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The Killing Joke
by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
. "The Dark Knight"

What this super-interesting sequel exemplifies is a basic tenet of drama: the hero is only as good as his antagonist. The degree of challenge that must be overcome defines the person, the power, the conviction, you name it. Further to the good, a script that furnishes all the necessities of what seems a superhuman challenger is brought to vivid life by a courageous and creative actor making our old provocateur, the Joker (previously personified by Jack Nicholson), brim with criminal skill and lip-licking spite.

The accomplishment, though, is more than about story function. It's a feel for what's possible, both in the sociopathic coloration of the character and the riches possible in the craft of acting. Heath Ledger ("Casanova") sets us back on our heels on all counts and it fills us with deep sadness that his loss denies us future roles that might have added up to one of the glories of the movie world.

And, Batman? Certainly Christian Bale, who resumes the role of Bruce Wayne/caped crusader for a second go (and contracted for one more) is solid--he's just a little upstaged by his flashier nemesis. As these two "humans" grapple with each other, it becomes patently clear that the writers have provided the bad guy with the upper hand. For all of Bruce Wayne's toys and the riches to develop them beyond state-of-the-art, The Joker pulls off the more astounding feats, which enables him to keep up the facade of demonic humor based on phony modesty and his incredible foresight and ability to engineer his enemy's movements and the reduction of buildings to rubble. If we had a guy like this in Iraq the war would be over and the troops on their way out of there. Relishing such power, he can afford to make fun of his targets and forewarn them of their fate, so long as it means headlines. Among other things, he's a total narcissist.

Part of his bag of tricks depends on his control over another set of crazies, the mob guys, led more than stupidly and always blindsidedly by boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) and his band of hoodlums. Where's the Godfather when you need him? In any event, the impossibilities of planting bombs that bring down whole complexes of buildings, over and over again, requiring very swift handiwork in setting explosives without being discovered, doesn't seem so incredible while it can always be explained by the work of the thugs over whom The Joker's got the edge.

The man's so clever, he can, by a ruse, get himself arrested just to be in close contact with someone he wants to reach or mark for death. His stratagems always turn out flawless in plan and execution, despite Batman, despite the odds, despite the crime-busting District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), despite police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) bringing out his swat teams like they were as expendable as so many Orcs.

Which keeps Batman/Wayne's sideman/enabler/provider Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) plenty busy updating the bat costume, escalating the batmobile weaponry and other accoutrements in offensive/defensive advantage. It is Pennyworth's efforts that make us think Batman is more than just a very athletic, pumped up vigilante.

The emotional back story is provided by Wayne's ex-paramour, the sultry and sexy Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has cut off her relationship with him because of not wanting to compete for his attention with his ever-more demanding commitments to rid the city of crime. Instead, she has hooked up with Dent, the stiff-chinned DA, which makes him the poster boy in the fight against crime and, to Wayne, a rival in love.

The resulting conflict for Batman is only one of his problems but it comes down to a decision that screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (the latter directing) cleverly devise as yet another demonic ploy by Joker, whose purpose in life appears to be proving humanity's crass me-me-me nature, the thing that purportedly moves him toward murder and destruction. After proving his disregard for money and contempt for those who think of nothing else, he again attempts to prove his thesis about man's selfish nature by setting up a case of self-preservation between the riders on two explosive-laced ferries in the harbor (Gotham always looks like New York).

"The Dark Knight" is a highly elevated action movie that draws its distinction in the dedication and peculiarities of its chief opponents. Getting to the core of the motivations that propel the first-rate dynamics of high speed chases, singeing bomb spectaculars and three-dimensional combat gymnastics are scenes that try to make it worthwhile on a larger plane of seriousness, which is why it remains so dark. The Joker's jokey banter is sardonic and cruel. Always brutally cruel. Only Caine squeezes out a moment or two of lightening up the proceedings.

The Nolan brothers may have taken their cue for the Joker's self-sustaining iniquity, oddly enough, from what jihadist terrorists have taught the western world about reasons for terrorism. Just as they present an enemy that values life in a whole other context than the one the western world assumes, making possible the suicide bomber in such plenitude, the Nolans give us a villain whose purpose isn't the accrual of vast sums of money. Lest the audience has trouble with this concept, they furnish a scene that leaves no room for doubt.

As Al Qaida and Palestinian bombers who think they're making a place for themselves in heaven by blasting their bodies apart in the company of their enemies, the Joker becomes singular in the simplicity and purity of his aim, to be as bad and destructive as he can be for its own sake and, by god, the Nolans show us with explosive joy how far it can go.

Batman's drive is not much more optimistic, as he fates himself to continue being a fall guy. Jesus lived for our sins. Batman lives to absorb blame in order to save the worthy, and soldier (or speedbike) on. Batman is an exemplary figure. The burden he takes on is heavy but isn't completely hopeless and despairing. Thematically, though, it leaves hardly any room for a little comic relief--even in a seat-grinding two and a half hours. Sorry to say it, but by the last act even the Joker was getting a little repetitive and tiresome. Hans Zimmer's music, however, kept me in my seat through the credits.

Get it now!
The Soundtrack

"Batman Begins" DVD

On a side note, I suspect Ledger is a slam-dunk for Best Supporting Actor this year, at the Oscars and other award-granting venues. Even if other performance possibilities come up to or exceed his, the loss factor will weigh heavily on the industry professionals who vote for these things, often with historical sentiment as part of the selection equation. I wouldn't even be surprised if competing actors step aside for his recognition in this category, but maybe that's too much fantasy for one ride. We'll see.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review
THE DARK KNIGHT is not a great film. The plot holes and slipshod characterizations see to that. The second film had an amazing performance by Ledger as the Joker, but otherwise the first film was better overall.
                                                           ~~ S. Wolf 

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