Bat to the Future

rex darkknight Bat to the Future THE DARK KNIGHT
RUNNING TIME 152 minutes
WRITTEN BY Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
DIRECTED BY Christopher Nolan
STARRING Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Some folks take metaphysical pleasure from the New Batman Philosophy According to Christopher Nolan: that good and evil lurk side by side in everyone, including Batman. But in my opinion, every Batman movie is about only one thing: action hero (the caped crusader with wings) vs. bad guys (everyone else). Writer-director Nolan’s Batman Begins, with its surreal and mystical mumbo jumbo about playboy Bruce Wayne’s beginnings, remains the worst Batman movie I’ve ever seen, although the comic-book addicts disagree. The Dark Knight takes up where it left off, but if it’s a follow-up that introduces a comprehensive sociopath called the Joker, then how do you explain the fact that the Joker made his debut years ago as Jack Nicholson? It’s just one of the things that makes no sense, but hey-ho, since when did Batman and logic morph?

The Dark Knight is preposterous, unnecessary and a far, far cry from the old DC Comics of my youth created by Bob Kane. But before the hate mail pours in, let me confess I’m a fool for this stuff, and if “logic” is a word you cannot apply to this movie, neither is “boring.” Compared with the summer’s other action potboilers, it’s a Coney Island roller coaster ride with some of the rails missing. It begins with a bank robbery that ends with most of the villains dead and the bravest bank officer with a hand grenade in his mouth attached to a school bus. When the bus pulls away … well, zing goes the strings of his heart. This is the work of the Joker, an archfiend who suffers from rabies of the soul—and cherry-picks his victims at will from the populace of Gotham. While Batman (Christian Bale is back—stronger, hunkier and braver than ever) tries to destroy organized crime in Gotham City, the Joker targets a living hell for the police lieutenant (Gary Oldman), cyberspace wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the new D.A. (Aaron Eckhart), his pretty assistant (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is the object of affection of both the D.A. and Batman, and last—but not least—Batman himself! What follows is two and a half hours of plunder-and-rescue missions where everyone plunders, and there’s always somebody new to rescue. Oddly, it’s the Joker’s movie all the way, and even with his Emmett Kelly whiteface and lipstick-smeared permanent smile slashed jaw to jaw by a razor blade, you know it’s Heath Ledger, hamming it up outrageously in his last film role. He chews a lot of scenery and swallows a lot of asbestos.

I liked it better when playboy Bruce Wayne lived in a dark, underground cave (with or without Robin). Now he’s in a penthouse with sunshine pouring through glass walls and breakfast served in bed by Michael Caine. Add sonar cell phones that blow up entire buildings, a Batman costume that is more than a rack item from the studio wardrobe department (now he actually sprouts bat wings and flies, like Bela Lugosi), more explosives sewn inside a human stomach, helicopters, SWAT teams, and three million citizens held hostage with the entire city set to blow up at the stroke of midnight while the Joker holds the detonator—and you know why Gotham City thinks Batman has crossed over to the dark side.

So let’s get back to Heath Ledger. The Joker is the worst kind of maniac (and the best kind to play) because he craves crime, punishment, anguish and brutality for its own sake, and with no name, no DNA, no labels in his clothes, no dental records, no computer matches, and no F.B.I. files, he can’t be caught. Mr. Ledger plays him like he’s aiming for the Oscar he lost for Brokeback Mountain, with a flat accent unlike any he’s used before, twisting his mouth in a wormy wiggle, licking the inside of his lower lip, doing lewd and lascivious things with his lickety-split tongue like a mental patient. He’s scary and crazy and sometimes very funny, especially in a red Bozo wig and a female nurse’s uniform. When he describes coming face to face with Batman as “what happens when an indestructible force meets an old immovable object,” I laughed aloud. Was I the only one who knew he was quoting the Johnny Mercer lyrics to “Something’s Gotta Give,” sung by Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs? The Joker is indestructible. Batman is incorruptible. And The Dark Knight is insurmountable fun.

rreed@observer.com