The Dark Knight

In theaters.

Consider the title fair warning. Dark doesn’t even begin to describe the latest Batman movie. I don’t think much of the ratings system, but if you’re going to have one, it’s outrageous that The Dark Knight is rated PG-13. True, I don’t recall any swearing or exposed breasts, but the violence is wincingly graphic and deeply unsettling and not remotely cartoonish. Comic book source material notwithstanding (and frankly, turning up one’s nose at the medium is a breed of snobbery for which I have no respect), this is a movie for grown-ups.

And that, of course, is part of the reason it’s so good. Director Christopher Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan aren’t content just to sell action figures and blow stuff up, and their ambition shines through in every scene of The Dark Knight. It isn’t as perfectly conceived and crafted as their previous collaboration, the underrated The Prestige, but unlike most summer blockbusters, Knight gets under your skin and leaves you talking. It stays with you.

At the outset of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is dismayed that his Batman alter ego has inspired more vigilantism than traditional civic-mindedness. He hopes to pass the hero’s mantle to the upstanding new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), but before he can do so, the sudden arrival of the Joker (Heath Ledger), a violent anarchist, throws Gotham into disarray.

Bale has less to do here than he did in Batman Begins, Nolan’s brooding reboot of the Batman franchise, which is a shame because he’s a talented actor. In Knight, however, the supporting characters steal the spotlight. Ledger’s performance is as bizarre and magnetic and horrifying as the previews promised. His Joker truly frightened me, and I think it’s the absence of malice that does it. The character isn’t angry or hateful. He’s a true sociopath, indifferent to other people’s suffering, interested in chaos for its own sake. As steadfast Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, the Joker merely “wants to watch the world burn.”

The Nolans are, perhaps, a bit too eager to spell that out, but Ledger makes even the clanking lines reverberate with portent. His voice alone—a lip-smacking, slightly nasal leer—is enough to fill me with dread. I had worried about the specter of Ledger’s own tragic, untimely death hanging over Knight, but his performance is so good that I almost immediately forgot I was watching Ledger the actor. The nightmarish Joker overwhelmed me completely.

Eckhart has a much less showy part, but he, too, delivers a great performance. Nearly everyone in the audience knows what transformation awaits Harvey Dent, and the Nolans play with that foreknowledge from the very beginning, needling us with lines about Dent’s face and what it reflects and represents. As for Eckhart, he creates a fascinating character—ambitious but good-hearted and truly courageous—and when Dent loses everything, including half his face, the man’s agony and despair are palpable.

In fact, if it weren’t for the twisted humor of the Joker, the dissolute charm of Bruce’s playboy cover, and the superficial coolness of some of Batman’s feats (soaring from a skyscraper, playing chicken with a semi), The Dark Knight might have been unbearably bleak. The Joker’s nihilistic pranks are truly stomach-churning, and Bruce’s flirtation with privacy-decimating technology makes me cringe. (The “just this one time” compromise doesn’t assuage my misgivings.)

That kind of allusion to real contemporary issues lurks in the background throughout the movie. Thus far, I’ve avoided using the term, but to put it plainly, the Joker is a terrorist, in the purest sense, committing crimes not for their own sake but for the fear and panic they will inspire. Knight dramatizes that fear and panic all too well, as well as the impotence good people can feel when they face it.

There are no easy answers to the issue, and to their credit, the Nolans don’t go in for any kind of rah-rah jingoism, but I still walked out of the theater in an tumult, trying to work out how I feel about the way things end. At the movie’s climax, James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman’s ally on the police force, tells his son that Batman is not the hero Gotham deserves but rather the hero the city needs. It’s a grand thought, but if I may get a little meta, I feel the reverse is true when thinking of Batman’s true audience, the community beyond Gotham, us. I’ve become rather obsessed with what action movies might say about their times, and the Nolans’ Batman is obviously contemporary: too gritty to indulge in camp, too desolate to offer anything more than the most fragile hope. Their dark, uncertain Batman is absolutely the hero we deserve.

But is he the hero we need? The Dark Knight Batman is someone who will muck about in the shadows, crossing lines we can’t cross and papering over painful truths, to grant us the undeserved privilege of living our lives in the illusion of light. That’s a powerful but acutely dangerous idea with a strong whiff of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about it. As much as I respond to The Dark Knight, I feel the need to resist it, too, because in the end, I’m not at all sure I want to follow where it is leading.