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Heath Ledger owns the screen as the villainous Joker in Batman: The Dark Knight

The late Heath Ledger portrays the psychotic criminal the Joker in the latest film in the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight. ((Warner Bros. Pictures))

Ah, the season of filmic super-sizing is upon us. In relation to 2005’s origin story, Batman Begins, the new installment, The Dark Knight, is quite the one-upping second sibling: bigger, louder, darker, meaner – and earnest-er and joyless-er and irritating-er.

Caked in clown makeup, Heath Ledger's Joker licks his scarred lips and utters variations on "Anarchy now!" in a voice that’s part Howdy Doody, part dragon.

Gotham, where Batman does his vigilante thing, is the worst fear of every suburbanite and small-town citizen: a cold, heartless glass-and-steel metropolis in the greasy clutches of criminals and mobsters. Their only obstacle to total urban domination is Batman (Christian Bale), known to a select few (Michael Caine returns as Alfred, loyal butler and suit waxer) as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne by day. A coalition of crime sleaze hires the new lunatic in town, The Joker (Heath Ledger), to take out the bat.

Ledger is, of course, the main attraction, and not just because of the public’s inevitable macabre fascination with a young star darkened before his time. This is the late actor’s last performance, and it’s a mad man’s lark, a Grand Guignol exercise in excess. Ledger’s Joker is caked in clown makeup, licking his scarred lips and uttering variations on "Anarchy now!" in a voice that’s part Howdy Doody, part dragon. Yes, it’s a wicked, delightful performance in a film that desperately needs to be enlivened, but no, it is not his best work. That remains Brokeback Mountain, where he slowly stewed in reserve. That Ledger could so elegantly play the opposite of the Joker is a true testament to his talent. If nothing else, The Joker serves as a reminder that he was an actor awash in potential, forever unmet.

Part of the problem is that the performance is trapped inside a film that’s even less fun than the last one, which was – start your angry typing now, Bat-lovers – a portentous, hilariously pompous comic book movie. Here’s something to consider: Christopher Nolan is not yet a great director. With its one-trick structure, Memento suffered from look-ma! cleverness, and the last Batman was excruciatingly boring; I felt like someone salted the popcorn with sleeping pills. Insomnia (2002) was more inventive and emotionally honest than both, but somehow totally overlooked; not self-important enough, perhaps.

Though he and his brother Jonathan wrote The Dark Knight’s screenplay, Christopher Nolan is no storyteller. He’s a techie, like Batman, and he’s pulled off some spectacular visual moments, strung between a lot of nonsense. I saw the film in Imax, and scenes of Batman’s open wings as he swoops down from a skyscraper will put your stomach in your shoes – in a good way. But far too often, Nolan dims the lights. Many of the battles – including a car chase involving a transfer truck and a three-wheeler contraption called a Bat Pod – appear to have been shot through a black scrim. I get it: This is moody stuff, but moody shouldn’t make you feel like you just had cataract drops put in your eyes.

Batman (Christian Bale, top) confronts his arch-nemesis, the Joker in The Dark Knight.

The hub of the moral murkiness is The Joker. He spews different mythologies about his facial scars to anyone who will listen, claiming daddy did it, or his wife did it. It’s one of the film’s smarter ideas to mock the tidy psychological motivation ascribed to most villains (and superheroes). In fact, The Joker’s only reason for being is a lack of reason. When he steals millions of dollars, he giddily sets the stacks of cash alight. Batman, on the other hand, has big love for social order, so the philosophical question (endlessly) bandied about is: Does a good man have to compromise his moral code to conquer evil?

That precise conundrum appears in lumpen dialogue in about a dozen different scenes that feel pretty much the same. Struggling as much as Batman to align his moral compass is the last good man in Gotham, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, excellent in a part that’s much less noticeable than Ledger’s). He also happens to be dating Bruce Wayne’s lifelong unrequited love, Rachel Dawes. In the part, Katie Holmes has been smartly replaced by an actual woman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, but Gyllenhaal’s nucleus of intelligence is wasted. In these movies, The Girl is only ever required to moon, with occasional shrieking.

Having ceded the stage to Ledger, Bale has an even tougher time keeping things interesting. When he’s playing Bruce Wayne as a super-shallow gadfly, hottie on each arm, Bale twinkles with golden boy privilege and shades of American Psycho. As Batman, he’s a little flatter. For some reason, Bale has adopted a new robo-monotone, and his suit is barely visible against the black sky. This has got to be the first superhero movie where the star is more interesting out of his costume.

Most of all, Batman should be fun, shouldn’t it? Or if it must be turned into a kind of German opera, then at least let it be a coherent one. Nolan’s script is a tangle of dropped threads. The come-and-gone list of random characters and plots includes: imitation Batmans taking over the city (Cillian Murphy, who played Scarecrow in Batman Begins, appears for a bewildering six seconds as a faux-Batman); an employee of Wayne Corp. who wants to reveal the caped crusader’s identity; Morgan Freeman in a basement doing something incomprehensible with sonar.

In his determination to underline Batman’s real-world roots, once again Nolan has sucked the magic out of the myth. Most tellingly, Nolan’s Gotham is squeaky-clean Chicago, barely attempting to hide itself; there’s not even garbage on the streets. One recalls wistfully Tim Burton’s Gotham in the first Batman movie – a city both wondrous and mythic, a place of unreality worth saving.

Batman: The Dark Knight opens July 18.

Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.