Batman Returns, but Joker Has Last Laugh

There's no way Heath Ledger couldn't have stolen the show. Untimely deaths have a way of doing that.

But Ledger is far more than a fallen star in "The Dark Knight," the latest installment in Christopher Nolan's "Batman" series, arguably the most buzzed-about film of the year. As the Joker, he's terrifying. He's peer-through-your-fingers scary. He prompts on-the-spot ovations and theater-wide gasps.

In short, he's fantastic. With smeared white makeup and a crudely drawn red sneer, Ledger's face is clearly discernable through his Joker get-up. But you don't see the actor, you don't think about the star who died in January at age 28; you cringe at a maniacal psycho, a man who craves death and destruction not because it might bring him money, or fame, or women, but just because.

"Some men just want to watch the world burn," Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) muses midway through the movie. And that's what makes this Joker a more formidable enemy than any Batman has ever faced, in either Nolan's series or ones past. He craves chaos for chaos' sake. With all due respect to Jack Nicholson, threatening to carve a smile into someone's face while giggling like a maniac is far sicker than cackling beside a vat of green goo.

Ledger's the star. His are the scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. But Christian Bale as Batman and new addition Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face, Gotham's do-good District Attorney, hold their own. The Joker cautions his criminal cohorts, "Batman has no jurisdiction," and Bale's Batman is truly a knight in (dark) shining armor, soaring through gleaming computerized landscapes and bashing the heads of his opponents without breaking a sweat (though a pack of dogs does manage to penetrate his steely fa├žade).

But while Bales' Batman is all that he should be, his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, lacks depth. He's the head of Wayne Enterprises now, living in a sprawling Gotham penthouse while his suburban mansion recovers from the havoc wreaked there the last time around. Wayne is a little more arrogant, a little more cunning -- more like Bale's better half in his other dual-role movie, "American Psycho." The Valentino suit fits well -- he trades blade-rimmed quips with Dent, who's now dating the love of his life, Rachel Dawes, (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But he has to strip it off moments later to hit the streets and the thugs.

Eckhart, who lately has opted for arty, independent movies ("Thank You for Smoking," "Towelhead"), proves he can roll with the big shots in the action arena. His transformation from white knight Harvey Dent into badass Two Face is stunning, if a bit too quick, but considering the movie's 152-minute running time, a fast transition may have been the right call.

While "The Dark Knight" has all the requisite elements of a summer action blockbuster -- jaw-dropping special effects, violence galore, a touch of romance -- it goes above and beyond the genre, asking big questions (When should good guys turn bad? What instinct wins -- humanity or self-preservation?) that take it out of the comic-book movie box and perhaps, into the ring of Oscar contenders. If nothing else, Ledger's Joker deserves recognition. Maybe Batman could vanquish that yellow-toothed, lipstick stained grin, but anyone who sees this movie won't soon forget it.

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