Dir. Christopher Nolan
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ★

Let’s begin by being brutally honest. The plot of The Dark Knight is preposterous, even by superhero standards. I will not go into specifics, in the off chance that I am not in fact the last person alive to see this film, but the film’s principal villain, the Joker, commits crimes that are not merely implausible, but astronomically impossible. The extent of his logistical planning, the vast network of cooperative underlings required in key positions, and the time and labor needed to put it all together — the Pentagon couldn’t pull it off, and even if they could the government would have to borrow another several million dollars from China just to pay for it. Let me stop you right now before you accuse me of bringing too much logic to a superhero movie: A film as serious-minded as this opens itself up to logical criticism, and on a purely logical level it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

But here’s why it’s a great film anyway. While a lesser film might use its gimmicks to set up empty action sequences, this film uses its devices in service of character and theme. It is the rare kind of summer actioner that has ideas about the world and the people in it, that features comic book heroes and villains but is more interested in human nature. It asks us to suspend our disbelief generously, and we do because the reward is so great. This is one of the best films of the year.

Batman (Christian Bale), the caped crusader, is still crusading. His friendship continues with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the police welcome his help; their official position is that he should be brought to justice, but they keep the Bat-Signal in regular use. Crime is still rampant in Gotham City, but there are now people willing to fight it. His former flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, assuming Katie Holmes’s role from the previous film) is dating the new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Batman admires Dent because he is able to in the open what Batman can only do in the shadows.

In comes the Joker (Heath Ledger), and here I can begin to discuss how the film distances itself from its predecessor and every other superhero movie ever made. The Joker is a criminal genius, an anarchist (ironic given his penchant for rigorously staging his disasters), and he believes that the populace, when pushed to the brink, will “eat each other.” Batman believes otherwise, that goodness can prevail, and they battle for the soul of the city.

The question: Does the city belong to chaos or to order? It’s more than an abstraction. The heart of this film is not in its action sequences but in conflicts like the one between two crowded ferry boats, who must decide either to kill each other or have both boats sunk as a consequence of their indecision. And the one in which the Joker demands the murder of an innocent man or else promises to blow up a hospital. The decisions don’t come easy; these sequences have extraordinary suspense.

I think of 9/11, how great tragedy pulls the rug out from under us and can bring out the best and the worst in us. I think of No Country for Old Men, in which Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers consider a similar dilemma. Is the world falling to chaos? Is there a means of enduring it with your humanity intact? This is another film to stir such thoughts.

It’s disheartening that this is the last performance of the late Heath Ledger, because his work in Brokeback Mountain and in this film demonstrate the talent of a man who had a long career ahead of him. His Joker is spellbinding. The actor is unrecognizable behind his ghoulish makeup, but it’s really the voice and the movement of the eyes — rolling erratically, quizzically in their sockets — that generate the effect. His pitch is high and his tone is mannered, urbane. He tells stories about how he got the scars on his face and it’s never the same story twice. I wonder if maybe he cut his own face on a whim, because he was bored.

The screenplay is by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. The latter brother did not participate in Batman Begins, and I suspect his contribution to this film is meaningful. He previously collaborated with Christopher on Memento and The Prestige, remarkable films that are also concerned with men who might destroy themselves to destroy each other. “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve,” says the Joker, who thinks monstrousness is the true nature of humanity; Batman Begins also considered whether there is any hope for mankind or if it should be purged by hellfire, but its morality was simpler and less compelling, a battle of right versus wrong. This film’s morality is complex; it’s about problems that come down to picking the best of bad solutions. It’s about compromise.

The technical credits are outstanding. The editor is Lee Smith, Oscar nominee for Master and Commander, who allows Nolan to keep his narrative in order, especially in the ambitious second half, which moves swiftly and with great suspense. Cinematographer Wally Pfister has shot all of Nolan’s films since Memento and earned nominations for The Prestige and Batman Begins; he might get another for this film, which features memorable, foreboding images like the Joker in an interrogation room and a distraught, disfigured man with his face half-shrouded in darkness. The score is by veterans James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer; whichever of them is responsible for the sustained musical note that punctuates the possible turning of a key deserves special praise.

I have seen a lot of superhero movies. I have liked a lot of them, but wondered with the more popular films if there was something I was missing, if I could ever appreciate one as much as the mass of critics and audiences. Spider-Man 2 came close, but this is the film that most completely fulfills the potential of the superhero genre.