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‘The Dark Knight’ (PG-13)

Heath Ledger stars as The Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action drama, "The Dark Knight." Photo: Stephen Vaughan
Heath Ledger stars as The Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action drama, "The Dark Knight." Photo: Stephen Vaughan

The Dark Knight is such a moody, dramatic, dead-serious affair that it feels more like a noirish crime thriller than a comic-book superhero picture. Everything in the movie is played straight and aimed at grown-ups (or at least older kids). There is no geeky joy in Gotham City, no trace of the gee-whiz wonder most comic-book pictures trade on for effect. At times, when Batman pops up onscreen in all his high-tech gothic regalia, you wonder, “What’s that clown doing here?”

That’s not to say director Christopher Nolan, who has gotten noticeably better at orchestrating action since 2005’s Batman Begins, skimps on the comic-book hijinks. All of The Dark Knight is paced at a furious clip, but there’s a methodical structure to the script. By the last hour (yes, it’s a long one) the picture builds up such intensity and suspense that it leaves you feeling bruised. It’s something of a wonder — a Batman movie maintaining such a high dramatic pitch in an era when pop culture deems everything and everyone worthy of satire and mockery.

Crucial to the film’s success is Nolan’s decision to make The Dark Knight a laugh-free zone: There are practically no light moments in this story, and what little uneasy humor exists comes courtesy of the Joker (the late Heath Ledger), who puts you on edge every time he enters a scene, even when he’s wearing hospital-nurse drag. Ledger’s take on the Joker is an extraordinary feat of acting: With his smeared grease paint, scarred face and yellow teeth, he looks like a clown left out in acid rain.

But it is Ledger’s frightening, darting eyes and warbling, choked voice that makes the Joker seem as if he were rotting from the inside as well as the outside. The character is an anarchist — unlike most comic-book villains who have a master plan, he bombs hospitals and kills people just for the hell of it — and Ledger makes you feel like he’s capable of anything. He’s at his scariest when he’s sitting calmly inside a jail cell, apparently caught and defeated, but looking like he’s patiently waiting for . . . something.

Compared with him, the good guys — billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and crusading D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) — can’t help but seem a little bland. Even the casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal as Bruce’s ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins) doesn’t really pay off until she’s targeted by the Joker as a way of drawing out Batman. The acting in The Dark Knight is superb: Eric Roberts is terrific in a small role as a smirking mob boss, and Eckhart brings heart to Dent’s do-goody politicking, which makes his eventual transformation to the monstrous Two-Face all the more tragic. But it is Ledger’s Joker who keeps the picture thrumming: If every superhero movie is defined by the greatness of its villain, then The Dark Knight has to rank among the all-time best.

Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, uses the story to explore the nature of heroism and the futility of playing by the rules in a world that has no use for them. In The Dark Knight, doing the right and proper thing often backfires on the good guys, and it’s the extremes to which Nolan pushes this idea that gives the film its subversive streak. By downplaying the fantastical elements of the scenario — Gotham City has never looked this much like a real city, with practically no computer-generated embellishments — the filmmakers give The Dark Knight an urgency and gravity that is uncommon to comic-book pictures. It’s telling that even when Batman whips out one of his cool Bat-toys (new this time: the Bat-cycle), the movie barely makes time to properly show them off. The Dark Knight is dark, all right: It’s a luxurious nightmare disguised in a superhero costume, and it’s proof that popcorn entertainments don’t have to talk down to their audiences in order to satisfy them. The bar for comic-book film adaptations has been permanently raised.

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

Producers: Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 152 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, frightening images. Opens in area theaters at 12:01 a.m. Friday.