*The Dark Knight (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Just because Batman began again doesn't mean his life's been easy. Stealthy though he may be, fighting crime after hours while elaborately attired as a winged insectivorous mammal has a way of attracting attention. People want to know who this guy really is. Suspects include Abe Lincoln and Bigfoot, but actually he's orphan-cum-billionaire Bruce Wayne, or actor Christian Bale if you want to get technical.
And yes, in The Dark Knight, Batman's purposeful, gadget-abetted, vaguely libertarian vigilantism has shown results, but still he has his work cut out for him. Gotham City keeps going to the dogs and to the copycats, or copybats, or whatever, who want to get in on his act. Now it's not just the ever-bolder criminal syndicates he has to contend with, but a ragtag amateur army of dork knights, too.
"Why don't you hire them and take the week off?" his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sagely suggests. Yet the young master doesn't budge. It's official: He's been fully reclaimed by filmmaker Christopher Nolan as the most earnest of comic-book superheroes (even the humorless Hulk has nothing on this guy), and now he's just begging for some joker to come along and ask, "Why so serious?"
Enter the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, as agile, as balls-to-the-wall and, for lack of a better term, batshit crazy as everyone hoped he'd be. In the same way Jack Nicholson's 1989 turn in the role for director Tim Burton clearly revealed to us a once-great actor's decline into fatness and complacency, Ledger's performance haunts us with the reminder of how rotten it is that the movies have lost him. With help from an unnerving soundtrack, Ledger's Joker tingles spines with reckless abandon.
So it's no wonder police lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) decides to call for Bat backup. That's right: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Gary Oldman. Nolan has achieved a grand trifecta.
He's also brought back Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, supplying gadgets and gravely monitoring their ethical implications; and has upgraded Bruce Wayne's love interest, Rachel Dawes, from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who's not entirely persuasive as an assistant district attorney but certainly is alluring. Her new lover and boss (Aaron Eckhart) is upstanding prosecutor Harvey Dent, to whom Bruce hopes to hand over the city-savior gig.
"Gotham needs a hero with a face," he says. There's some grim foreshadowing there, but see for yourself.
This movie speaks to the exhausted, chaotic fears of our age. In fact, the film's biggest weakness is that it won't shut up about them. Like some comic books, it really wants to explain its view of the world what sort of hero its fictional city deserves, and needs, and has. The script, by Nolan with his brother Jonathan, is polished and overlong. But it offers much: a terrific opening sequence, many thrills, some surprises and a few remarkable transformations of character.
By movie's end, it's safe to say Batman's life has gotten even harder, and so has waiting for the next sequel.