If you had your druthers, what kind of supervillain would you be?
I would say I'd like to be one with the power to disintegrate my enemies under a withering barrage of insults about their appearance and sexuality, but I've already got that. Strangely, "Weakness for Bourbon-Man" is not popular at parties.
In terms of movie villains, Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight would be pretty damn tempting. His Joker is like the uberman of bad guys: beyond good and evil, fearless as three dozen wolverines, as crazy as Dionysus but as brilliant and deliberate as Apollo. A sociopathic, casually murderous Apollo, it's true, but with supervillains, that comes with the territory.
The most impressive part? The Joker doesn't even have superpowers. Any bozo with the power to shoot ultra-plasma from his eyes can take the world hostage, but it takes a special kind of talent to hold millions of people at your mercy using no more than the raw force of your personality. In case you're keeping score, this is also why Batman always beats Superman: it's not the strength of a thousand trains that makes a man great, it's the strength of his will.
It's a new day in Gotham. District attorney Aaron Eckhart and Christian Bale (as Batman) are looking to put the city's mob behind bars. The intervention of shadowy businessman Chin Han buys the local crooks some time, but a new face in the underworld — Heath Ledger — thinks the only way to keep crime on the streets is to take Bale out for good.
The mob laughs Ledger off, then goes down hard when Bale brings Han to justice. Once the bulk of the city's organized crime is behind bars, Ledger is free to run wild.
His first edict: Bale must turn himself in, or Ledger starts killing people. Against a criminal motivated not by money but by the sheer thrill of anarchy, even Bale seems powerless to stop him.
Superhero movies have always been great action-setpiece delivery systems. The recent addition of emotional depth and a non-pun-based sense of humor has made the genre respectable among even those sad human beings who need more from their movies than explosions and evil plans to dominate the world. The Dark Knight takes this a step further, giving its action scenes a clear backseat to the pitch-black morality of a hero facing a villain who plays by no rules at all.
Because The Dark Knight isn't just a clever name. This stuff is dark, starting and stopping with Ledger's menacing, off-kilter take on the Joker. Ledger must have been huffing some serious crazy fumes to tap into whatever he's channeling here — it's virtually impossible to play a villain who's both larger than life and utterly, chillingly believable, but man, does he pull it off.
Is your favorite kind of murder the type that makes you laugh in mingled shock, horror and delight? Good news! Ledger will make you crack up at things no decent human should laugh at. Comfortingly, you won't be alone.
The escalating violence and chaos of Ledger's rise to power sits at the heart of director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's pressure-cooker script, which ups the ante as precisely as the tense, bare-bones score doles out notes. Spider-Man 3 suffered from trying to cram too much into one film. Pound for pound, The Dark Knight is probably its equal in plot points and bad guys, but Nolan's laser-tight focus on a world's slide into disorder and the steps Bale must take to oppose it give the movie a narrative drive that makes every scene feel essential.
A close examination of the fragility of civilization isn't exactly what you expect from a summer blockbuster. Frankly, I'd be happy with 90 minutes of a robot fighting a dinosaur, so long as that fight felt like something the director was genuinely excited about rather than being a calculated effort to part me with a chunk of my laughably slender wallet.
The Dark Knight shoots for a whole lot more. It's bleak, troubling, and about eight different shades of black so black that Johnny Cash himself would think they're too black to wear — all that and it has time to be as thrilling and epic and well-acted as any superhero movie to date.
With luck, it's going to cast a welcome shadow over the genre for a long, long time.