There are comic book movies, and then there's “The Dark Knight.” The sequel to director Christopher Nolan's series-rebooting “Batman Begins,” this is a sleeker, meaner, even darker Batman. Freed of all the self-important Origin Story business that weighed down the first installment and more than willing to delve deep into the Caped Crusader's convoluted, one-moral-click-north-of-the-criminals-he-pursues psyche, I feel fairly confident in saying: “The Dark Knight” is the best comic-book-based movie ever made.
Taking up close to where “Batman Begins” left off, “The Dark Knight” finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his alter ego in an increasingly violent fight for the moral soul of Gotham City. Having lopped off the head of the crime underworld in the first film, Wayne finds that the criminals that rush in to fill the vacuum are of a different, more ruthless sort. Chief among them: The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious psychopath with a wide, smile-like scar carved into his face. In a city gone completely off the rails, Batman's instant-justice style of crime-fighting has inspired admirers and allies: good cop in a bad town James Gordon (Gary Oldman), former love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and — most importantly — the city's new golden boy D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is on a mission to clean up Gotham and is actually getting some results, leading Batman to think that maybe the time has come for him to hang up his tights and return to a normal life. But with the appearance of the murderous Joker (introduced to us through a spectacular daylight bank robbery that rivals the final showdown in “Heat” for its uber-stylish impact), Bruce Wayne finds himself sucked into a downward spiral, forced to compromise the high ideals he once held himself to in order to match the anarchist madman blow for blow. By the end of the film, it leads to a final confrontation in which Wayne, Dent, Gordon and the populace of Gotham as a whole are forced to choose between what's right and what's safe.
While some of the fight scene choreography seemed a little wonky and the soundtrack tended to drown out some of the important bits of dialogue, “The Dark Knight” is, on the whole, a baroque masterpiece, full of the power, fury and philosophical soul-searching of the best of the Batman comic books. Most of this rests on the stunning performances by Christian Bale and — especially — Heath Ledger. Ledger's Joker is a terrifying take on the iconic character: part vagrant, part Lear's Fool, part John Wayne Gacy in his clown suit. The dark humor of Ledger's Joker frequently bubbles up through the bedrock of his madness and lends the perfect hint of gallows comedy to the film, something that “Batman Begins” sorely lacked. I especially liked how the character seemed to thumb his nose at the Origin-obsessed comic geeks, providing no less than three different tales of how he obtained his scarred smile and penchant for violence. As with many of the subtlest points of the script (penned by Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan), it seemed like the character had made the audience part of the show in an odd kind of way, letting us quietly smile at our own obsessions. Another scene early in the film left me feeling the same way: Batman arrives at a gangland drug deal only to find that chubby, gun-toting clones in rubber Batman masks have beat him to it. After he disarms both the criminals and his imitators, tying up all involved for police, one of the would-be vigilantes asks his hero, “What makes us any different than you?” “I'm not wearing hockey pads,” Batman growls before peeling away in his armored, multimillion-dollar Batmobile. Oh, snap.
Dark, thoughtful, maybe even beautiful in places, “The Dark Knight” is the Batman story the fans have been waiting for; not to mention it puts a few more precious miles between us and the hellish days of the Joel Schumacher/neon-fabulous/enhanced-codpiece-and-nipples-on-the-batsuit era that almost killed the franchise for good. Even if you don't give a rip about comic books, it's definitely one of the must-see movies of the summer.