitched snarl and (over-)indulging the reptilian habit of flicking his tongue out during conversation. His Joker is more menacing when sitting still, with brooding malevolence rolling off him like black smoke.


That quality erupts into demonic glee when the Joker’s in action, savoring his victims’ fear before he strikes, and that’s when Ledger’s savagely cackling devil drives this deluxe Hollywood action thriller to its greatest heights. The Joker drops fully formed into Gotham when the movie begins. Batman has the city’s mobsters on the run, so they accept the self-styled clown’s offer to kill the Caped Crusader for them. Their misjudgment is fatal – soon the Joker is murdering the crime bosses along with cops, judges, lawyers, and civilians. The city’s best hope appears to be Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney whose integrity and courage have made him “The White Knight” to Gotham’s beleaguered citizens. Dent has even won the heart of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from Katie Holmes), and yet her old flame, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), still supports the D.A.’s work, hoping Dent can restore law and order so Batman can retire.

The Dark Knight’s sticking power comes from its examination of how the Joker’s crimes affect the crime-fighters. The evil clown is a terrorist in the purest sense of the word, and Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sizes him up pretty well in a speech early on: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Batman tries torture on the Joker (it doesn’t work – the Joker just laughs at him), but he knows that lawmen need to be held to a higher standard. The terrorist doesn’t win until Dent turns into the crazed vigilante Two-Face after his face is disfigured by one of the Joker’s attacks. While dissecting the ethics of Batman and Two-Face’s extralegal actions, the intelligent and complex DELETE also provides a backdrop of characters bravely holding the line in the face of mass panic. Bruce’s equipment man, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), refuses to spy on Gotham’s citizens, and Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) won’t abuse police power when a wave of assassinations leaves him hastily promoted to commissioner. This film astutely depicts the way fear can make ordinary citizens and even straight-arrow public servants lose touch with their principles. At the risk of sounding pompous, The Dark Knight is a trenchant critique of the Bush administration’s torture policy and possibly the best post-9/11 movie to date.

Of course, the sumptuous action sequences help all these weighty ideas go down easily. Much like Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, director Christopher Nolan isn’t afraid to let it rip now that he’s got the first movie out of the way. He still makes hash of too many combat scenes, and the pivotal standoff with two ferries rigged to explode doesn’t come off as convincingly as it should. Still, his storytelling is lithe and supple, and there’s a car chase and gunfight in the middle of the film when the Joker attacks a police convoy. The scene is astonishing just for its sheer scale, with a helicopter and an 18-wheeler getting wrecked along with innumerable cars.

Meanwhile, Christian Bale is stuck in a redesigned suit with an electronically disguised voice. Few actors would even register with these handicaps, but even when he’s out of the suit, Bale rushes his lines. Eckhart is off his game as well, though he improves when Dent becomes Two-Face. The older hands like Caine and Freeman steady this thing, deliberating over their lines. Of course, Ledger owns the show, and it’s pointedly sad when the Joker’s final lines express a wish for future confrontations with Batman, because we know that this actor will never reprise this role.

Still, we’re lucky that Hollywood is handing these extravaganzas to directors who are as conscientious as they are clever and pay equally scrupulous attention to character depth and special effects. The likes of Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II), and now Nolan have combined to make this an extraordinary summer for big-budget blockbusters. The Dark Knight raises a specter of hellish anarchy to create its thrills and then asks how a civilized society can contain it without losing its soul. Pretty deep stuff from a popcorn picture, and it’s one reason why the movie theaters right now are such a rich vein of entertainment.

The Dark Knight
Starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Rated PG-13.