Diabolical villains have been stealing the spotlight from superheroes since "Paradise Lost." But even if Heath Ledger hadn't died so young, his performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" would rank first among the movie's many achievements.
A heady script, spectacular action sequences and even the stoic heroism of Christian Bale as Batman would have little resonance without Ledger. With him, "The Dark Knight" soars over the ponderous "Batman Begins" and can stake a claim as the most successful superhero movie of all time.
Although the sociopathic Joker quips to the Caped Crusader, "You complete me," it works both ways. The symbiosis of good and evil is the film's philosophical core, and images of duality and cloaked identity are strewn through it like shards from a fun house mirror.
Because Batman has been so successful in cleaning up Gotham City, fanboy copycats strut in the streets. Billionaire Bruce Wayne contemplates retiring his costumed alter ego, resurrecting his romance with prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a substantial improvement over Katie Holmes) and handing the mantle of crime fighter to District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Into the vacuum steps the Joker, a gleefully amoral, mop-haired maniac with pasty-white makeup and a smear of red across his scarred mouth. In a bloody bank robbery, he proves his ruthlessness, and with a salivating voice that's part Jimmy Cagney and part Sylvester the Cat, he then offers to kill Batman for the city's crime lords.
But his real ambition is to unmask the mysterious vigilante and prove that they are kindred freaks who live outside the bounds of conventional morality. To lure the him out of his cave, the Joker leaves a string of deadly clues that threaten Batman's allies, including Dent and Dawes.
The way the Joker forces the life-preserving Batman to make fatal choices — and then expands the game's roster to include innocent civilians — is chilling.
Terror vs. repression is a common theme in post-9/11 blockbusters, but director Christopher Nolan and co-writers David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan give the ethical dilemmas unprecedented impact.
And more so than in "Batman Begins," Nolan enlivens the intellectual debate with visceral entertainment and even some needed humor. A nighttime skyscraper dive in Hong Kong, where Batman chases a Chinese money launderer, is breathtaking. A Gotham City chase scene, filmed amid the deco splendor of Chicago and involving a supersize motorcycle called the Bat Pod, packs a heavy-metal wallop that rings truer than the usual CGI overkill. And the makeup effects for a new adversary called Two-Face are literally jaw-dropping.
In comparison to the villains, the public persona of Bruce Wayne is both smug and colorless. Even his butler Alfred and financial adviser Lucius (old reliables Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman) have better lines than he does.
Of course, we're supposed to see through the playboy posturing to Wayne's inner Hamlet. But Bale is overshadowed both on and off the screen by a ghost named Heath Ledger, whose doubly haunting performance ensures that "The Dark Knight" will shine when we all are gone.