Dark as night and nearly as long, Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie feels like a beginning and something of an end. Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind — including “Batman Begins,” Mr. Nolan’s 2005 pleasurably moody resurrection of the series — largely by embracing an ambivalence that at first glance might be mistaken for pessimism. But no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can be rightly branded pessimistic, even a postheroic superhero movie like “The Dark Knight.”
The new Batman movie isn’t a radical overhaul like its predecessor, which is to be expected of a film with a large price tag (well north of $100 million) and major studio expectations (worldwide domination or bust). Instead, like other filmmakers who’ve successfully reworked genre staples, Mr. Nolan has found a way to make Batman relevant to his time — meaning, to ours — investing him with shadows that remind you of the character’s troubled beginning but without lingering mustiness. That’s nothing new, but what is surprising, actually startling, is that in “The Dark Knight,” which picks up the story after the first film ends, Mr. Nolan has turned Batman (again played by the sturdy, stoic Mr. Bale) into a villain’s sidekick.
That would be the Joker, of course, a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one wholly inhabited by Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died in January at age 28 from an accidental overdose, after principal photography ended, and his death might have cast a paralyzing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once. When the Joker enters one fray with a murderous flourish and that sawed-off smile, his morbid grin a mirror of the Black Dahlia’s ear-to-ear grimace, your nervous laughter will die in your throat.
A self-described agent of chaos, the Joker arrives in Gotham abruptly, as if he’d been hiding up someone’s sleeve. He quickly seizes control of the city’s crime syndicate and Batman’s attention with no rhyme and less reason. Mr. Ledger, his body tightly wound but limbs jangling, all but disappears under the character’s white mask and red leer. Licking and chewing his sloppy, smeared lips, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a jittery animal, he turns the Joker into a tease who taunts criminals (Eric Roberts’s bad guy, among them) and the police (Gary Oldman’s good cop), giggling while he-he-he (ha-ha-ha) tries to burn the world down. He isn’t fighting for anything or anyone. He isn’t a terrorist, just terrifying.
Mr. Nolan is playing with fire here, but partly because he’s a showman. Even before the Joker goes wild, the director lets loose with some comic horror that owes something toMichael Mann’s “Heat,” something to Cirque de Soleil, and quickly sets a tense, coiled mood that he sustains for two fast-moving hours of freakish mischief, vigilante justice, philosophical asides and the usual trinkets and toys, before a final half-hour pileup of gunfire and explosions. This big-bang finish — which includes a topsy-turvy image that poignantly suggests the world has been turned on its axis for good — is sloppy, at times visually incoherent, yet touching. Mr. Nolan, you learn, likes to linger in the dark, but he doesn’t want to live there.
Though entranced by the Joker, Mr. Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan Nolan, does make room for romance and tears and even an occasional (nonlethal) joke. There are several new characters, notably Harvey Dent (a charismaticAaron Eckhart), a crusading district attorney and Bruce Wayne’s rival for the affection of his longtime friend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a happy improvement over Katie Holmes). Like almost every other character in the film, Batman and Bruce included, Harvey and Rachel live and work in (literal) glass houses. The Gotham they inhabit is shinier and brighter than the antiqued dystopia of “Batman Begins”: theirs is the emblematic modern megalopolis (in truth, a cleverly disguised Chicago), soulless, anonymous, a city of distorting and shattering mirrors.
From certain angles, the city the Joker threatens looks like New York, but it would be reductive to read the film too directly through the prism of 9/11 and its aftermath. You may flash on that day when a building collapses here in a cloud of dust, or when firemen douse some flames, but those resemblances belong more rightly to our memories than to what we see unfolding on screen. Like any number of small- and big-screen thrillers, the film’s engagement with 9/11 is diffuse, more a matter of inference and ideas (chaos, fear, death) than of direct assertion. Still, that a spectacle like this even glances in that direction confirms that American movies have entered a new era of ambivalence when it comes to their heroes — or maybe just superness.
In and out of his black carapace and on the restless move, Batman remains, perhaps not surprisingly then, a recessive, almost elusive figure. Part of this has to do with the costume, which has created complications for every actor who wears it. With his eyes dimmed and voice technologically obscured, Mr. Bale, who’s suited up from the start, doesn’t have access to an actor’s most expressive tools. (There are only so many ways to eyeball an enemy.) Mr. Nolan, having already told Batman’s origin story in the first film, initially doesn’t appear motivated to advance the character. Yet by giving him rivals in love and war, he has also shifted Batman’s demons from inside his head to the outside world.
That change in emphasis leaches the melodrama from Mr. Nolan’s original conception, but it gives the story tension and interest beyond one man’s personal struggle. This is a darker Batman, less obviously human, more strangely other. When he perches over Gotham on the edge of a skyscraper roof, he looks more like a gargoyle than a savior. There’s a touch of demon in his stealthy menace. During a crucial scene, one of the film’s saner characters asserts that this isn’t a time for heroes, the implication being that the moment belongs to villains and madmen. Which is why, when Batman takes flight in this film, his wings stretching across the sky like webbed hands, it’s as if he were trying to possess the world as much as save it.
In its grim intensity, “The Dark Knight” can feel closer to David Fincher’s “Zodiac” thanTim Burton’s playfully gothic “Batman,” which means it’s also closer to Bob Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s 1986 reinterpretation. That makes it heavy, at times almost pop-Wagnerian, but Mr. Ledger’s performance and the film’s visual beauty are transporting. (In Imax, it’s even more operatic.) No matter how cynical you feel about Hollywood, it is hard not to fall for a film that makes room for a shot of the Joker leaning out the window of a stolen police car and laughing into the wind, the city’s colored lights gleaming behind him like jewels. He’s just a clown in black velvet, but he’s also some kind of masterpiece.
By MANOHLA DARGIS