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 The late Heath Ledger mesmerizes as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Christopher Nolan’s raging re-creation of Batman owes as much to cultural archaeology as it does to indie-tinged artistry. It took someone from well outside the mainstream — someone tougher and less twee than Tim Burton, someone more serious and sure-handed than Joel Schumacher — to chip away at the kitsch and triviality that have barnacled themselves to Batman. (And yes, the supremely talented, once-outsider Burton became mainstream a long time ago, the pet freak in the Hollywood menagerie, pulled out on occasion by the cinematic chattering classes as self-congratulatory proof of some affinity for the edgy and the avant-garde.)

The Burton Batman movies were fun enough in a twisted-fairy-tale fashion; the Schumacher installments were just embarrassing in their vacuity. Neither director seemed to grasp the ghastly divide at the heart of Gotham’s self-appointed protector, that he’s just a well-intentioned, well-appointed man with a messy messiah complex. Bruce Wayne fights the good fight, but he does so by stepping into the street and trying to hit the criminals and lowlifes where they live. In Nolan’s imagination — fueled by the great Batman graphic novels, including Frank Miller’s work — Batman has advanced from his bombastic beginnings to a regular crime-fighting fixture as The Dark Knight. But he finds he not only has to worry about the consequences of his actions —  now, Batman (Christian Bale) has to worry that his very existence is simply a siren call to rough beasts like the Joker (the late Heath Ledger), maniac men who slouch toward Gotham to be born.

Suddenly, as clear as the Bat signal ripping through the night sky, Wayne sees a way to have the current situation cut both ways. He can be the Dark Knight, the mad-but-not-bad man in the shadows stopping the worst of the worst from happening. New district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) can be the one above the fray, reforming the system from within and giving Gotham a new face of hope. Dent can make Batman obsolete. He can eliminate the need for an anonymous champion, by becoming a public hero. In Gotham, though, nothing ever goes according to plan.

The Dark Knight, scripted by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan with a story assist from David S. Goyer, is a comic-book movie collided with a police procedural — Law and Disorder, if you will. Batman and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) fight the mob with all the smarts and secrecy they can muster. There’s a new player at the table, however, this Joker, who robs banks but has a slightly bigger, badder payoff in mind. He’s one of those men, faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) observes, who just wants to see things burn. Churning up chaos is his game.

And what magnificently crafted and choreographed chaos he creates. Ledger, in his final role, is jarring. He takes control of the movie and the metropolis, reminding us at every turn that this is his world, not Batman’s. He’s leering and likeable, funny and frightening. He has plans for Gotham, an unchecked appetite for fear and unpredictability. To achieve them, he realizes he must battle the Bat — but he also must remove the one player in the equation who could actually make a long-term difference: Dent.

Ledger’s lip-smacking, arms-akimbo intensity is the perfect antonym to Bale’s buttoned-up, taut-jawed anger and righteous rule-writing. The fact that Batman’s vigilante passion for justice spawned (at least spiritually) the Joker’s envie for anarchy in the first place is evident in every exchange, underscored subtly by the writers in the ever-changing origin stories that the crazy clown offers up. The twinning of these two proves that Nolan understands his material completely. It’s an exchange of equals made more disturbing by the inevitable fall of Dent — and the rise of his much-altered alter ego Two-Face. In the midst of all this insanity, the Nolans find a way to say something subtle and important about power, how to wield it and how to destroy it, a comment most topical —  if anyone will stoop to listen to a comic-book movie.

Behind the restless camera, Nolan melds his always-artistic vision with the chill and sleekness of a Michael Mann movie. Gotham, in his hands, is all glass and shadow, a black-and-blue cityscape. His complex storylines, eye-popping action sequences and painterly set pieces give Batman the heft of an epic. Nolan took great pains to create a character with Batman Begins, and he begins to beautifully dissect and dismantle him in The Dark Knight, turning him into something else altogether. His first film was all about the bat, the sequel a look at a masked man deep in murky moral territory.

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