(C) The Dark Knight is a handsome, accomplished piece of work, but it drove me from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then it went on for two hours more. It's the standard-bearer for the school of comic-book movies that confuses pompousness with seriousness and popular mechanics for drama. It's scaled to be an urban epic about the deterioration of hope and possibility in Batman's hometown, Gotham City (standing in for all Western cities), but there isn't a single stirring or inspired moment in it.

It's all about the responses of citizens, lawmen and criminals to the emergence of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. At the start, billionaire Bruce Wayne ( Christian Bale) has succeeded in paralyzing criminals with the eerie power of his alter ego, Batman. Now that a fighting idealist, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), has taken over the district attorney's office, Wayne envisions hanging up cape and cowl and finding his bliss in the arms of Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes ( Maggie Gyllenhaal), though she's dating Dent. Gotham City's traditional mobsters are so spooked they no longer work at night.

But they and Batman end up vulnerable to the takeover plans of that ultimate wild card, the Joker ( Heath Ledger), an epochal creep with a carved-in smile and a colorblind impressionist's version of Bozo makeup. The old-school pugs still operate on greed and appetite. The under-used Eric Roberts, who plays the Gotham underworld's godfather, has a weathered and expressive face: He's like an emptied shell of sensuality.

The Joker, though, takes all his pleasure from the sheer existential frenzy roused by murder, thievery and mayhem. He's a wretched conceit of a character - a homicidal philosopher-jester. As he and the other characters never stop telling you, the Joker means to expose the fragility of any social order or any individual's rational plan. He's a terrorist who wins whenever civilized people relinquish their humanity out of fear.

As with so many of today's blockbusters, the opening sequence (a bank robbery pulled by Joker-employed thugs in circus masks) skillfully suggests what the rest of the film so laboriously spells out. Finding confusion within cohesion is the Joker's goal, and he devises a group strategy that leaves him the last harlequin standing and the others just corpses in clown masks. The director, Christopher Nolan, and his co-writer and brother, Jonathan Nolan, organize the rest of the narrative as if movies never developed beyond the mustache-twirling bad guy tying the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks. Early on, Batman, Dent and soon-to-be Police Commissioner Jim Gordon ( Gary Oldman) make a pact to help each other clean up their long-rotting metropolis. They mistakenly see Ledger's Joker, at first, as an insignificant player compared to the heads of organized crime. They soon realize the dangers of a Joker who is also a Jack able to pop in and out of any box.

Since Gyllenhaal's righteous Rachel is the most warm-blooded creature in the movie, she naturally becomes the fulcrum of suspense - her fate ultimately determines Dent's fall into a dementia as grievous and gaudy as the Joker's. In the sort of ludicrous gaffe that becomes inevitable whenever a director creates a "realistic" comic-book world on screen, the Joker and his gang invade a fundraiser Wayne holds for Dent, and the scene abruptly ends when Batman rescues Rachel. What happens to the billionaires left with the Joker? The way Nolan treats them, they're not caviar. They're chopped liver.

Fanboys may love the way Nolan hews to the moods and story lines of such beloved graphic novels as The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween. But like Sin City, The Dark Knight proves it's foolish to duplicate the experience of grim graphic novels too literally in a movie. When you read a graphic novel, there's built-in humor and bravado in seeing comic-book artists and writers strive to push two-dimensional characters into a third (or even fourth) dimension; the writers' and artists' unconventional contortions can be exhilarating. Put live actors into the mix, and the plots and layouts can be punishing. I'd like to think of Nolan's The Dark Knight as the misbegotten product of a man who spent his teens reading comic books in the afternoon and sneaking off to film noir festivals at night. It's more likely the outcome of treating unholy graphic novels as holy writ.

Yes, Ledger gives a bravura performance and detonates a savage sick joke or two. But it's a Pyrrhic acting victory. The whole movie is set up for him to be the jiving put-on artist of destruction outwitting the squares. Wagging his tongue, crinkling his brow and wiggling his arms when not dropping them lankily by his sides, he's a death-head's grin that walks and talks. Ledger brings it off: He knows how to deliver a line like "You complete me" to Batman with lip-smacking self-satisfaction. But he's stuck in the relentless wordplay and sadistic vaudeville that comprise Nolan's kiddie-cartoon versions of the Theatre of the Absurd. At least Ledger's Joker can make scary-funny faces; all Batman, Gordon and Dent can do is natter on about heroism, villainy, rationality and chaos. Nolan turns them into an anvil chorus pounding home the movie's messages.

Sometimes, gusts of hot air can collide with cool comic-book notions and produce a pop-culture hurricane (the first Matrix comes to mind). The Dark Knight is more like an ugly squall. Bale, so fresh and valiant in his other movies, doesn't grow into the title role. In his cowl, he sounds like a pauper's Darth Vader; as Wayne, his aristocratic swagger wears thin. Watching Morgan Freeman steal scenes with his omniscient air as Wayne's sly Fox, Batman's gadget-master, I thought, "He really is God." And Michael Caine, as Alfred the butler, grounds the goings-on in the Wayne Penthouse (the Wayne Manor is being rebuilt) with his elegant earthiness.

When Dent becomes the fearsome Two-Face, he, like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, forces his victims to call heads or tails on a flipped coin. But the Coen brothers' film was at once austere and atmospheric, and thus terrifying. Nolan's use of incessant tension music and gun-to-the-head jeopardy cheapens even the classiest bits. True believers may buy into the gloom and doom of The Dark Knight, but many of us will ask, with the Joker, "Why so serious?"

michael.sragow@baltsun.com