"Why so serious?” wonders the poster tagline—invoking, ironically enough, the very question that moviegoers will likely be asking as they emerge from the theater. Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s well-regarded reboot of the franchise, was fairly (and appropriately) somber as blockbusters go, but it’s downright frivolous compared to The Dark Knight, which is not even remotely kidding about its titular adjective. Working with his brother Jonathan (who collaborates on the scripts), Nolan has quietly become English-speaking cinema’s premier philosopher, smuggling mind-bogglingly heady ideas into such gimmicky-looking pictures as Memento and The Prestige. Here, he takes the notion of a vigilante superhero and his chaotic nemesis to near-nihilistic extremes, serving up the most thematically ambitious summer blockbuster ever attempted. You will not laugh; you will not cry; it will not become a part of you. But for those prepared to slightly redefine their notion of big-budget entertainment, The Dark Knight offers more food for thought than will most of this autumn’s Oscar-bait dramas.
You get a sense of Nolan’s intentions in the film’s opening set piece, a spectacularly grim bank robbery shot in a matter-of-fact style that calls to mind Don Siegel rather than Tim Burton. At its close, the only man left standing is the Joker, embodied with genuinely frightening panache by the late Heath Ledger. Significantly, the Nolans provide this archetypal villain with no origin tale or backstory, apart from the constantly mutating (and clearly fictional) woe-is-me yarn that the Joker himself sarcastically provides on various occasions. He simply appears, fully formed and motive-free—a merry terrorist with no agenda save for inspiring terror. Set against this agent of anarchy, of course, is Batman (Christian Bale), a shadowy figure who subverts the law in order to uphold order. But the movie’s true subject, arguably, is Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the city’s last incorruptible man, who, as fanboys already know, has a disfiguring date with schizophrenic duality in his immediate future. The opposing worldviews personified by these three men are what give The Dark Knight its bleak power.
Trouble is, you have to wade through a lot of incoherent action nonsense to get to the Sophoclean angst. For all his big ideas, Nolan is still committed to providing at least the semblance of a Hollywood thrill machine—he’s even shot the most kinetic sequences in IMAX, giving the film an occasional eight-story jolt in certain theaters. But as Batman Begins already demonstrated, and this sequel painfully confirms, Nolan can’t shoot bodies in motion to save his life. The first film struggled mightily to disguise this deficiency by making each Bat-attack an indecipherable flurry of quick cuts; this time, Nolan actually tries to stage the action properly, but the intuitive sense of composition and rhythm that you find in even a mediocre Steven Spielberg or John Woo picture is simply alien to him. And even when fists aren’t flying and tires aren’t screeching, The Dark Knight never comes close to offering the sort of visceral, sensual pleasure one expects from movies of this sort. In fact, it’s a rather plodding affair, on the whole. Some have complained that the movie is just no fun, but fun isn’t really the issue. Elegance is.
Still, Ledger’s dynamic performance lends a certain jagged energy to his many scenes—it’s hard to believe that this sneering, sardonic ghoul was played by the same man who scaled new heights of inarticulate longing in Brokeback Mountain. (We’ve clearly lost the best actor of his generation.) And the longer the film goes on, the more intellectually stimulating it becomes, to the point where I ultimately found myself willing to forgive its visual inexpressiveness. What begins as a hard-boiled crime saga gradually transforms into a remarkably complex morality play, complete with a finale that amounts to a modified version of a game-theory problem formally known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Nolan admittedly doesn’t have much of a feel for dudes in costumes and makeup whaling on each other, but we’ve seen plenty of that already this summer. Films that convincingly depict the harrowing cost of true heroism and the corrosive effect of anarchy, on the other hand, are perpetually in very short supply.