As the Bush era drags on, I seem to be developing an irrational hatred of summer blockbusters, those gas-guzzling, road-hogging, radio-blasting Hummers of the entertainment business. The fact that they get worse and worse and still make tons of money doesn’t say much for the national character. New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently conjured up an image of Americans flocking to the movies this summer to escape their woes, as if we were all dust bowl farmers hoping to banish the Great Depression from our thoughts with flickering images of Clark Gable and Mickey Mouse. But while our leaders are waging preemptive wars, torturing innocent people to death, tossing out habeas corpus, and gutting the Fourth Amendment, we probably don’t need to escape as much as the rest of the world needs to escape from us.

The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second installment in the rebooted Batman franchise, is the rare blockbuster that left me engaged and thoughtful instead of bored and bummed out. With Batman Begins (2005) Nolan shrewdly reconnected the masked superhero with his 1939 comic-book roots as a solitary, pissed-off, vaguely satanic vigilante. But the movie was too big a financial gamble to have much on its mind, aside from some psychobabble about “becoming the thing you fear the most.” Now that Warner Brothers has banked $372 million from Batman Begins, Nolan has a little more freedom to stick his neck out, and The Dark Knight achieves that unlikely alchemy when a piece of American pop culture looks deeply into the national psyche. Its moral dilemmas are perfectly fused with the amped-up action and outsize characters of a summer blockbuster, but they’re impossible to miss. Like all of us, the people of Gotham City have to protect themselves from evil without falling prey to it.

This is no easy task, because Gotham is a cesspool of crime and corruption. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the city’s crusading new district attorney, hopes to forge an alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), commander of a special unit targeting organized crime. But that unit is full of maverick cops whom Dent investigated when he was in the police department’s internal affairs division, and both the DA’s office and Gordon’s unit are compromised by spies for the mob. Frustrated by the paralysis, Gordon has struck up a shadowy partnership with Batman (Christian Bale), who follows no rules but his own. This is just fine with Dent: dining with his prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her old friend Bruce Wayne, he compares Batman to the dictators temporarily appointed by ancient Rome when it was under siege—though Rachel points out that Julius Caesar refused to vacate the post. Wayne concludes, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Gotham’s latest menace, a sociopath calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger in his final role), is especially dangerous because he so clearly perceives and cannily exploits the moral rot creeping into both law enforcement and the larger society. For Batman the world is polarized between good and evil, but the Joker is sharp enough to recognize that for most people the real poles are order and chaos. “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrible,” he observes. Lest anyone miss the connection to 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, Nolan has the Joker blow up Gotham General Hospital; an overhead shot shows a building that covers an entire city block collapsing into rubble. The Dark Knight may be a state-of-the-art popcorn movie, but its Gotham City is a fun-house-mirror image of America, its democratic institutions crumbling and its people perched between anarchy and totalitarianism.

This infusion of 21st century politics makes Batman a more complicated screen hero than he’s ever been before. Only part of his might comes from his fighting skills; the other part comes from the titanic wealth and high-tech resources of Wayne Enterprises, which Wayne diverts to his secret crime-fighting project. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the firm’s brilliant R&D man, comes up with all manner of cool gear for Batman, but even he balks when Wayne develops an information center that eavesdrops on every cell phone signal in Gotham. “That’s too much power for one man to have,” he tells Wayne, who doesn’t seem terribly bothered. (Patrick Leahy, one of the U.S. Senate’s most vocal opponents of telecom immunity, even turns up in a cameo, getting roughed up by the Joker at a swank fund-raiser).

Ultimately Batman and the Joker’s tug-of-war settles on Dent, the “white knight” embraced by Gotham as its last chance for democratic law enforcement. “You’re the symbol of hope I could never be,” Batman tells the DA. The Joker understands this too, and spoiling Dent’s lily-white image becomes his prime objective. (Speaking of spoilers, some are imminent in this review.) As Batman fans know, an explosion turns Dent into Two-Face, a Manichaean character with half his face burned to a crisp and half his soul poisoned by rage. At the end, when the Joker has been captured and Dent put out of his misery, Batman conspires to take the blame for Two-Face’s crime spree. “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough,” he tells Gordon. “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Sitting in the theater I wondered, “Can I really be watching a movie that presents Batman as a Christ figure?” I guess if you deliver enough fireballs, you can get away with anything.

The ending may sound like an unconscionable downer, but it’s offset by the humanity of the climax. The Joker has rigged two ferries to explode and given each boat a detonator that will blow up the other; one boat carries upstanding citizens, the other evacuated prisoners, and the Joker warns them that if one ferry doesn’t go up by midnight, he’ll destroy them both. This “social experiment,” as he calls it, is one of those cosmic practical jokes that have made the Joker the comics’ most indelible supervillain, but it’s also an ingenious large-scale version of Dent’s conflict. “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other,” the Joker declares. But on the prisoners’ boat a lethal-looking convict, bald, tattooed, and bullnecked, snatches the detonator from the wavering captain and tosses it out the window into the water. It’s not every day you see a superhero wearing an orange jumpsuit.v

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