A Darker 'Knight' Takes Over

Perhaps it's best not to beat around the bush with the July 18 release of "The Dark Knight," director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan's hotly anticipated sequel to 2005's critically and commercially successful franchise reboot "Batman Begins."

The bat signal certainly won't be powered down anytime soon. As one of the few people outside studio personnel to view the film early, Peter Travers enticed the public with his warning in the pages of Rolling Stone: "Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies."

Nolan and Christian Bale, reprising his role as the Caped Crusader, sat down with "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now to discuss the duality of the Batman character, living up to lofty expectations, and the final haunting performance of co-star Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Christian Bale

In 2005, Bale and Nolan successfully revitalized the Batman franchise with "Batman Begins," which explained the hero's fractured origins. "The Dark Knight" elaborates on the film's cliffhanger ending when Wayne Manor was destroyed by a fire.

In the new movie, Bale's Bruce Wayne lives in a penthouse overlooking Gotham, and Batman springs from an underground lair with the Batmobile and the new Batpod. Nolan sought to convey a rougher and harsher environment for Batman this time around.

"By creating the Gotham that is a bit more based in reality by shooting in more real places, not just building sets, we would have a Batman who was an extraordinary man in an ordinary world," Nolan said. "He's as outrageous and extraordinary to the residents of Gotham in the film as he is to the people in the audience. And I think people in the audience are able to relate to the population of Gotham; being able to sort of see that from their point of view, to me, elevates the character."

But the outlandishness of Batman is trumped by a far more grim character, the diabolical element of the Joker.

Ledger's untimely death in January will forever be intertwined with "The Dark Knight." There's already early buzz about an Oscar for Ledger's consuming portrayal of the sinister arch-villain. Such predictions bear heavy weight, as a posthumous Oscar has not been awarded since 1976.

According to both Bale and Nolan, Ledger was eager to put a new and daring spin on the iconic role. Earlier protrayals of the character by Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero are permanent legacies for both actors.

"We talked a lot about the concept of who the Joker would be in the telling of this story, that is a bit more real and gritty than what's come before," Nolan said. "The Joker in this world was clearly going to be somebody very different. We talked about creating a sheer force of pure anarchy, somebody that you could believe as a human being, but someone who really represents an absolute quality of somebody who wants to just tear down the world around him.

"That fear of anarchy is really what sort of drove the creation of the character, and so, I think it was sort of inherent in that it would be very different than what had been done before. Nevertheless, I think it took huge guts for Heath to take on such a great icon."

The manic brilliance of Ledger's Joker was already apparent on the first day of filming.

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