The Dark Knight 

Dir. Christopher Nolan; writ. Christopher & Jonah Nolan; feat. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman (PG-13)

As Batman swooped over Gotham City at the end of Batman Begins, the promise of bigger, better adventures hung in the air with him. With The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan hasn’t just made good on that promise, he’s crafted a smart, layered sequel that expands the comic-book-movie genre’s vocabulary. It’s a perfect mash-up of art and audience-pleaser: The Godfather in pointy ears and clown makeup.

Knight picks up maybe a week after the first film, and the plot goes full throttle from minute one. Batman (Bale) and Lt. James Gordon (Oldman) have a new partner in their war on organized crime: Gotham’s “white knight,” D.A. Harvey Dent (Eckhart). However, none of them are prepared for the arrival of The Joker (Ledger), a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos” looking to cause as much mayhem as possible.

Unlike most comic-book films, Knight succeeds in creating palpable tension. In fact, the movie is almost all tension — The Joker’s campaign of terror is brutal and unpredictable, and the body count is high. Ledger’s performance lives up to the posthumous hype — his Joker is more frightening than funny, but no matter how grotesque he gets you just can’t look away.

The other performances are less showy, but just as good. Eckhart is, hands down, the best onscreen Harvey Dent ever (sorry, Billy Dee), handling the character’s inevitable (if a tad sudden) downfall convincingly. Also welcome: Maggie Gyllenhaal transforms Assistant D.A. (and one-time bat-squeeze) Rachel Dawes from preachy bore to real, grown-up woman with intelligence and passion. It’s still a thankless role — as in Begins, the romantic subplot is never quite believable (everybody knows Batman is married to the job). Oldman is superb (obviously) as one of the few genuinely decent characters in a city going insane. Bale is still the definitive cinematic Batman (and he can finally turn his head), although the more colorful Joker almost overshadows the gruff-voiced vigilante. However, every successful (dynamic) duo needs a straight man (Joker to Bats: “You complete me”), and Bale and Ledger are dynamite together.

Nolan attacks the sprawling plot from all angles (police, politicians, the media, and ordinary citizens are all violently thrown together), but he never loses control of the story or his growing cast of characters. His oeuvre makes him the perfect director for Batman: All of his protagonists (Memento’s Leonard Shelby, the rival magicians of The Prestige) are obsessed, haunted men, and Bruce Wayne definitely fits that mold. Despite the requisite action and explosions (and there are many), Nolan knows the true drama lies in the one conflict that our masked hero can’t win so easily: an inner one. Ultimately, The Dark Knight is the second act of an urban, three-act morality play. Bring on act three.

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