As dark as night, and very serious

By Rick Bentley

Don’t look for Heath Ledger to camp up The Joker role the way Cesar Romero did in the ’60s TV show.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The Joker (Heath Ledger) strolls into a posh fund-raiser for District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in the latest Batman big-screen adventure, “The Dark Knight.” The wingding is hosted by Gotham City’s favorite playboy, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale).

The demented-looking Joker begins to terrorize the bluebloods with his chilling look and brutal physical attacks. He even puts a knife to one person’s mouth. Finally, after he has offered a sober and frosty explanation of why his face is scarred into a permanent smile, The Joker asks in a tone that will send a shiver up your spine: “Why so serious?”

Good question.

“The Dark Knight,” scheduled to open Friday, is the darkest Batman movie to date. And this isn’t just slightly darker than the 2005 “Batman Begins.” This film is leave-the-light-on kind of dark. The serious nature of the movie stems from four factors: an examination of vigilante justice, the masks people wear, the true nature of evil and at what point can personal rights be ignored in favor of community safety?

Seriously. This is a different Batman movie.

The dark tone reflects the 21st-century comic-book Batman. Gone are the colorfully bright panels in which Batman and Robin would take on space aliens or bad guys with comical names like Killer Moth and The Rainbow Creature. The new Batman lives in a world where one of his Robins was killed, Batgirl was tortured and left paralyzed, and the Caped Crusader’s very existence has been questioned.

All of which is enough to turn anyone serious.

Christopher Nolan, scriptwriter and director of “Batman Begins,” wanted to make sure he reflected the seriousness of the comic-book character when he stepped back into his dual roles for “The Dark Knight.”

“What was important for me was the action of the story derived from interesting dilemmas for the character. The central dilemma for Batman is that he is someone driven by very dark impulses,” Nolan says during an interview in June at the Beverly Wilshire. “He is driven by anger and rage. But he attempts to channel that into something positive.

“His central dilemma is: How far can he go using intimidation and violence to achieve good? And I think that is a very human dilemma. It is something society deals with. That is what is going to make this film more exciting and frightening for an audience.”

Even its name suggests the serious tone of “The Dark Knight.” This is the first Batman movie that does not include the word “Batman” in the title.

Aaron Eckhart, who gets to play both good and bad as Dent, agrees that “The Dark Knight” reflects some serious matters that are happening in the real world.

“There are people standing up who are unpopular for the decisions they have made. This is a heavy movie in a lot of ways,” Eckhart says. “The thing that struck me right away was the mirror of our times, the things Chris was tackling. I think people will appreciate this as more than a comic-book movie.”

Nothing sets the serious tone of “The Dark Knight” more than the purely evil actions of The Joker. The late Ledger’s performance is in stark contrast to Cesar Romero’s comical portrayal of the villain in the camp ’60s television series.

“The Dark Knight” also is dramatically different from previous Batman feature films. The last series of “Batman” movies, which started with Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” and ran through 1997’s “Batman Robin,” were a throwback to those more fanciful comic-book times. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) directed a gang of penguins with rockets on their backs in “Batman Returns.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he became governor of California, tried to send Gotham City back to the ice age with a superweapon as the chilly Mr. Freeze.

Neither of those would be considered serious threats in the today’s world.

“The Dark Knight’s” script moves the action into the realm of reality. The anarchistic Joker is not to be feared because of his ghoulish makeup or fanciful weapons. He is the worst kind of evil: a terrorist who does horrific things for no reason at all.

Nolan’s serious approach gets played out in scene after scene in which Batman and The Joker collide. As The Joker explains to Batman, “You complete me.” The Joker says it to suggest he is a worthy opponent for Batman. But it also means the pair are a serious balance of good and evil.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, a darling of the independent film circuit, was not even looking for acting work when she was asked to take over the role of Rachel Dawes. (Katie Holmes originated the character in “Batman Begins.”)

Conversations with Nolan about the serious tone he was taking with the characters and the script convinced her to take the job.

“Although it takes place in Gotham City and fundamentally it is a movie about Batman, Chris wanted us to play everything for truth. The actors he chose for this movie are into realism,” Gyllenhaal says. “This movie is really about something.”

Christian Bale’s theory as to why Nolan was allowed to make an even more serious movie than “Batman Begins” is that the director no longer had to prove himself.

“The first time people were having faith in Chris’ idea and what he had spoken of what he was going to do. After ‘Batman Begins’ he did not have to convince people. They could see what he meant. So he was given much more the freedom with SSLqThe Dark Knight’ to make the movie he wished it to be,” Bale says.

That’s why “The Dark Knight” is so serious.

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