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Like the title, The Dark Knight, featuring Bob Kane’s DC Comics character, Batman, reflects man’s capacity for malevolence. As it is stated in the picture, one must either “die a hero—or live long enough to … become the villain.” In other words, man is doomed. Director Chris Nolan, who co-wrote the script, displays the seriousness with which he delivered the superior 2005 adaptation, Batman Begins.

The plot is less purposeful this time. Opening with a tense, violent bank robbery by men wearing masks—The Dark Knight’s leitmotif—leading into Batman’s secret world (including that of his true identity, playboy Bruce Wayne) and closing with multiple climaxes that exhaust more than they excite, the sequel succumbs to its own theme. Nihilism dramatized—and it certainly is here—is vacant.

The cast fills in the blanks. As a paranoid schizophrenic known as the Joker, the late Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) is strong and understated, playing the arch-villain as a greasy-haired slug and tapping the nihilist to a tee. As legal eagle Rachel—Batman’s true love—Maggie Gyllenhaal is better than mousy Katie Holmes was in the original and almost everyone else—Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman—is fine.

Christian Bale as Wayne/Batman is also good, though his role is reduced to a series of extended appearances. The Dark Knight cycles through three story arcs; anarchist Joker’s menace to Gotham City, Batman’s vengeful response, and the emergence of a new voice for law and order in the metropolis, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a man of honor who’s in love with Rachel. Each of them is deeply flawed.

When Gotham’s criminals—a mix of mafia, gangs, and communist Chinese—mingle with the Joker, the city is in chaos. Restoring civilization falls to Batman, cop Gordon (Mr. Oldman) and lawyer Dent (Mr. Eckhart). Amid looming shadows and toe-tingling overhead photography set to a low drone—and a singular silence like something out of an awful nightmare—Mr. Nolan submits a suspenseful, cinematic battle among streets and skyscrapers.

But this incarnation is lacking in the Batman. Bale’s protagonist is decidedly darker from the start, with a deeper voice that sounds like an inaudible growl, and his hard-fought heroism in the first picture dissipates in the first few frames. He is essentially an afterthought to the Joker and Harvey Dent, whose trajectory takes a tragic turn. The gloom extends to a pair of innocent-looking children, who erupt with glee at the sight of deadly destruction.

Life is hell, itself a Hollywood cliché, and this notion undermines The Dark Knight’s later stabs at redemption, when two ferries filled with citizens and convicts are forced to choose whether to sink or swim. None of this makes much sense, even taken on its own terms—not Batman’s butler, Alfred, suddenly turning computer literate, not manic Joker creating elaborate plans, not the widespread police corruption coupled with Batman’s carte blanche use of police databases. A supersonic software application is downright dubious.

There is a degree of logistical plausibility, as one act of anarchy swerves into another—given the circumstances of Mr. Ledger’s death, what one sees on screen is definitely disturbing—and The Dark Knight delivers on the promise to reduce the larger-than-life hero to a puny anti-hero. But watching freaks go ballistic for two and a half hours is a numbing experience—one that is barely worth the cost.