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The Dark Knight: Knight fall

The Batman legacy shines in its latest installment

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Almost 20 years ago, Batman rescued cinematic superheroes from juvenile film fare and validated them as big-screen heroes with adult appeal. Director Tim Burton gave Batman a setting even more brooding and emblematic than the Caped Crusader. Glowering statues and looming architecture commanded Burton's vision of Gotham City as part cathedral, part Blade Runner, part urban hell.

The success of Burton's Batman taught some filmmakers the wrong lesson, though, and for most of the 1990s, superhero movies tried to out-gothic each other. It seemed as if every character with comic book roots crouched atop moonlit rooftops alongside monstrous gargoyles, and even spoofs such as Mystery Men featured baroque, hyper-stylized cityscapes.

Director Christopher Nolan clung to some of the unnecessary Burton trappings with his 2005 relaunch of the franchise, Batman Begins, but shifted to the psychology of the cowled vigilante. Nolan's second installment, the thrilling morality tale The Dark Knight, puts its priorities completely in order. The Dark Knight infuses the powerful, operatic emotions within the characters, while Gotham resembles a real-world city – or at least the metropolitan sink-hole of a 1970s cop drama like Serpico. Larger-than-life conflicts play out with grand intensity against a realistic setting, making The Dark Knight the best of the Batman films, and one of the four or five most compelling comic book movies ever made.

The Dark Knight's heroes and villains so fully embody ethical and social forces that their vivid costumes and ghoulish makeup almost prove superfluous. Millionaire Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Christian Bale), uses high-tech gimmicks and ninja-type training to uphold social order outside the fallible legal system, represented, at its best, by the incorruptible Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman). Batman quells crime so successfully that Gotham's underworld turns to an enigmatic sociopath called the Joker (Heath Ledger), whose ruthless determination and flair for theatricality match Gotham's masked protector.

Batman and the Joker don't just battle over Gotham's security, but for the soul of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a fearless district attorney who proves to be the film's pivotal character. Harvey unwittingly becomes part of a romantic triangle with Bruce Wayne by dating his true love, attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Batman Begins' Katie Holmes, who isn't missed). Can Harvey's gang-busting abilities mitigate the need for an outlaw like Batman to be the city's champion? Or will fighting chaos leave Harvey too scarred to recognize good from evil? Audiences who know the coin-flipping character's fate will have a hint of Harvey's tragic dimensions.

The film's real-life tragedy is Heath Ledger's death – reportedly due to accidental drug overdose – after filming his role. The bitter irony is that Ledger's eerily charismatic portrayal could have launched the young Australian actor to a whole new career of playing bad guys and Steve Buscemi-esque character roles. Most portrayals of the Joker emphasize his clownish showmanship, and while Ledger holds back – he smacks his lips and rasps like a mobster from a 1930s crime film – his Joker turns out to be a philosophical sadist, intent on mind games with his adversaries, as well as destruction for its own sake.

Between the Joker's chilling antics and Harvey's inevitable fall, Batman can seem to be on the margins of his own movie, and Bale's guttural delivery in the bat mask may be the film's only major misstep. Fortunately, Nolan sets such an urgent pace that the plot's convolutions don't mystify us. The director has also gained a much greater command of action film vocabulary compared to the previous installment, and Hans Zimmer's and James Newtown Howard's pulsing soundtrack accompanies explosive set pieces.

The Dark Knight, with its violent portrayal of harsh moral sacrifices, offers a sharp contrast to Iron Man's sleekness and humor, which launched the summer movie season at the beginning of May. The two films make terrific bookends, however, each striking a clever balance between escapism and realism, between fantasy and familiarity. This year, comic book movies are the real thing.

For Curt's take on why the Joker is the best supervillain ever click here.

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