Does “The Dark Knight,” director Christopher Nolan’s second take on the Batman legend, radically subvert the paradigm of the superhero movie? Not really. Does it shake up that paradigm with a smart script, consistently strong performances and a dazzling visual style?
Boy, does it ever.
Christian Bale returns as gazillionaire Bruce Wayne, who spends his nights cleaning up the crime-ridden streets as Batman, but this time he’s not alone in going after the bad guys; Gotham City has a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and he’s focused on bringing down the gangs, particularly the crime family run by Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts). Dent’s other passion is for Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role played by Katie Holmes in “Batman Begins”), Wayne’s old flame.
Just as Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, run by Batman’s ally Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Dent’s office are finally cornering the city’s mobsters, a new villain emerges — The Joker (Heath Ledger), a clown-faced psychopath who isn’t after money or power. He just wants to create chaos and anarchy in his wake, and he’s exceptionally good at it.
While “The Dark Knight” has all the visual flair and breathtaking action sequences you’d want in this kind of movie, the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan keeps the human element front and center. Wayne hopes that Dent’s efforts against organized crime will put a human face on justice in Gotham and allow the haunted Wayne to hang up his cowl for good — thus allowing him to have a normal life with Rachel. (The screenplay also has some smart observations on the zeitgeist, from the way that fear of terrorism appeals to the basest instincts of the mob mentality to the ethics of wireless surveillance.)
Fans of the comics know what happens to Dent, but “The Dark Knight” contains enough surprises and twists to keep the most well-versed Batman fan on his toes. My favorite fanboy inside joke of the film was the casting of Nestor Carbonell as Gotham’s mayor — viewers of the short-lived superhero parody sitcom “The Tick” will recall that Carbonell played a character named “Batmanuel.”
Bale feels a lot more comfortable in the rubber suit (which, early on, resembles the bulky outfit worn by an elderly Bruce Wayne in Frank Miller’s “The Dark Night Returns”) this time out. In “Batman Begins,” his Batman voice sounded absurdly deep, like a 10-year-old putting on an “adult” voice to make prank phone calls. This time, Bale affects an eerie rasp, somewhat akin to Brenda Vaccaro doing a Miles Davis impersonation. But it works.
No one seems to have told Eckhart, Gyllenhaal and Oldman — as well as Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman — that they’re in a big-budget summer tentpole movie, as all of them make an effort to give interesting, intricate performances as fleshed-out, complex adults.
And then there’s Heath Ledger. I hesitate to use the word “Oscar-worthy” to describe his performance, since that august body has honored some awful work over the years, but Ledger’s work as The Joker takes this talented actor to a whole new plane. Skulking about like a demented Jack Benny, Ledger’s Joker packs the kind of wallop that Alan Moore gave the character in “The Killing Joke.” Nothing that Jack Nicholson, much less Cesar Romero, created even comes close. And it’s a loss for us all that this film marks his final completed performance.
Ledger’s Joker is so intense, incidentally, that very young children may find it too disturbing. And vertigo sufferers are advised to avoid seeing “The Dark Knight” in IMAX, where the aerial shots of a free-falling Batman over the Hong Kong skyline might be too much to handle.
And speaking of too much, the last half hour of the film dawdles and sidetracks when it should be gunning for the climax. It’s a flaw shared by Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” and it’s the one misstep of “The Dark Knight.” Other than that, it’s a soaring, brooding, haunting piece of work that sets a very high new standard for any future film forays for the Caped Crusader.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints