(By Kevin Bowen) The Dark Knight [PG-13] Grade: A Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine. Director: Christopher Nolan. At the beginning of this decade, did anyone foresee that some of the most ambitious American filmmaking would come in the form of action films? No, I didn’t think so. Not in the heyday of the arthouse craze. Not in the days of Armageddon and Twister. Now, while the arthouse favors vanilla mediocrities like The Visitor, action films grow in sophistication. The pinnacle might be style. The Dark Knight is a Batman film that stretches its metaphorical wings in terms of character, relevance, and morality. Despite its comic-book premise, it boasts an allegorical punch that makes it persuasive to the world outside the theater. The record-breaking number of moviegoers setting alarms for 6 a.m. showings will be glad to know that their red eye will be rewarded. Starting with the most energetic bank heist since Heat, it’s hard to think of a recent summer movie that so thoroughly delivers. If anything, it overdelivers, never dropping in intensity nor the creativity of its madness. It’s all too much. But it’s too much of a good thing. Picking up where Batman Begins ended, Batman has turned Gotham from a shadowy pool of urban criminality to a sunny metropolis where the law, led by police captain Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and altruistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), roots out the remnants of organized crime. Even a set of Batman imitators are getting into the act. Gotham ’s growing virtue and its nocturnal guardian are starting to attract even more devious and destructive supervillains. The most lethal yet is The Joker, a psychopathic clown without a past or a heart who has come to Gotham to make it once again safe for criminals to walk the blackened streets. Full of quips, tricks and mayhem, operating out of chaotic principle rather than personal enrichment, The Joker murderously bedevils the forces of public order. While The Joker gets into the act, Batman wants to get out of the game and hopes that the crusading prosecutor Dent can take his place as the public center of virtue. The situation sets up an overt political alliance and covert romantic rivalry between Wayne and Dent. In between is Wayne’s longtime flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she falls in love with Dent while waiting to get over the Batman thing. As things develop, Dent moves toward madness and his eventual rise as the villain Two-Face, giving Batman another Bat-headache. The Dark Knight plays up the similarities of Batman and the Joker, two vigilantes ready to punch below the waist. Thematically, the film is a modern update of Dirty Harry. It contemplates the civilized limits of behavior when faced with the most extreme and talented threats to modern society. Batman’s mission is less heroic idealism than doing what it takes to maintain a semblance of order. The critics have created a new dictionary for words used to praise the performance of Heath Ledger. For the most part, it’s deserved. The Joker is not just scary because he’s nuts, not only because he knows 100 lethal ways to use a pencil, but also because he’s smarter than everyone else. Yet, as a person living out an appealing non-conformist personal code to its fullest demonic potential, he retains a weird sense of outlaw charisma. Even when igniting a hospital. I’ll confess, I despised Batman Begins, 2005’s origin story re-boot, when leaving the theater three years ago. Largely, the blame fell at the feet of director Christopher Nolan, who was more about vision than execution. He couldn’t shoot or stage an action scene to save his life and too many of the set pieces, such as the low-speed Batmobile chase, seemed designed only to make a “back- to-basics” point. This time, the fight scenes are more polished, if not perfect, and Nolan doesn’t get stuck in back story or low-fi fanaticism. He’s helped by the braininess of his novelist brother Jonathan whose script deals with questions of the public and private faces of heroism, identity, and responsibility. The result is a film that not only thrills but challenges. While the film spreads its wings to the fullest, it also sows the seeds of the series’ eventual demise. With both The Joker and Two-Face, it’s stage one in Joel Schumacher-style villain overload. The film also loses interest in Batman’s character. Bruce Wayne goes from Batman Begins’ edgy but virtuous anti-hero to a blandly standard gentleman. The day will come when these things no longer pass. But it won’t be today.