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the-dark-knightIn my review of the first installment of the revived Caped Crusader franchise I wrote, “I went in to Batman Begins expecting a lot and left wanting less—less psychological babble, a lesser running time and less of Liam Neeson’s ridiculously wispy goatee.” For the new episode, The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan has kept most of the stuff that bugged me about the first movie (except for the wispy goatee part, which is, thankfully, is no where to be seen) but has, this time around, created a tour-de-force that left me running for my thesaurus to find new words for awesome.

Its two-and-a-half running time makes it the longest of the summer blockbusters but, unlike Get Smart or Sex and the City, there isn’t a wasted second or extraneous scene. The film takes off like a turbo charged Batmobile, opening with an exciting bank heist, and doesn’t let up until the end credits.

Following the robbery, in which $68 million dollars of the mob’s money is stolen, the triumvirate of Batman (Christian Bale), Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldham) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) take a broom to the streets of Gotham in an effort to, once and for all, put an end to crime in their city. After mass arrests the crime fighting trio comes up against their greatest foe yet, The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychopath with a sinister scar in place of a smile, who forces Batman and Dent to push the boundaries of their professional crime fighting ethics.

Since 9/11 the world has spent a great deal of time pondering good and evil, and so does The Dark Knight. It is the first true, post 9/11 superhero movie; one that looks at the use of chaos as a tool of terrorism while exploring the paper thin line between good and evil.

Dispensing with the jocularity of Iron Man, the CGI action of The Incredible Hulk and Hancock’s sense of irony, The Dark Knight is a serious film with a positively Shakespearean exploration of the ethics of good and evil that raises timely questions in these unsettled times. Mainly, to what lengths can heroes go as they fight crime before they stop being heroes and become vigilantes? When is it OK to break the rules to stop evil? Batman and Dent grapple with these questions (more than, say, Rumsfeld or Bush ever did) as the Joker pushes them closer to the edge of their moral boundaries.

The Joker’s biggest question is one for the ages. Can bad guys exist without the good guys?

“I don’t want to kill you,” the Joker tells Batman, by way of an answer. “You complete me.”

But don’t get the idea that The Dark Knight is only a treatise on the nature of villainy. It is that, but the ideas about good and evil are wrapped around a popcorn movie that is packed with great action, thrills and good performances.

Christian Bale fills out the Batsuit better this time around, skillfully portraying the moral tug of war the character plays with his conscience while ably pulling off Batman’s outrageous feats of physical prowess. Bale may be the only contemporary actor who can convincingly pull off ennui one second and then pilot a supercharged motorcycle up the side of a building the next.

New franchise addition Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping in for Katie Holmes, brings a feistiness to the character of Bruce Wayne’s oldest friend and soul mate Rachel Dawes. Aaron Eckhart in a dual role does a nice job of playing the transformation from the virtuous DA Dent to the twisted morality of the considerably creepier Harvey-Two Face. Old pros Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, as Bruce Wayne’s trusted butler and equipment designer respectively, round out the cast, both handing in effortless performances.

Of course the cast member everyone wants to see is Heath Ledger as the Joker in his last completed performance. I always felt Batman Begins was marred by the lack of a great villain, but this time around the inclusion of Ledger’s Joker guarantees on-screen fireworks for The Dark Knight.

Whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a pop culture icon for the prosperous 80s and 90s, Ledger’s Joker is a super villain for the new millennium; a terrorist, more interested in creating chaos than in anything else.

He’s a disfigured bad man—“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger,” he says—who when he isn’t killing people—his preferred weapon is a knife because it’s up-close-and personal—keeps busy creating elaborate schemes to test the moral fiber of the men who want to put him behind bars. Ledger strips the character of Nicholson’s cartoon persona, re-imagining him as a fiendish lunatic. From the slash of red lipstick where his mouth should be to the caked white make-up that obscures his face Ledger’s Joker is an unhinged creation that will likely inspire nightmares. It’s a bravura performance that sees the late actor working at the top of his game as he creates the definitive version of the character (sorry to any Cesar Romero fans who may disagree).

The Dark Knight is a rare beast. It’s a summer blockbuster with equal parts brain and brawn.

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