It would be hard for a movie to enter theaters with more buzz to live up to than The Dark Knight. Critical raves were near-unanimous, crystallizing around praise for the haunted last performance of Heath Ledger, which more than a few whispered was so unsettlingly brilliant that it may have driven him over the edge. All this for a summer blow-em-up blockbuster? How could it satisfy the hype?
As it turns out, it's closer to the bleak Westerns that cleaned up at the Oscars this winter than to the candy-colored creampuffs that we're used to seeing in July, a bleak cry of despair cloaked in the garb of a comic book action movie, No Country For Old Men with a Batmobile.
The movie starts out innocently enough, with a violently funny Joker-led bank heist, in which each of the Joker's henchman shoots the next one in turn in order to get a better share of the loot, with the Joker pulling the final trigger. From there the film cuts to Batman (Christian Bale), picking up where the last film left off, successfully thwarting the Scarecrow. But the clash between good and evil quickly gives way to destruction and collateral damage, as Ledger's Joker casts his violence as a proof of the basic amorality of humanity, each death a random choice, with each collateral casualty yet more evidence that he's right.
Other than the third-act appearance of the villain Two-Face, the cast and city alike mainly serve as canvases for Ledger to paint his mania upon. The cast is rounded out by fine actors with too little to do unless they're in the direct path of the destruction: Michael Caine as the wise butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as toymaker Lucius Fox, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes (replacing Katie Holmes). Bale's Batman is mostly a perpetual scowl, whether in costume or not. Frustrated by his inability to stop the Joker, he loses faith in his ability to be heroic.
There are elements of Anton Chigurh in both main villains, in the frightening conviction of the Joker's nihilism and in Two-Face's reliance on chance, flipping a coin as he decides whether to kill someone. Yet while Chigurh's menace was packed in a fairly unassuming presence, Batman villains have cartoonishly outsized appearances, owing their names and faces to 1940's radio serials and detective stories. But director Christopher Nolan ups the menace by keeping the rest of the Joker's identity in the dark. Stripped from his toxic waste-creation story, the Joker is left with only his facepaint and hair color; like Chigurh, we don't know who he is, where he came from, or what made him that way.
In many ways, it's the feel-bad movie of the summer: it's hard not to stare into Ledger's eyes and come away profoundly shaken. Though in the end good emerges at least slightly victorious -- a temporary armistice against the forces of darkness -- it's one of the least happy endings for a mainstream American action movie in quite a while.
That unsettling conclusion will find its mirror in another 7 months, when Ledger will undoubtedly win a posthumous Oscar for his work, and be praised with warm, loving, shallow adjectives that will likely have very little to do with the work he offered onscreen. But the performance will long outlive the praise. It is strange, idiosyncratic, compelling, hilarious, and horrifying, and it is now his legacy.
For us, all that remains is to watch the movie and feel the chills, and be so engrossed by the Joker as to forget what befell the actor behind him.