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The Dark Knight Triumphant

Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel gets the Caped Crusader just right.

12:00 AM, Jul 18, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IN FRANK MILLER's The Dark Knight Returns, there is a moment where Alfred, the family butler, recounts a story from Bruce Wayne's childhood, a few years after the murder of his parents:

Master Bruce was but nine years old, and restless, as he always was, at night. Still he sat, politely enough, on his bed, as Alfred read to him. "The Purloined Letter." Yes, that was the story. He listened in silence as, finishing the tale, Alfred explained the importance of Mr. Poe's contribution to detective fiction. Then, with a voice like steel, so frightfully formal, his dark eyes flashing, Master Bruce asked--no, demanded: "The killer was caught. And punished."

Alfred assured him that the villain had met justice. Bruce slept. Like a boy.

This is the quintessential depiction of Batman: After his parents are shot dead, young Bruce Wayne abandons childhood. He begins plotting, scheming, and obsessing about justice. This monomania eventually leaves him with a disfigured soul and a hollow life.

Batman is unique among comic-book superheroes in that his public identity keeps his true identity secret, and not the other way around. Bruce Wayne does not don a cape and cowl to become Batman. Batman, the dark, obsessive vigilante, is ever-present. Bruce Wayne is simply a construct used to keep Batman hidden. And the Batman is, in increasing order of importance, a vigilante, a hero, and a monster. As such, he is a uniquely complex character in the realm of comics.

Superman, for instance, is a demi-god who decides to be the world's savior. Wonder Woman is a powerful being acting as an ambassador in the world of men. The X-Men are freaks of nature fighting to preserve their place in the world. Batman's only power is the clarity and will to understand what sometimes must be done to achieve justice. Even if the answers aren't very nice.

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins had much to recommend it, but failed to grasp this key insight into Batman's character. Drawing heavily on Miller's Batman: Year One, in Nolan's telling, Bruce Wayne is a disillusioned college student, planning to avenge his parents' murders. He doesn't care much for justice, and is not interested in more than token vigilantism, until well into manhood. Once he becomes the Batman, the costume is just an alter-ego. Bruce Wayne, a normal man wanting to live a normal life, is just beneath the surface, trying to keep his head above water. For the Batman aficionado (this term is not quite as laughable as it sounds), Batman Begins was interesting, but ultimately flawed in its understanding of the character.

Nolan's sequel, The Dark Knight, is something else altogether. A gigantic, sprawling production, it is a super-hero film with literary ambition: The Dark Knight aims not to change the essential character of Batman, but to provide an alternate telling to how he became a hero/monster and to examine the costs and limits of civilized society.

The movie begins one year after the conclusion of Batman Begins. Organized crime has begun to wilt under Batman's vigilante campaign and the city of Gotham, suffering from terminal sepsis in the first movie, looks as though it might heal. (This is partially achieved by Nolan giving the cityscape a wholesale redesign. The Gotham of Batman Begins was full of CGI splatter; The Dark Knight strips away much of that artifice and uses a relatively unadorned Chicago as the fictional city.)

Gotham's recovery is interrupted by the appearance of a man calling himself the Joker. Nolan creates a perfect distillation of the character. He is a psychopath of pure id, whose only motivation is a desire to break civilization into chaos. He is unlike any villain you've ever seen: The Joker doesn't want to rule the world, or amass power, or wealth. The Joker doesn't even want to kill Batman--he just wants to demonstrate the frailty of social mores. "When the chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other," he tells Batman, conspiratorially. "You'll see. I'll show you."

In Nolan's telling, the Joker has no origin, no explanation. No one knows who he is. At various times he tells vignettes about his life--all of which contradict one another. He cannot be bargained with or intimidated or bullied. At it's most basic, The Dark Knight is about Batman slowly comprehending what must be done to stop such a man.