Two hours and 32 minutes long, "The Dark Knight" is grimly magisterial. It's a summer blockbuster that contemplates near-total civic disaster: Crowds surge, tractor-trailers flip, and buildings explode, but the pop violence feels heavy, mournful. Light barely escapes the film's gravitational pull.
Yet flitting through this 10-ton expressionist murk is a diseased butterfly with stringy hair and a maniacal giggle. Played by a dead actor, he's the most alive thing here.
It's not quite fair to say that the late Heath Ledger steals "The Dark Knight" from Christian Bale and the forces of (problematic) good, but, as the Joker, he is the movie's animating principle and anarchic spark - an unstoppable force colliding with the immovable objects of Batman and director Christopher Nolan's ambitions. Much more serious in intent and message than 2005's "Batman Begins," "Dark Knight" would be fatally ponderous without Ledger's nasty little sprite. As it is, the movie strains at its own Wagnerian seams.
"Knight" begins where "Begins" left off, with Gotham City desperately trying to wrest itself from the grip of the criminal underworld. New mob boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) cuts deals with the Russians and Chinese while the media tries to figure out whether this Batman guy is a hero or a vigilante. Imitation Batmen run amok, led by the earlier film's Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, in a brief and unexplained appearance). And someone is robbing the mob banks of Gotham, leaving a Joker behind as a calling card.
Is Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) of the Major Crimes Unit somehow involved in the heists or merely taking advantage of them to seize the bad guys' assets? What does the new district attorney, a white knight named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), want? Why is Wayne Enterprises holding merger talks with a shady Hong Kong businessman (Chin Han)? "The Dark Knight" takes a while to sort itself out; even at 152 minutes, you can feel the three-hours-plus monster this was carved from. Confusion reigns in the opening scenes; loose threads abound toward the end (including one major figure literally left hanging).
Yet the generous midsection works as an agonized big-muscle action film about a conflicted superhero. As Bruce Wayne, Bale is gravely shallow, and he lacks the sense of fun Robert Downey Jr. gave his obscenely rich playboy in "Iron Man." Bruce uses his secret identity as a hidden camera to glean information from the city's upper echelons, but he's not quite there otherwise. This, oddly, is what makes him interesting, both to us and to assistant DA and ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over from Katie Holmes and providing the character - at last - with a spine and a brain).
Batman's a whole other story. The filmmakers have worked out the mask problems from the previous film; Bale fills the suit with grace and danger. His voice is disguised as well - it's now a bass-heavy synthesized whisper. The character seems more than ever an extension of his high-tech toys (like the neat-o Bat-scooter that pops out of the Batmobile at one point, ecstatically rearing up like the Lone Ranger's Silver). He represents a citizen's darkest urges, though, and it eats at him. He's Dirty Harry crossed with Hamlet.
The complicated plot involves Batman, Gordon, and Dent putting the squeeze on the mobsters, who look to the Chinese businessman as a financial savior and to the Joker to rid them of Batman. The Joker, of course, has his own agenda, and if you're not sure what that is, he's happy to spell it out for you. "I'm an agent of chaos," he sneers in one of the script's more italicized bits of dialogue, but we don't need to be told, since Ledger embodies that sentiment in every brilliantly off-kilter line reading.
We never find out where the Joker came from. Every time the character tells the story of how he got his smiling scars, the details are different, as though he were making himself up on the spot. The gambit works because Ledger re-invents the comic book super-villain as a wildly watchable Method nerd. The character's body movements are wobbly but controlled, the eyes darting with nervous energy as he calculates his next move. The tongue slithers.
Yet even when he's done up in drag as a nurse - a freakish, hilarious scene - this Joker never grandstands like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" or Cesar Romero on the old TV show. Instead, he mutters and natters with bent, subversive intelligence. He's a small man delighting in tipping over the big guys.
"The Dark Knight" itself comes close to tipping over in its final act (or two). Whirling action set pieces like a Hong Kong kidnapping and the detonation of a hospital have come and gone, and the appearance of a subsidiary villain named Two-Face - half his face burned horribly away, keeping the film out of kiddie territory - ups the stakes. At one point Nolan finds himself cutting frenziedly between Batman, Gordon, the Joker, Dent, Rachel, and a crazy man in the police cooler, and you feel the film's sense slipping away between the smoking edits. (I haven't seen the
On top of this are laid themes of moral complexity that make "Hellboy II" and "The Incredible Hulk" look like, well, comic books. The question of whether a true hero is a due-process man like Harvey Dent or a "dark knight" who breaks the rules and gets innocent people killed is worried at throughout the film, building to a climax that forces us to confront exactly what murdering someone might do to the average man's soul.
"The Dark Knight" prods at the boundaries of power and surveillance as well, casting a shadow over Batman while leaving his technological guru (Morgan Freeman) in the light. (Michael Caine's Alfred, meanwhile, acts as the Caped Crusader's enabler, politely urging him to stay the course.)
These are good and necessary things to ponder, yet they're nearly lost in the cross-cutting clutter. You come away impressed, oppressed, provoked, and beaten down, holding on to Ledger's squirrelly incandescence as a beacon in the darkness.
So: Is the performance on a par with "Brokeback Mountain"? In its interiority - in the sense that it springs from a mysterious engine at the actor's core - yes. Is it Oscar worthy? Sure, if that's how you measure these things. In the end, though, the achievement's more than that, or harder. It makes you mourn a gifted man's stupid death with fresh and vigorous sorrow.