Yet flitting through this 10-ton expressionist murk is a diseased butterfly with stringy hair and a maniacal giggle. Played by a dead actor, he's the most alive thing here.
It's not quite fair to say that the late Heath Ledger steals "The Dark Knight" from Christian Bale and the forces of (problematic) good, but, as the Joker, he is the movie's animating principle and anarchic spark - an unstoppable force colliding with the immovable objects of Batman and director Christopher Nolan's ambitions. Much more serious in intent and message than 2005's "Batman Begins," "Dark Knight" would be fatally ponderous without Ledger's nasty little sprite. As it is, the movie strains at its own Wagnerian seams.
"Knight" begins where "Begins" left off, with Gotham City desperately trying to wrest itself from the grip of the criminal underworld. New mob boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) cuts deals with the Russians and Chinese while the media tries to figure out whether this Batman guy is a hero or a vigilante. Imitation Batmen run amok, led by the earlier film's Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, in a brief and unexplained appearance). And someone is robbing the mob banks of Gotham, leaving a Joker behind as a calling card.
Is Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) of the Major Crimes Unit somehow involved in the heists or merely taking advantage of them to seize the bad guys' assets? What does the new district attorney, a white knight named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), want? Why is Wa...
... middle of paper ...
...e Incredible Hulk" look like, well, comic books. The question of whether a true hero is a due-process man like Harvey Dent or a "dark knight" who breaks the rules and gets innocent people killed is worried at throughout the film, building to a climax that forces us to confront exactly what murdering someone might do to the average man's soul.
"The Dark Knight" prods at the boundaries of power and surveillance as well, casting a shadow over Batman while leaving his technological guru (Morgan Freeman) in the light. (Michael Caine's Alfred, meanwhile, acts as the Caped Crusader's enabler, politely urging him to stay the course.)
These are good and necessary things to ponder, yet they're nearly lost in the cross-cutting clutter. You come away impressed, oppressed, provoked, and beaten down, holding on to Ledger's squirrelly incandescence as a beacon in the darkness.
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