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The Dark Knight

A high-pitched note grates across the soundtrack. As Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) circle each other warily, the note only builds in intensity. Perhaps the Dark Knight's cowl protects him from the noise, but certainly the Joker hears it. Or worse - maybe it's coming straight from the Joker's head.

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has made comic book characters seem all too real. It's more than a little disturbing to realize that Bruce Wayne may be the least believable character in the bunch. Watching Ledger's Joker almost makes this a horror film, except you can't help but notice that the horror being reflected may be our actual society.

Despite all the praise for Ledger's next-to-last screen performance, it's a credit to Nolan's game plan that the Joker does not overpower the story. The Clown Prince of Crime serves as a catalyst, to be sure, and the effect of his malevolence rarely fades, but The Dark Knight does well by all the main players in Gotham City.

At its heart lies the dilemma of the impact of Batman. Following up on seeds laid in Batman Begins, Wayne grapples with the inspiration he has caused. Some police have turned to vigilantism, trying to be helpful. New District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) recognizes the good that Batman does, even if it's not legal, and in turn Wayne hopes that Dent's "white knight" image means that he can hang up his cowl.

Unfortunately for them all, Batman Begins ended with a new player in town. From the opening shot of the film, it's clear that the Joker has been harrying the fringes of Gotham's criminal society for some time.

Though the story by Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer hints at Alan Moore's classic "one bad day" motivation, the Joker's origins remain a mystery. He just is, and he couldn't be more terrifying because of it.

This means, of course, that The Dark Knight earns its PG-13 rating, and skirts the R by cutting away before you could see much in the way of actual gore. The tension, however, keeps as taut as that high-pitched note. Even more so than in Batman Begins, Gotham City simply isn't a nice place to live.

Yet people do. The average citizen in Gotham City becomes very important throughout the film, and not because of their opinions of Batman. Nolan shows us the effect of comic book characters fighting, and the real fear (and hope) that inspires.

Most of that reflects off of the family of Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). His wife and kids could be any good cop's home life, and one shot makes it clear that Batman might lurk around their tenement just to keep that in mind.

But Gordon isn't the only officer to matter, and the chaos in the city obviously puts cops both good and trying to be good on a fence. The film doesn't pay them short shrift; even minor characters become memorable throughout the story. Not just memorable, actually, because the script is that good. Burly Detective Wuertz (Ron Dean), for example, seems like background until getting an absolutely pivotal scene. Everybody makes an impact, and everybody's there for a reason.

Thus a few recognizable character actors can pop up briefly, and it's not a stunt. Nestor Carbonell, a mostly comedic actor, can disappear into being the charismatic Mayor of Gotham City. With only a couple of lines and minutes onscreen, former wrestler Tiny Lister makes the most serious impact to a film in his career.

They're all supporting a true ensemble. In addition to Ledger's performance, Eckhart holds his own as a character teetering on the edge of violence long before circumstances make it obvious. Replacing Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal cuts right to the heart of a woman torn between two powerful men without losing her own power. She has an archness that seems confident, not girlish, and if you can't quite believe that Bruce Wayne would give up everything for her, well, that's because even Wayne doesn't quite believe it.

The film keeps its focus on character, and Bale's interplay with two masters of the craft, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, only underscores that it's a shame the two never have scenes together. The notes that Lucius Fox (Freeman) and Alfred (Caine) could compare. But both of them make it convincing that they would support a man who dresses up like a bat, and both never quite sure that they should.

Admittedly, Nolan's fight scenes still feel jumbled, just clear enough at the beginning and end of each sequence that you can tell what's going on. That style does work a bit against a climactic construction site fight; though everyone involved should be confused, it might have been better if we weren't.

But that's a tiny problem in an otherwise excellent film. Though not for kids, The Dark Knight further vaults Batman into being truly part of the American mythology, a character who can reflect our darkest fears while still offering us a bright beacon of hope.

What about the IMAX question? If you can get to an IMAX screen, sure, why not? It adds a little sweep to the sequences shot specifically with the IMAX camera. But it's also still little more than a breath-taking gimmick, and Nolan's storytelling works either way.

Derek McCaw

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