It begins with a heist, but in the midst of it we see something of what is to be.
"The Dark Knight" is director Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie (read our review of his "Batman Begins"). It may sound hyperbolic, but this movie is very much akin to a Shakespearean tragedy—a meditation on what it means to be a hero. Heroes not only perform heroic acts, but also make heroic choices.
And of course there are villains, and in "Knight," we hear the prophetic line, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." That line shadows the action and hangs over all that takes place.
"Knight" picks up where "Batman Begins" ended, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) sifting through the ashes of Wayne Manor. He now lives in a penthouse. By day he is a billionaire playboy, and by night he fights evil on the streets of Gotham City. But Gotham has a new threat roaming the streets: a clown-faced psychopath known only as the Joker (Heath Ledger).
The Joker is a strange villain. He commits crimes not for money, but for chaos. Sticking his thumb in the eye of both the police and the crime bosses, he lives for mass hysteria.
As Batman, Bruce Wayne struggles to understand the Joker as a man. He believes the Joker wants something tangible, or that there's a need to be satisfied. Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce's aid de camp and manservant, knows something of people like the Joker. He tells Bruce that some men only want to see the world burn.
The tragedy of the story is that the Joker exists because of Batman. The Joker tells Batman: "You've changed things ... forever. There's no going back." The Joker is the opposite of Batman. Batman lives by a code; the Joker has none. Batman lives by one rule; the Joker lives by none.
Add to the story a new district attorney in Gotham named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is the white knight to Batman's dark knight. Getting the crime bosses off Gotham's streets is Dent's top priority. But he doesn't come without baggage.
Dent was chief investigator in the Internal Affairs office of the Gotham police department, where he was known as "Two Face." Dent is a man trying to do a job, believing the end justifies the means, taking and playing chances.
With the Joker, Batman and Dent on a collision course, the viewer must question who is right. Do we live in a world ruled by chaos and suffering? Is there good in the world that can triumph over evil? Or is our world subject only to random chance, with all of life just a coin flip from tragedy?
"The Dark Knight" is the best movie of 2008 so far. Heath Ledger, who plays a postmodern Alex from "A Clockwork Orange," imbues the Joker not with manic energy so much as evil logic. Ledger projects the sheer insanity and helplessness that is in our world. His is a villain who gets laughs for his sadistic genius, but possesses a logic that says those in power are just as fallen as he.
Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent as a man struggling to find redemption. He plays with fire and gets burnt, badly. Christian Bale is the lone weak link. His performance is physically spot on, but his vocalization of Batman sounds more like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.
That is small in the grander scheme, however. Christopher Nolan presents to us a parable of our world. Given recent history, Nolan allows us to see the consequence of "by any means necessary." We learn what it means to be a hero and how lonely that can be.
As Jesus teaches us, doing right and doing what needs to be done can leave you with no one to turn to, hanging in the shadows, alone.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. Reviewer's note: Parents, this movie is not for children under 12; the subject matter is too intense.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Cast: Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale; The Joker: Heath Ledger; Harvey Dent: Aaron Eckhart; Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine; Rachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal; Jim Gordon: Gary Oldman; Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
The movie's official Web site is here.
Read more of our coverage of comic-book, graphic-novel and superhero movies:
"The Incredible Hulk"
Faith and Values in Summer Superhero Films
"V for Vendetta"
"A History of Violence"
"X2: X-Men United"
"Men in Black II"