Batman and the Joker

I saw the movie Monday night, at the biggest press screening I’ve ever been to.

Two-thirds of Batman: The Dark Knight make for a terrific movie. Then it repeats itself. The ending is unnecessarily didactic: too many speeches, in the age of Obama. The criminal genius of the Joker is unexplained, a given (except for his first heist), while Batman’s dark art is painstakingly demonstrated, granted plausibility every time. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is seriously miscast as the muse who inspires both the law enforcer and the outlaw. But despite all that, Dark Knight remains a must-see.

Like Batman Begins, the movie that re-animated the Batman movie franchise, Dark Knight is dark indeed, and brooding. The violence is amped, but the anticipation it builds before certain, almost ritual acts of violence (the Joker introducing himself to the mob, the Joker in the act of taking over one mob family) is pitched so high it is almost unbearable. You want to hide, but you can’t.

The hype, for once, is accurate: Heath Ledger turns in a chilling, mesmerizing performance as the Joker. It would have been career-defining, if Ledger had not died earlier this year, after completing the movie. Instead, because it can be viewed (at least eventually) as severed from Hollywood’s cult of personality, the acting is a classic, a performance that defines what it means to be evil.

That is saying something, because the movie faithfully reflects the shifting, ambiguous nature of good and evil, right and wrong. The brothers Nolan (Christopher directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan) must have known what St. Paul meant, when that firebrand drew the line separating good and bad, sin and grace, right across the human heart. That helps explain why the most riveting dust-up in this summer action blockbuster is the clash of ideas, the struggle with ideals.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney, fill the screen when they are in it, but Ledger’s Joker owns the picture. Of the many crimes he commits, the biggest, the most memorable, is film piracy. He runs away with the movie.

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