How far can an idle entertainment be bent toward art without breaking? This is the question implicitly posed by director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the first superhero film that makes a serious bid to transcend its burgeoning genre. It is a work of exceptional, though not always realized, ambition, a grim parable about the role of heroes, the power of symbols, and the circumstances under which the latter may be more valuable than the former. And while it is not without flaws, these flaws seem almost integral to its sprawling, multi-layered moral fabric.
The movie follows closely in the footsteps of Nolan's franchise-rebooting Batman Begins. The caped crusader has succeeded in breaking the back of Gotham City's Falcone mob, but a variety of loosely connected, ethnically varied criminal syndicates have bloomed from its carcass. Working in concert with Batman (Christian Bale), Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been trying to track and isolate the syndicates' ill-gotten funds. The good guys are not alone, however: A murderous thief named the Joker (Heath Ledger) has targeted the mob money, too, and his method of getting at it--robbing banks with a handful of expendable gunmen and then, well, expending them--is considerably more direct than the tiresome work of obtaining bank records and subpoenas. The mobsters, led by one Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) will eventually ally themselves with the Joker, though not until he has terrorized and killed more than a few of them; Batman and Gordon will likewise make common cause with the city's crusading new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Serving up cops and robbers as thematic doubles is a staple of the crime film, but Nolan (who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Jonathan) expands the device geometrically. His Gotham is, to borrow a phase from Joss Whedon, a doppelgangland
of interlocking pairs: a freakish vigilante who dons a bat costume and a murderous freak who applies clown makeup; a scar-faced Joker, his rictus grin stitched deep into his cheeks, who teaches Dent how personal tragedy can disfigure the soul; a Batman who fights crime in the shadows and a D.A. who fights in the light--and both of them fighting, meanwhile, for the love of the same woman, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, inheriting the role from Katie Holmes).
It is a testament to Nolan's expansive vision that apart from the Batman-Joker-Dent triangle, the most crucial character in the film isn't Gordon or Dawes or Maroni (or Michael Caine's Alfred the Butler or Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, who functions as Batman's grandfatherly "Q"). It's Gotham itself, a restless city with the potential to be roused to good or evil alike. The Dark Knight is, to a surprising degree, a film about politics by other means: Its antagonists wrestle over the public mood like Victorian novelists over the soul of a virgin. Batman cultivates himself as a symbol of hope and justice, but also inspires mob retaliation and the appearance (shades of Magnum Force) of lookalike vigilantes more bloodthirsty than himself. Little wonder that he aspires to abandon his mantle to the less-compromised Dent ("Gotham," he explains, "needs a hero with a face"). The Joker, meanwhile, tries to suck the people of Gotham into criminal complicity, with a series of mortal ultimata: Reveal Batman or bear my wrath; destroy a whistleblower or watch a hospital burn; kill others or be killed yourselves. This is rich, resonant material, and Nolan wades in deeply.
Even as the moral architecture of the film is vastly more baroque than that of Batman Begins, its aesthetic has grown sparer. Gone is the fantasy Gotham of elevated monorails converging on a futuristic Wayne building, replaced by a more authentic variation on Chicago, where the film was shot. Gone, too, is its predecessor's thousand-year-old ninja cult charged with culling decadent metropolises via outlandish plots. The Dark Knight's villain may be a psychopath, but his tools are all too chillingly familiar: the thirsty knife, the patient bomb. (This is not a film for children, and the MPAA should be ashamed of its PG-13 acquiescence.)
Nolan weaves his genre obligations into this dark vision as seamlessly as one could reasonably hope. He still has some trouble establishing the geography of his action sequences and his fight scenes tend to be a bit muddled, but he nonetheless stages a number of memorable set pieces: a winged swoop over a slumbering metropolis, shot on ultra-high-definition IMAX film; a frenetic car (actually, truck) chase that culminates in the end-over-end somersaulting of an 18-wheeler. Nolan wisely minimizes the use of CGI (even when the semi is flipped), and the difference is palpable.
The director's most remarkable special effect, however, is Heath Ledger's Joker. It's a difficult performance to rate on any conventional scale, a whirlwind of energy and effects, tics and tells, Brando and Hopkins and Nicholson thrown in a blender set to "puree" and then dynamited mid-spin. To call it compelling would be a criminal understatement, and yet it seems less the creation of a living self than the annihilation of one, an exercise in the center not holding. Even without Ledger's death, this would be a deeply discomfiting performance; as it is, it's hard not to view it as sign or symptom of the subsequent tragedy.
The rest of the cast is much as you'd expect, in a good way. Oldman makes self-effacing decency as captivating as it's ever been onscreen. Gyllenhaal is a step up from predecessor Holmes, giving Dawes a likable bit of prickle. Caine and Freeman offer the requisite touches of avuncular support. Bale is uncommonly smooth as Bruce Wayne, though when he puts on cape and cowl he pushes his tough-guy baritone rasp dangerously close to parody. But it's Eckhart as Dent, the film's most complex and conflicted character, who truly shines. After years spent disappearing into supporting roles in movies such as Erin Brockovich and Nurse Betty, Eckhart is emerging as an intriguing leading man. Indeed, his Dark Knight role is to some degree the principal one, with a clear arc from brave-but-vain prosecutor to--well, if you know the comics, you know how he winds up. The script, sadly, lets him down a bit at the end, when his mandated metamorphosis becomes somewhat rushed and unpersuasive.
Indeed, Nolan crams so much material into his movie that, despite its hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time, it cuts corners and leaves threads dangling on several occasions. We witness shocking deaths, but the film never slows down enough to let us truly experience the attendant grief. At one point, the Joker invades a lavish party in Bruce Wayne's penthouse apartment, but after Batman leaps out a window to rescue a plummeting dinner guest, the entire scene is dropped, as if the filmmakers had forgotten that a homicidal madman is still up in the apartment with a multitude of helpless partygoers (including Senator Patrick Leahy, a Batman aficionado who has a cameo in the film). Nor is this the only time the Joker's fate is left hanging.
Yet if the film lacks the narrative clarity and cohesion of Nolan's Memento or The Prestige, it's not clear that this untidiness is entirely unintentional. In the end, The Dark Knight is less a film about good versus evil than about order versus chaos, a morality play into which a wild card, the Joker, has been inserted to devastating effect. As the demented harlequin lectures Dent at a moment of existential crisis, "The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon has plans. They're schemers, all trying to control their little parts of the world. ... I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Indeed the whole film occasionally feels like an experiment in entropy, a universe in which even the best laid plans--Nolan's perhaps included--are quickly laid to rest.
The Dark Knight is a peculiar hybrid, an effort to inject a great deal of moral seriousness into what is fundamentally a less-than-serious conceit. It would not be hard, I think, to make the case that no movie should feature both a Bat-pod and a terrified child threatened with murder. But despite the tensions between its form and its function, The Dark Knight succeeds far more than it fails, and lingers provocatively in the mind. At one point early in the film, it almost seems Nolan is presenting us with his cinematic manifesto, when Bruce Wayne explains to Alfred, "Batman has no limits." It's not true, of course. But it is fascinating to see just how far those limits can be pushed.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.