The world is in trouble when the guy dressed up as a bat represents order and sanity. But that's pretty much the thesis of The Dark Knight: The world is a bad place and it needs good people-people like Harvey Dent (the underrated Aaron Eckhart), an earnest, cartoonishly handsome district attorney who wants to rid Gotham City of corruption and organized crime.
The problem facing Dent, Batman (Christian Bale, top-notch again), and the city's only clean policeman, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, quiet and good), is that corruption is as much a part of Gotham as its skyline or its bus system. Cops rat one another out to the mob, prisons are overflowing and porous, and, like a new species of mold developing in a dank house, there's a saturnine strain of crook who sins not because it's expedient or profitable, but on principle, or for laughs. In a word: Joker.
Still, Dent might be the right man for the job. Basically conservative, Dent has such an attractive fearlessness to him that he inspires optimism and hope.
In Dent's first scene, a mob crony pulls a Chinese-made ceramic pistol in the middle of a trial and tries to shoot him from the witness box. Dent takes the thug's gun away, smacks him, and suggests that his boss (who is on trial) buy American. It might be the only unrealized moment of violence in the film.
I should note here that I have been a film reporter for years and have no idea why, beyond the power of the Warner Bros. empire, The Dark Knight is rated PG-13. This is an R-rated movie if I've ever seen one-the violence isn't particularly bloody but it's disturbing. You may laugh at the occasional demented gag, but if you do, you'll feel ill. Don't take your kids. They'll whine about it. Don't take them.
This is a kind of superhero movie we've never seen before-like Bruce Wayne dressed up as Batman, it's a comic book dressed up as an uncontrollably intense crime movie like Heat or The Departed-everyone is just a hair crazier than usual.
And that's true of their environment, as well-truer than any of the heroes understand at first. The audience is in on the secret, though; the film's taut opening heist scene descends into terrifying violence almost immediately, and we understand five minutes in that there's something very, very wrong. When Wayne proclaims Dent's chiseled mug "the face of Gotham's bright future," you just know something awful is going to happen to it.
The film's early reviews have been gently quizzical about the late, lamented Heath Ledger's magnetic performance as the Joker. It's obvious that he's doing a superb job, but nobody seems to know what he's doing. Let me clear things up: He's playing Satan. Ledger flicks his tongue like a snake, tempts people to kill one another, and is gleefully sloppy with bullets, bombs, and knives. Everyone else plays gangland archetypes; Ledger's Joker has escaped to the movies from Milton, or C.S. Lewis' Perelandra.
It's hard to know what this character did to someone like Ledger, who flung himself into every role. What it does to the film, though, is create a character entirely opposite to Batman. He's a terrorist in the most basic sense of the word: Terror is not his means, it's his end. "Everything burns," he observes happily.
The performance turns the grim movie into something more than a thriller-The Dark Knight ends up being a morality play on a titanic level.