No Joke

The Dark Knight, reviewed.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight

If I hear the word superhero one more time this summer, I may superhurl. The very letters on my keyboard—S-U-P-E-R-H-E-R-O—are stained and grooved from overuse. In the past few months, we’ve had the superhero as wry man about town ( Iron Man), Jekyll-and-Hyde loner ( The Incredible Hulk), surly drunk ( Hancock), and loveable lug ( Hellboy II: The Golden Army). Now, just in time for Christmas—oh, wait, it’s only mid-July—Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) crushes them all beneath the extrawide tires of the biggest, broodingest, most portentous cape-flapper of all: Batman (or, in the curiously distancing locution of his fellow Gothamites, “the Batman”).

There’s an undeniable sense of one-upmanship at work in this sleek, luxurious-looking production—a subtext of “Oh yeah? Top this.” But for all The Dark Knight’s occasionally bombastic excess, it sort of does top them all, and not only in star power and sheer number of things blown up. Nolan turns the Manichean morality of comic books—pure good vs. pure evil—into a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror (and, make no mistake, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a terrorist) breaks down those reassuring moral categories.

The first images of the movie include huge clouds of smoke billowing from an unknown source and the sheer face of a glass-and-steel skyscraper suddenly torn open by an explosion. Granted, what we’re witnessing is only a bank robbery in progress, but once the association has been put in place, it stays: Just as the United States can never get back to what it was before those hijackings, Gotham will never be the same after the appearance of the Joker. The bank job is a success, thanks to this initially masked madman’s simple criminal strategy: Get five guys to help you rob a bank, agree to split the take six ways, then shoot each man in the head as soon as his part of the job is done.

The long, intricately braided story that follows will include vast wiretapping networks, suicide-bomb threats, and moral clashes over torture and prisoners’ rights. In short, Chris Nolan does more nuanced thinking about the war on terror than we’ve seen from the Bush administration in seven years. And despite a falsely heroic closing speech from Gary Oldman’s character, police Lt. Jim Gordon, the movie seems to arrive at much the same conclusion about Batman as Americans have about Bush: Thanks to this guy, we’re well and thoroughly screwed.

We last saw the Batman (Christian Bale) at the end of Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) assuring Gordon that he’d keep an eye out for the city’s new clown menace, who’d been leaving his calling card (a joker card, naturally) at crime scenes. As The Dark Knight begins, Gotham’s streets have been so thoroughly cleansed of crime, thanks not only to Batman but the crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wickedly well-cast Aaron Eckhart), that the mob no longer knows how to move its money around. So they join forces with the Joker to kill the Caped Crusader. But the staidly evil Cosa Nostra has never seen tactics like these. Their new partner is a cackling sadist who speaks in the nasal whimper of Jack Benny and kills with the punk-rock detachment of A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell. He’s indifferent to money, power, and his own survival; he just wants, in the words of Batman’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine), “to watch the world burn.”

There are many more strands twisting in and out of the braid, including the love triangle among Harvey Dent, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, and assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from a far less able Katie Holmes); and the politically charged scenes in which Wayne debates the limits of vigilante justice with his right-hand man Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But every moment is pervaded and invaded by the unsettling presence of Ledger’s Joker, even though he spends long stretches of time off-screen. It’s impossible to know how this performance would seem to us if Ledger hadn’t died six months ago, but it certainly would have been the movie’s epicenter. If you were writing a movie about a young actor’s untimely demise, you couldn’t design a final role that would better display his ability to touch the limits of performance. His Joker is wonderfully textured, with a weird lip-smacking facial tic and a shoulder-hunching gait. He’s also very funny—a funniness that has more to do with timing than with the usual villainous catchphrases. In two different scenes, Ledger gets a big laugh from his delivery of the following lines: “Yeah” and “Hi.”

Nolan directs action with much more style and bravado than he did the first time around, even if there are a few too many breathless gadget-unveilings for my taste—like a silly scene in which we’re asked to appreciate the “titanium tri-weave alloy” of Batman’s new suit. Still, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sequence in which an 18-wheeler piloted by the Joker—a real truck, not a digitally animated one—does a balletic 180-degree flip on a deserted downtown street. Chicago, which stood in for Gotham City, has never looked more forbidding or more glorious.

A colleague with whom I saw the movie felt that Nolan’s use of 9/11 references was exploitive, that he was tapping into our deep cultural anxiety about terror just to spice up his blockbuster. After a second viewing, I vigorously disagree. The use of 9/11 would be exploitive only if Nolan didn’t care about thinking through 9/11 for its own sake, as he clearly does. The Dark Knight was co-scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (a fiction writer who also wrote two earlier Nolan films, Memento and The Prestige). The Nolans’ closing vision of the state of Gotham City—a pessimistic landscape of corruption, chaos, and fear—may not be to every viewer’s taste. But at least it’s a vision, one that, as Sept. 11 draws near again, looks disturbingly familiar.