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The Smart Knight

By Erik Lundegaard
Special to MSN Movies

You know the feeling. You've seen the trailers, heard the buzz, read an article or two. You think, "They're not going to do that, are they? They're not that dumb, are they?" Then you see the film and they do that. They kill Professor X, make someone besides the Burglar responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, cast Jessica Alba as the Invisible Girl. You leave the theater shaking your head, thinking, "I can't believe they did that. How could they be so dumb?"

I had the opposite experience with "The Dark Knight."

I'd just written an article about the history of Batman on the big screen . I'd been struck by the fact that if you divide the two Batman serials and six feature films into their three natural groupings -- the '40s serials along with the 1966 film, which was a hipster comment on those serials; the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies of the '80s and '90s; and the current Christopher Nolan films -- the same pattern develops: Batman starts out as a vigilante, becomes a crime-fighting institution, then descends into camp. I warned that, as dark as the Nolan series was, this process seemed inevitable.

There's an inherent problem with the Batman myth. Batman becomes Batman to strike terror in the hearts of criminals. That's why he wears the suit. He's supposed to terrify. In 1943's "Batman," he takes a crook into his "bat's cave" and scares him into confessing. In 1989's "Batman," he's an urban myth, "The Bat," who may or may not drink the blood of his victims. In 2005's "Batman Begins," he can ultrasonically call thousands of bats to cover his getaway. Of "Batman Begins," I wrote, "This incarnation of Batman is effective even after everyone realizes he's just a man. Because if a man is nutty enough to do what he does, what won't he do?"

Once he becomes legit, however, once he's aligned with Commissioner Gordon, once you bring him out of the shadows and into the daylight, what's there to fear? He's actually kind of absurd. Put him in a room with Gordon and you basically have two cops -- but one is dressed like a bat.

The bat signal, as cool as it is, encourages the hero's passivity. Look at the two Tim Burton movies. In 1989's "Batman," we first see Batman prowling the rooftops in search of crime. In 1992's "Batman Returns," we first see him as Bruce Wayne doing ... what exactly? Sitting at Wayne Manor. Brooding. He doesn't stand and act until the bat signal appears. He's a dog. Come, boy.

Worst of all, the question that terrified criminals -- what won't he do? -- has now been answered . He has rules. He has a code. He won't kill anyone. So what's there for criminals to fear? The whole raison d'etre of Batman -- striking terror in the hearts of criminals -- has been expunged.

To distract us from this inherent problem -- that Batman only works as a vigilante, not as a law enforcer -- filmmakers generally add more stuff: Bat-this, bat-that. Robin, the Boy Wonder. George Clooney. Eventually the whole enterprise can't help but descend into camp. Nolan's series, I assumed, would simply follow this path.

(At this point, please accept the usual SPOILER WARNINGS.)

So, early in Nolan's latest film, "The Dark Knight," I found it interesting that, despite the bat signal, Gordon tells the press, "Official policy is to arrest the vigilante, the Batman, on sight." I thought, "Good for them. They're holding onto Batman-as-vigilante as long as possible." I knew it wouldn't last.

Midway through the movie, things got more interesting. The Joker taunts Batman about his moral code. There are things Batman won't do, he says, but there's nothing the Joker won't do, which is why he'll win. It's a familiar dilemma for any hero: The hero has to work within the lines, the criminals don't. But the dialogue echoed the problem in "Batman as institution," which was where the film was heading. It was inevitable.

Then I watched the last five minutes.

To say I was surprised is an understatement. Here's how I ended my history of the big-screen Batman article:

But the easiest way to save Christopher Nolan's Batman is to yet again follow Frank Miller's lead. In "The Dark Knight Returns," Miller simply introduced a new, tight-ass commissioner to Gotham, one who didn't like Batman, and thus returned the caped crusader to his primitive vigilante state. Consider it like Mao's perpetual revolution -- except with a hopefully happier ending.

"The Dark Knight" didn't bring in a new, tight-ass commissioner, but the film still took care of every single problem inherent in the Batman myth. I was floored.

There are still problems with "The Dark Knight." Nolan's direction is so relentless that the climaxes never feel climactic. At the same time, I realize that relentlessness has been the formula for blockbusters since "Star Wars," or at least "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and these blockbusters keep speeding up. They've probably just sped past me. In other words, relentlessness won't be a problem for 99.9 percent of the audience. It is, in fact, what they came for.

There are better superhero movies out there: "Spider-Man 2," certainly. But the reason why "Spider-Man 2" is better -- it satisfies us by giving the hero (Peter Parker) what he's always wanted (Mary Jane) -- is one reason why "Spider-Man 3" was so awful. What do you do after you've given the hero what he's always wanted? I guess you take it away again. Only to give it to him again. Yawn.

But "The Dark Knight," directed by Nolan, and written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, with a story credit to David S. Goyer, is the smartest superhero movie ever made for all of the above reasons. It actually solves the dilemma inherent in Batman. Nice work, gentlemen.

It also raises this intriguing question: Does the film's ending give its hero what he's always wanted? Food for thought for the sequel.

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Erik Lundegaard has never danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. He can be reached at: