The Dark Knight: like no blockbuster you've ever seen

It's much more than a comic-book movie.

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click to enlarge THE JOKER'S WILD: Heath Ledger gives an intense, demonic performance as Batman's archrival in The Dark Knight. - Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
THE JOKER'S WILD: Heath Ledger gives an intense, demonic performance as Batman's archrival in The Dark Knight.

The summer's Big Event Movie, The Dark Knight, is finally here, complete with action figures, YouTube spots and all the other obligatory manifestations of monumental, modern-day hype. But thinking of this latest installment in the Batman franchise as just another disposable blockbuster about men in tights or some mere "comic-book movie," is, frankly, an insult.

If you simply must call The Dark Knight a comic-book movie, you might also want to add that it's surely the richest, most sophisticated and, yes, the bleakest comic-book movie Hollywood's ever produced. Director Christopher Nolan's enthralling action-thriller looks a lot like the sort of escapism demanded by our times, a post-Abu Ghraib pop phenomenon that offers iconic entertainment folded within a complex and moody rumination on human nature, heroes and villains, and order vs. chaos.

An infinitely more intense pop-noir exercise than even this summer's Iron Man (and isn't this ongoing DC-Marvel battle the most energizing thing to happen to summer movies in ages?), The Dark Knight more than lives up to its name, giving us a complex, self-doubting hero verging on anti-hero, with a code of chivalry fueled by Freudian demons and compromised by personal anger. Billionaire Bruce Wayne may throw the best parties and have the coolest toys this side of Tony Stark, but his Batman alter-ego spends a lot of time looking into a deep, dark and very bad place.

The movie's sheer fun factor may be a bit muted by summer blockbuster standards, but don't assume The Dark Knight is all Hamlet-as-superhero angst. There's also plenty of spectacularly pumped-up action here, as well as an intricately constructed plot that keeps us on the proverbial edge of our seats and a breakneck pace that barely allows a moment for a potty break. The movie bolts out of the gate like, well, like a bat out of hell, and it doesn't stop until the closing credits roll some two and a half hours later.

With his hero's origin story dutifully communicated in Batman Begins, Nolan has a free hand to get jiggy in The Dark Knight, exploring the twisted nuances of his characters' psyches while significantly expanding the scale and scope of his canvas. The movie takes place in Gotham City during a period of transition, with the presence of Batman (Christian Bale) having shaken up the status quo and with criminal elements increasingly desperate to regain control of their turf. Driven to extremes, the city's crime families begin devouring each other in a feeding frenzy interrupted only when they agree to hire a dangerous lunatic calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) to kill the Batman — a job he undertakes with great enthusiasm and creativity.

Ledger, whose tragic death looms over the movie, is magnificent here, pouring his soul into a twitchy freak a million miles from the simple figure of fun previously portrayed by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson. With a laugh like a death rattle and pancake make-up apparently applied by Norma Desmond in the later stages of dementia, Ledger's Joker wears his demons on the outside, reveling in the terrible scars that give his mouth the perverse hint of a permanent grin. His story on the cause of those scars keeps changing (this guy's a firm believer that nothing is true and everything permitted), but one plausible claim is that they're daddy's doing.

Nolan keeps everybody's scars front and center in The Dark Knight, but Ledger's grotesque faux smile hovers over the proceedings like a disfigured Cheshire Cat, conjuring the silent horrors of The Man Who Laughs through the pop pathos of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown." His Joker is a gestalt of the century's biggest bogeymen, Osama by way of Dr. Lecter, and though he may not be beyond good and evil, he's certainly beyond logic or reason.

"Some men just want to watch the world burn," explains Batman's faithful confidant, Alfred (Michael Caine), as the Joker wallows in chaos while delivering what might be the decade's best line. "I'm not a monster," Ledger explains in a phlegmatic mumble borrowed from Ratso Rizzo. "I'm just ahead of the curve."

The Joker's random acts of cruelty snowball out of control — public officials, figureheads, ordinary folks, all are killed with indiscriminate gusto — and when too many people start dying, some of them close to our hero's heart, Batman is pushed over a moral edge where he begins to very much resemble the bloodthirsty vigilante some assume him to be.

It's not a pretty picture, but it's certainly an intriguing one, with the movie suggesting a symbiotic relationship between The Joker's random sadism and the more orderly vigilantism of the Batman (who even resorts to some controversial wiretapping by film's end). "You complete me," Ledger coos at one point to his caped and cowled nemesis, an immovable object looking dreamily into the eyes of an unstoppable force.

The director and his sibling co-writer, Jonathan Nolan, fill the film with disturbing mirror images, doppelgangers and provocative parallels, keeping their characters both deeply human and larger than life as the movie plows full-steam ahead — even as its interlocking storylines twist and turn with the intricacy of Nolan's earlier Memento. And don't count on anyone making it out alive.

Nolan's movie goes to places we don't expect in ways we don't anticipate, filtering epic tragedy and dark poetry through a lens of exhilarating entertainment. And although some enthusiasts have already compared it to The Empire Strikes Back — another linchpin installment in a much-loved, myth-soaked franchise — even that compliment sells The Dark Knight short. This is an altogether different kettle of fish, plowing through the barriers between art and entertainment like no blockbuster before it.

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