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By Pete Vonder Haar | February 23, 2009

Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.

Word of mouth on “The Dark Knight” has been building for months. The inevitable “Heath Ledger memorial” edition of Entertainment Weekly hadn’t even hit newsstands before talk began circulating about his bravura performance as the Joker. Rumors also circulated about how director Christopher Nolan had upped the ante in his Batman series, veering even farther afield from the already sparse comic book sensibilities of “Batman Begins” and creating something much grander in scale. Advance reviews have been almost universally glowing, with words like “masterpiece” and “epic” popping up in reviews penned by far more credible critical sources than the Dittmans and Hammonds of the world.

You can [mostly] believe the hype. “The Dark Knight” may not be a masterpiece, but it easily vaults to the top of any list of “best superhero movies.” More than that, it makes you forget that what you’re watching is a superhero movie. Indeed, if “Batman Begins” erased any traces of Bat-nipples and Jim Carrey, “The Dark Knight” does no less than travel back in time and terminate the memories of Adam West and Cesar Romero.

Which is as it should be. I’m sure there are people who bitch that comic book movies need to be ‘fun’ or ‘escapist,’ and there’s certainly a place for Spider-Man and the Human Torch in the movies (though you could make a strong argument against the latter), but that ain’t Batman. Bruce Wayne isn’t a hormonal teenager with spider sense, or a freaking alien; he’s a man tormented to the point of madness by the murder of his parents, and he channels his grief into beating the s**t out of criminals, a task from which he derives no small amount of enjoyment. The best part is he still has a Burger King glass and a tie-in with Dominos. Hooray for America.

“The Dark Knight” picks up a year after “Begins.” Batman’s presence in Gotham City has helped the police make significant progress in their battle against the Mob, and there’s a new, gung-ho District Attorney named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). On the other hand, the Caped Crusader’s hopes of inspiring the city’s citizenry have backfired somewhat, with copycats (copybats?) springing up to try their untrained hands at vigilantism. What’s more, there’s a new menace in the form of a scarred, clown paint-smeared psychopath calling himself the Joker.

In spite of that, Bruce Wayne is considering taking off the cowl for good, making room for non-masked heroes like Dent and fulfilling his promise to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, easily outdoing Katie Holmes), even if she inconveniently happens to be dating Dent. The Joker has other plans, however, and without giving too much away, I will say that the outlook isn’t exactly rosy for Batman, or anybody else, by the end of the movie.

There’s so much that works in “The Dark Knight” that I’m naturally going to briefly harp on what doesn’t. Namely, the way Nolan constantly hammers us with the contrast between Dent’s “white knight” persona and Batman’s duskier version, needlessly telegraphing Dent’s eventual transformation (the symbiotic nature of the Joker-Batman relationship is handled much better). As a result, it’s too long, and Nolan could’ve easily excised 30 minutes of exposition on the duality of man. As it is, you’re almost physically drained by the time the credits finally roll. Nolan has stuffed so much sadism, pathos, and freshman level psych analysis into 152 minutes it becomes, frankly, wearying.

Apart from that, this is a very fine movie indeed, more so for the fact that Batman is almost a secondary character. It isn’t as if Bale slacks off, or there’s a lack of action, but Ledger and Eckhart – especially Ledger – are just that good (Caine and Oldman are no slouches either). Admittedly, when Ledger died I was a bit perplexed at the plaudits for a guy who had a couple of above average performances under his belt, but his Joker is almost perfect. Forgotten are the clowning geriatrics of Jack Nicholson’s version, for Ledger makes the Joker his, imbuing the character with such menace and genuine insanity I finally got a sense of what talent he really had.

It’s pretty much an accepted rule that the second movie in a comic franchise is superior to the original – as the sequels to “Blade,” “X-Men,” and “Spider-Man” will attest – and “The Dark Knight” is no exception. But it’s better than those by an order of magnitude and, indeed, may be the best superhero movie ever made.

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