"You can die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Such is the rather grim assessment rendered at the beginning and close of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's latest step in deconstructing the Batman franchise from superhero camp to a cry of universal despair, with souped-up cars. Roughly translated from pseudo-profundity, the line boils down to this: Only the good die young. It doesn't take a careful analyst to catch which lost soul Nolan is thinking of. As the sequel to Batman Begins marches from cruel bereavement to spirit-crushing martyrdom, it plays like a funeral dirge for the late Heath Ledger, who died—maybe you heard—shortly after completing his role as the Joker. The movie operates in the pall of this demise, and its polished gloom carries the scent of an undergraduate term paper on the futility of human existence. This is the summer action movie that stopped taking its antidepressants.

As the Joker himself cackles from promotional posters: Why so serious? In fact, the only element in Nolan's film with any life—and the sole reason why it's worth seeing immediately—is Ledger's work. He's caked in grimy clown greasepaint with echoes of John Wayne Gacy, and trying out a sneering singsong that sounds a little like that of a demented Bugs Bunny. If the scars of the Joker's facial mutilation still seem to be festering, it's in large part because he's constantly smacking his lips and flicking his tongue, as if still worrying at the sores in his mouth. (Who could have predicted that the most memorable sound of the summer movie season would be that of Heath Ledger's saliva?) To watch him menace Gotham City with an arsenal of knives—and a No. 2 pencil—is to witness a gifted actor dedicate all his energies to gracefully waltzing through trash; the last time we saw such a deft display, Johnny Depp was donning a pirate hat.

Ledger's Joker is so much fleeter than anyone else on the screen—especially Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, who alternates between sniveling and glowering, and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, who is perfectly gormless—that his every act is a provocation and a parody. He's baiting Batman and Gotham law enforcement, begging them to respond to his diabolical energy with lumbering violence.

The movie dutifully obliges. It is an elegant picture (Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister frames gorgeous Chicago panoramas in both 35mm and IMAX formats), but it is atrociously edited, with each individual scene bearing no causal relationship to the next. The Joker is supposed to be a wily escape artist, but that's difficult to confirm, since The Dark Knight loses track of nearly all of its characters for long stretches. Maybe the confusion is intentional: It allows Nolan to leap at will into fantasies of suffering, as Wayne's allies are imperiled, saved and destroyed at random junctures. Finally, Batman is tormented with the same catch-22 that faced Peter Parker in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man picture: He can rescue the woman he loves or defend the justice he believes in. But this movie isn't going to weasel out of the dilemma—instead, it positively wriggles in masochistic delight at the prospect of heroic anguish. The world is a cruel and absurd place, you see. Ow! Ow!

So The Dark Knight lives up to its title, yeah—in the world of comic-book movies, it's a Suicide Girl at a sorority house, showing off its freaky tattoos. It keeps finding more to display; when Batman makes his agonized decision, the movie still has a humorless hour to go, and even the sight of Ledger dressed as an exceptionally naughty nurse only enlivens things so much. Audiences will leave knowing they've seen a special performance, but also feeling that they've endured something suffocating. This movie wants to watch its heroes die, and it indulges that desire long enough to become distinctly villainous.

SEE IT: The Dark Knight is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Broadway, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Hilltop, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Sandy, Sherwood, Vancouver Plaza and Wilsonville.