Dark was the knight, cold was the clown

Despite the presence of the Joker, this superhero franchise is grimmer than ever

<strong>The Dark

The hero of The Dark Knight is a dour, psychologically flawed champion of the disenfranchised, given to sudden rages, whose war on crime is looking a touch ineffectual. He was once heralded as a force for good but the public now regards him with hostility. And he spends much of his time brooding over news reports of his own demise as his white-haired assistant looks worriedly on. Ring any bells? Yes, Gordon Brown might fancy himself as Heathcliff, but on the strength of The Dark Knight, he's a dead ringer for this embittered Batman.

There are discrepancies. Batman (Christian Bale) hacks into millions of private phone conversations in his attempt to stop the Joker (Heath Ledger) killing thousands of people, whereas the PM would presumably consider that an irresponsibly wishy-washy approach to the terrorist threat. And Batman drives a formidable armour-plated Batmobile that has "Loiter" and "Intimidate" settings; Brown no longer even has John Prescott, who comes with the exact same features.

They are, however, both prone to being upstaged by their adversaries. Not that I would flatter David Cameron by comparing him to the late, charismatic Ledger. The only possible overlap is that the Joker is fond of firebombing hospitals, which is not dissimilar to what the Tories did to the National Health Service.

Even without Ledger's tragic death this year, his twitchy turn would have dominated The Dark Knight. We are used to the Devil having all the best tunes, but Ledger's performance amounts to an aria of enigmatic menace. There's the chalky face with its charcoal eyes, obscenely smudged kisser and an untamed tongue that he can scarcely keep in his mouth. Further creepiness comes from his hunched posture and scuttling, dance-like movements. When he finally manages to fell Batman, he is beside himself with glee - he hops up and down, spitting and jabbering, too overjoyed to inflict much damage.

The director, Christopher Nolan, and his brother and co-writer, Jonathan, have broken the laws of backstory in this film by making the Joker's history a blank. Each time he has someone at knifepoint, he offers a contrasting account of how he came to have his mouth slashed into a gruesome grin. No one knows how the Joker became so twisted.

The struggle between Batman and the Joker, the embodiment of anarchy, is analogous with the modern world's battle against terrorism. The Joker cannot be reasoned with - "I just do things," he explains in his aw-shucks whine. Batman must work out how to defeat this enemy without becoming his equal in savagery.

It is pleasingly perverse to find this troublesome moral dilemma being explored within the confines of a shoot-'em-up blockbuster, even if the picture does obey the other conventions of the form - it's 45 minutes too long and has a score that resembles what concussion might sound like if it could be played by an orchestra.

But the film makes a common undergraduate mistake of equating intelligence with gloominess. As the Joker asks several times: "Why so serious?" The superhero film took a sombre turn after Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, striking its gravest note when X-Men opened with a scene set in a concentration camp. Yet neither of those pictures could be described as a dirge. Regrettably, the same cannot be said of The Dark Knight.

There are ample opportunities in the plot for sly humour, all of which are overlooked by the Nolan brothers. The Joker's habit of wiping out his accomplices after each heist, for example, cries out for a running gag about the difficulty of employing new assistants. And there's black comedy to be wrung from his weird omnipresence, which enables him to overpower entire SWAT units, set up multiple hostage situations and plant bombs with ease.

I admire The Dark Knight for its good intentions, but it has too much psychology and not enough pop. It's possible to be too serious, you know. Just ask Gordon.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class