If Christopher Nolan's 2005 film Batman Begins laid out an updated backstory about why multimillionaire Bruce Wayne took to the streets as the caped crusader known as Batman, its somber follow-up mostly asks: OK, how did that go wrong?
The Dark Knight, once again directed and co-written by Nolan, jumps into the Bat-world without preamble. In order to know exactly why Wayne is Batman, what precise roles his advisers play and which of Gotham's residents know Batman's identity, you'll need to have seen the first film. But that's hardly mandatory: Much of Batman's history is common knowledge after all these decades, and the film's plot is basic.
As an implied result of Batman's extracurricular justice activities, criminals in Gotham have grown wilier and more organized. To that end, Gotham's crime families have hired a man known as The Joker to protect their interests. The Joker has useful street skills, such as the moving of millions of dollars from bank to bank, but his focus is distracting Batman and his law-and-order colleagues at city hall. He is simply a force for creating chaos, in which crime and disorder can flourish.
Leading the charge for justice is square-jawed District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), aided by his legal-eagle girlfriend (and one-time Batman paramour) Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and police Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldham).
But The Joker, a devious madman, knows his adversaries too well, and lays traps that cause the lawmen's best intentions and obvious choices to backfire. Thus, nearly every character in this broody drama -- even the virtual cameos from Wayne's butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) and gadget engineer (Morgan Freeman) -- is confronted with a decision where the "right" choice is of questionable moral value.
Nobody, of course, suffers more than Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale). Not only is being the hero -- the White Knight -- an impossible role to sustain in a chaotic world which often requires rule-breaking to re-establish order, but his off-and-on vigilantism is stifling. "Batman has no limits," Wayne tells Alfred, suggesting a slide to the dark side. His loyal companion demurs, but later Batman meets the one man who truly understands the existential mess he has created by playing the avenger. The Joker leers knowingly: "You've changed things ... forever. There's no going back. See, to them, you're just a freak ... like me!"
Heath Ledger, who was garnering great buzz for his portrayal of The Joker even before his unexpected death in January, is unrecognizable as the pretty-boy actor. He utterly morphs into this cackling villain, complete with hunched shoulders; smeared makeup that tracks into the lines of his scarred face; discolored teeth; stringy, greasy hair; an unpleasant penchant for licking his lips; and an undeniable aura of madness.
Ledger's performance is thrilling, and he transforms this often campy role into something dark but recognizable. (And please, no more raving about Jack Nicholson's vanity turn as The Joker in 1989's Batman: You've been served.) During the film, I couldn't quite place the unsettling, slightly sing-song voice Ledger employed; I have since read in interviews that Ledger based The Joker's voice on that of a ventriloquist dummy. I tip my hat: That's a great instinct for poking some mommy-that-scares-me memory deep within us.
Duality is the leitmotif of Dark Knight, from two-sided trick coins and a man with literally two faces, to matching explosives-rigged boats -- one packed with good guys, the other with bad guys, and each confronting the same moral dilemma -- to its familiar prepackaged heroes who have to make untenable choices where there is no clear path to righteousness.
Needless to say, this is a dark film with none of the levity of the summer's other superhero popcorners. It's still fantastically entertaining -- packed with good performances and nifty new vehicles and stunts, and featuring awesome nightscape panoramas shot in 70 mm. But it's all wrapped up in shiny black paper and, when fully opened, may leave you depressed. You're free to leave your brain at the snack bar, of course, but it's also hard not to find disturbing real-world corollaries to the film's bigger themes of justice at any price, and of keeping appearances of order simplistic and digestible, even -- or especially -- if they're falsehoods.
It's no coincidence that this prophetic line is uttered twice: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to be the villain." It doesn't bode well for Batman, or Wayne -- or for the justice we need to believe in.