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Is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker really worthy of an Oscar? Yes.

But The Dark Knight’s success doesn’t begin and end with the Joker. In Batman Begins, Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan mined reality in order to create a solid base for their take on Gotham’s most famous son. In The Dark Knight, they dig deeper and the result is one rock-solid, intense action-drama that batapults onto this year’s short list of the very best.

The Killing Joke

Does Ledger earn an Oscar?
Does Ledger earn an Oscar?

Picking up right where Batman Begins left off, The Dark Knight finds Gotham reeling from the Arkham Asylum breakout. Organized crime has gotten its second wind, but Batman continues to fight the good fight.

The new kook on the block is the guy dubbed “The Joker,” a grotesque, disfigured maniac who is hell-bent on spreading anarchy. After seeing Ledger’s performance, one question comes to mind: “Jack who?” Ledger’s is the Joker King, an immersive, unrelenting horror with a back story that trades in the Hollywood glitz and kitsch of a huge vat of green toxin for something far more down to earth and much more demented.

And he doesn’t appear on the scene with cachet and badwill already established. In his attempt to sell Gotham’s criminal underworld on what needs to be done to keep Gotham under their corrupt thumbs, this Joker has to prove his worth. The kingpins deride him as a mere nutcase, an outsider of no use to their vile cause.

So the Joker does indeed demonstrate a strong taste for the theatrical and his murderous mayhem is far from funny. It’s jolting. It’s shocking. It’s everything the Joker was meant to be — and then some — since he first appeared in the comics back in the 1940s.

Why So Serious?

For Nolan, nothing in the Batman canon is sacred; characters, relationships, casting, sets, and props are all put to use in service of Nolan’s razor-sharp screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan). If something or somebody needs to be blown up or taken out, so be it.

As a result, this movie — even more so than Batman Begins — doesn’t even remotely feel like a comic book movie. This is a modern-day crime/action/adventure movie with characters named Bruce Wayne, Alfred, The Joker, Lucius Fox, and James Gordon. And that is high praise.

One side effect of this Batman movie’s lack of most comic book trappings is an oddly disorienting feeling. In large part, that stems from there being no Wayne Manor. In the wake of its destruction in Batman Begins, it’s still being rebuilt. So, instead, Bruce spends a part of his time “hanging out” in a Gotham penthouse and a painfully Spartan, concrete space under Wayne Enterprises serves as a makeshift Batcave.

As with the first installment, Nolan also expands Bruce Wayne’s world and takes him outside the boundaries of Gotham City. A trip to Hong Kong in pursuit of a crime boss is done with such finesse, it plays out like a mission from the best of the best Bond movies.

And that Bondian flair is at the core of Bruce’s faux playboy lifestyle. Using his social antics as a cover for his nighttime hobbies, Bruce dates the prima ballerina from the Moscow Ballet — and prompts cancellations of the troupe’s performances after he buys out all the ballerinas and takes them on a yacht cruise around Hong Kong.

Vigilance and the Vigilante

While The Dark Knight starts out with the standard mobster chit-chat about money and off-shore financing, as the Joker takes control of the reigns the focus shifts to all-out terrorism. The scope and the tensions rise. And, yes, there are plenty of analogies that can be made to the situations being faced today around the world.

Some have posited that Iron Man is a superhero who swings to the left. With Tony Stark held captive by people who coveted his company’s weapons, he learned the downside to the line of work that so fully lined his wallet.

Well, if Tony Stark is blue, then Batman is red all over. Using all the Wayne Enterprises technologies at his disposal, Bruce has no qualms about doing what it takes to snare his prey, short of flat-out murder, that is. Even Alfred (Michael Caine) shares a story about a bandit hiding in a Burmese forest. How was he caught? They had to burn down the entire forest.

Adapting and expanding a trick Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) shared with Bruce during their Hong Kong expedition, Bruce eavesdrops on Gotham’s entire cellphone network in order to track down the Joker. It’s an unintended use of Fox’s technology and one Fox finds offensive and unethical. It’s an invasion of privacy he’s willing to resign over.

As the World Burns

In The Dark Knight, the Joker’s finally given a characterization with haunting gravitas. He’s a villain people have a hard time understanding. He doesn’t adhere to any rules of conduct. He isn’t interested in money. He simply wants to see the world burn. And, as insane as he is, he readily sees the value in the Batman; they drive each other. Or, as the Joker tells Batman, his tongue firmly planted in his bloody cheek, “You complete me.”

With the Joker wreaking havoc and seeking pure anarchy on the streets, the good people of Gotham struggle with their limited options. Taking a stand against the whims of a terrorist, rather than caving in to their manic, arbitrary demands, is not a popular choice. The possibilities on the flip side, though, aren’t any prettier.

Plenty more could be said about the themes running through The Dark Knight. Good Lord — another volume could be filled expounding on Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) alone. He’s Gotham’s new district attorney and he’s been crowned the “White Knight” by the populace. But Gotham’s police department had a more telling nickname for him: Harvey Two-Face.

Forget Tommy Lee Jones’ cartoonish, disposable take in Batman Forever and Billy Dee Williams’ thoroughly inconsequential stab in Tim Burton’s original Batman. Eckhart brings humanity to Dent the bachelor and cold vengeance to Harvey the killer.

Like a good rock song, the beauty of this entire set up is that people can read into it what they will. This is a thought-provoking, mind-reeling use of pop culture to examine the real world and put it under a different light.

Or, if you prefer, it’s simply escapist entertainment boasting the finest craftsmanship.

By Endurance We Conquer

With an agenda so rich and thick, The Dark Knight actually makes Batman Begins, released only three years ago, seem so innocent. Perhaps that sense of innocence stems from the first movie’s recurring flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood and memories of his parents.

Unlike all the other Batman movies, The Dark Knight spends no time dwelling on the past. Its 150-minute run time squarely deals with the present and builds up to the future.

Of course, Batman Begins also had Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s childhood pal and surrogate girlfriend. Maybe it was Holmes’ air of innocence and doe-eyed looks that prompted the casting shift to Maggie Gyllenhaal this time around. She certainly has more worldliness about her, and it’s easy to buy her standing up to the Joker, something Holmes might not have been able to pull off.

Once again, characters and casting are all rendered in service to Nolan’s vision.

And that vision leads up to a remarkable climax that steers this Batman saga into yet another new direction. Nolan has commented in the past that he saw the story arc as a trilogy, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. With that framework to build on, he has, so far, been able to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls that ultimately led to the demise of the Batman franchise in the 1990s: the directionless, meaningless, episodic, guest villain approach.

More to the point, Nolan has crafted a Batman film series that is so compelling, it’s almost criminal.