At the end of Batman Begins, the Wayne mansion lies in charred ruins, torched by high-minded crusaders aiming to wipe the slate clean in decadent Gotham. In a summer that also saw War of the Worlds, Begins was, upon reflection, a potent crypto-terrorism tale laced with post-9/11 echoes: Scarecrow’s “weaponized” drug literally producing mass terror, Bruce Wayne’s attraction-repulsion to vengeance as justice, even a CIA-esque strange-bedfellows tie through Wayne’s past association with his future enemy.
The thread continues in a sequel that virtually plays out the FISA wiretapping dilemma, but, more important, the Dark Knight (Christian Bale) continues to stoke director Christopher Nolan into a frenzy. His work twists and turns with the anxiety that the cracks and fissures in fractured identities could let through unsavory impulses, which here tempt not only our hero but his traumatized town. Batman, who like most superheroes would not exist after rudimentary psychotherapy, stalks and growls through The Dark Knight, tormented by the fun-house mirror the Joker holds up to his conflicted rectitude and to Gothamites’ baseline morality.
A muscular, overwhelming, even sadistic blockbuster, The Dark Knight gives you your money’s worth and burns it in front of you. Just as prosecutors Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are nailing down the criminal element, the Joker (Heath Ledger) turns up to run the city ragged with endless catastrophic double binds and explosive blackmails. Ledger’s hunch and nasally patter at times recall Ed Sullivan, but whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker treated crime as fatal performance art, this shiveringly vicious Joker is far darker, a death-wish hobby-theorist out to prove the worst in people.
Nolan’s tendency to gravitate toward tricky narratives (Memento, The Prestige) manifests here in unforgivingly tight-left-turn plotting and three-track parallel editing. Batman Begins, despite its long run-up to take-off, ultimately assumed a safely satisfying shape; The Dark Knight is almost exhausting, a movie and a half that pours forth flipped trucks, leveled buildings, Sophie’s choices, a beaten-down Batman and even the launch of the next grotesque baddie, Two-Face. The filmmaker seems to want to push the audience a little too far, at some points insisting upon his ideas, at others making demanding scenes that feel like three-card monte.
Shot in Chicago, The Dark Knight takes place in a Gotham of gleaming skyscrapers, waterfall-tall in the sporadic IMAX sequences; mansionless Wayne lives in one for now, playfully imitating a self-absorbed rich jerk. With an assistant villain from Hong Kong and shots of iterative rows of lights, the film is not haunted by one man’s Gothic, cavernous past (as in Batman Begins) but instead lies exposed in a bewildering, shimmering present, every day awakening to more mob-rule provocation from the Joker.
Given the way the two movies fit together and echo and amplify each other, it’s clear Nolan is taking the long view, and The Dark Knight plays like an action-heavy middle chapter. Bale’s face is as hard and sculpted as the contoured Batsuit, as if eroded to the essentials under the film’s sustained assault. Even contorted through bullshit twists and chaotic editing, and leaning on the gullibility of Gotham, the film holds together by force of will, which, Nolan suggests, can be an altogether frightening and confounding force.