What differentiates this new Batman epic from most serioso hero/antihero comic-book movies, including its predecessor, Nolan's "Batman Begins," is that the blackness this time seems fully earned. We are watching not simply a glorified expression of adolescent funk – dweeb angst – but a full-scale vision of depravity.
This depravity is personified most conspicuously by the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger in his last completed performance before his death in January. But the Joker is by no means the only demon in this deck. Batman (Christian Bale), of course, is famously riven: Regarded as a vigilante by the denizens of Gotham City he swoops in to protect, he'd sorely love to bequeath his dirty job to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the crusading district attorney who also happens to be tight with Batman's old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a welcome replacement for Katie Holmes from the first installment).
Central to this movie are dark dualities. Batman's public persona as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is none too light, but at least he gets to swing in his luxury penthouse while far below him the city rots. (It's official, folks: Money doesn't buy happiness.)
Harvey Dent, with the profile of an eagle, is a valiant crime-buster who, hideously disfigured in his battle with the Joker, becomes the notorious Two-Face.
And then, of course, there is the Joker, whose wide smile has been carved into his face. He's a slapstick gargoyle. When Jack Nicholson played the Joker, his campiness was only one step removed from the giggles of the old "Batman" TV series. By contrast, Ledger doesn't offer the audience the slightest glimmer of hope or hilarity. His motto is a sick-joke variant on Nietzsche: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stranger." Nietzsche had it as "stronger," and that applies to the Joker as well: He's fortified by awfulness. He can't get enough of it, and nothing – not wealth or fame or anything else – will buy him off. As Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (Michael Caine) puts it, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
By singling out Ledger's performance I do not mean to snub Bale's. For one thing, the two roles are inextricably linked. When the Joker says to his greatest adversary, "You complete me," he is pointing out the obvious: The forces of light and dark in this world are forever twinned. In the epic scheme of things, Batman needs the Joker as much as the Joker needs Batman.
But there is a reason the Joker, and not Batman, is the heart and soul of this movie, and it's not just because of the quality of the performance. Both men are just that – men. They possess no superpowers. But Batman, with his hooded glower, is irrevocably old-school, while the stringy-haired Joker with his smeary white makeup and red lipstick, who cackles while he commits the most unspeakable crimes, represents an implacable villainy that seems horrifyingly up to the minute. He's the monster of our zeitgeist. He's laughing at you and you can't laugh him off.
The Joker is the agent of chaos in the modern world; he exists only to create havoc. "The Dark Knight" would have been better if it had showed us more of the goodness that was at stake in such a world. The film is so relentlessly bleak that, paradoxically, its blackness is not given its full due. But this comic-book movie is more disturbing, and has more freakish power, than anything else I've seen all year. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.)