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Superhero Soul Search 

Even before the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, taunted America that radical Islam would exploit the very openness of democracy as a mechanism for orchestrating our downfall " our greatest strength in our view, our greatest weakness in his. In our fury and righteous outrage over the collapse of the Twin Towers, we must be careful not to sacrifice what has made us great just to squelch our enemy's evil glee. And that's exactly why so many of us have been troubled by the Bush administration's flagrant domestic spying and sickened by its decision to torture so-called war prisoners. Such issues, in their own constricted way, are central to Christopher Nolan's brooding and nigh-despairing The Dark Knight, the latest in the Batman series.

Written by director Nolan with his brother Jonathan, The Dark Knight takes up sometime after Batman's crime-fighting successes in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is secure in his camouflage as a wastrel billionaire, freeing him to answer the Batman searchlight sent up by police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Pointedly, Batman's accomplishments have produced two negative consequences. On the one hand, the dons of organized crime have grown more desperate. On the other, TV talking heads and other hysterics have denounced Batman as a vigilante who ought to be brought to justice for his extralegal offenses. In response, Bruce and Batman, in their separate ways, try to promote the career of crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as a white knight who will pursue within the law what Batman has undertaken through personal force of arms.

The crime lords counter with a move that recalls German conservatives backing Hitler and deeming him a buffoon they could control. Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) and his henchmen hire a clown-faced bank robber known as The Joker (Heath Ledger, in a notably effective, creepy performance) to kill Batman. Because The Joker is a thief and a murderer, the mobsters mistake him for an ally. But in the final analysis, The Joker isn't on anybody's side. He's a psychopathic agent of anarchy. He's contemptuous of the mob, but he agrees to go after Batman because he sees the caped crusader as an architect of order. Batman came into being to sustain and reinforce civil society; The Joker exists entirely to destroy.

The 152-minute struggle between these monumental forces of good and evil is played out with all the usual chases, vehicle crashes, fisticuffs, machine-gun fire and wanton explosions that are the mainstay of superhero movies. Batman even has to ward off attack dogs on a couple of occasions, a development that presumably harbors an allusion that escaped me. As is so often the case in this kind of film, the editing focuses on speed rather than clarity. Often we can't tell quite what is going on, and we haven't a clue how the various forces are able to keep track of one another. The picture is also considerably overplotted, which inevitably leaves many of the interwoven plot threads underdeveloped. We learn what happens when Lt. Gordon doesn't listen to Dent's warnings about corrupt cops in his unit, but we aren't told why this happens or made to understand why these attendant events are necessary to the larger story. We ought to be affected by The Joker's murder of some characters, but since we barely know them, their demise generates no emotional power. Moreover, I grew increasingly annoyed at The Joker's ability to stage logistically complex acts of mayhem with little in the way of a support force and even less time to prepare.

The Dark Knight has attracted enthusiastic notices because of its somber vision. Can good triumph? Can good men defeat evil men without compromising their principles? Many critics have spotted analogies to America's war on terror, a subtext that Nolan has been dodgy about acknowledging. The connections are there, but not very clearly worked out in the film's narrative. I think we're supposed to see something critical in Batman's character when The Joker forces him to make Sophie's choice between his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and his public ally, Dent. But I couldn't spot any convincing logic in his decision. Though I concede that this film dares to wrestle with issues that most genre films would not bother to raise, in the end I didn't find its conclusions persuasive. In fact, I think the film wimps out. If its vision was as dark as it has been hailed and were it more cold-eyed about the human condition, the complications of The Dark Knight's climactic montage would resolve themselves far differently.

click to enlarge Batman (Christian Bale) faces The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight. - 2008 WARNER BROS
  • 2008 Warner Bros
  • Batman (Christian Bale) faces The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.
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