Darkest hour

A psycho in face paint, a pile of money, and unsettling similarity to the real world in The Dark Knight.
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So much of what will be written about The Dark Knight will focus on Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, and rightfully so. Every time the character appears onscreen — robbing a bank, crashing a party, gleefully explaining the origins of his perma-smile — the movie veers into supremely sinister territory. But even when the Joker is tucked away for a chunk of time, Christopher Nolan's sequel to his 2005 Batman Begins is a grim affair, living up to the "dark" in its title in both style and tone.

That's not a diss, though — Nolan's Batman, embodied by Christian Bale, faces daunting circumstances. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne, may be a jet-setting playboy, but he ain't no cheeky, cheeseburger-scarfing Tony Stark. Wayne Manor burned down in the first film, so Wayne's living in a Gotham penthouse. Ex-squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping in for Batman Begins' Katie Holmes) has taken up with Gotham's new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, nearly as strong as Ledger in a less showy role), who joins forces with the idealistic Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) to rid the city of its gangster element. Operating on his own all-madness, all-the-time frequency, the Joker (who is called a terrorist more than once) manipulates all involved, with utter chaos as his ultimate goal.

The script, co-penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, offers a tangled, complex plot that asks more of its audience than, say, the relatively straightforward Iron Man does. Knowing this, Nolan staffs even bit parts with familiar faces, including Eric Roberts as a mafioso and Anthony Michael Hall as a talk-show host. But it's not all talk — there are plenty of sweet vehicles and nifty gadgets (supplied, as before, by Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox), car chases, people flying out of windows, and every comic book villain's dream prop: a giant pile of money.

That said, however, The Dark Knight has more heft to it than the average superhero flick. Some may find it too hefty — besides a few zingers from Michael Caine's Alfred, its only moments of levity are supplied by a psycho in face paint. Personally, I'm glad to see The Dark Knight presented like a drama (with, uh, capes and explosions) instead of a toy commercial. And though it may ask some obvious superhero-movie questions, it places them in a world where the stakes are too high not to wonder: should Batman have limits? When, if ever, can the "masked vigilante" step aside and let cops and courts take over? And at what cost? There's a sense of futility in The Dark Knight that feels odd for a summer blockbuster — probably because it so matches the mood of the real world. Maybe the film's one easy question is when the Joker asks, "Why so serious?" For that, there are plenty of answers. (Cheryl Eddy)

THE DARK KNIGHT

Opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters

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