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Batman raises bar for superhero films
Heath Ledger creates a truly psychopathic, post-9/11 Joker who is willing to do anything it takes to take down his enemy, Batman, portrayed by Christian Bale, in "The Dark Knight."

The defining movie of summer 2008 has arrived.

As the outrageous box office numbers show, Batman remains the comic book hero with the widest, most enduring appeal. Don’t expect the ticket sales to drop off any time soon, either, because this summer masterpiece should continue to draw for weeks.

The story, drama and visuals all are delivered on an epic scale, and they all work.

Batman (Christian Bale) and rising star district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) have the crime syndicate that once ruled Gotham on the ropes. Batman thwarts their crimes on the streets, and Dent wins their convictions in court. The Joker (Heath Ledger) approaches the mobsters, led by Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), with an offer to take out the winged vigilante. Desperate to retake Gotham, the syndicate unleashes The Joker on the city.

Meanwhile, Batman, er, Bruce Wayne, considers retirement now that Dent is ready to use the police and the courts to maintain order. Wayne and Dent also jostle for the affection of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), creating tension that spills over into Dent’s relations with Batman.

That synopsis belies the intricate, intersecting plotlines that make up the whole story, but I won’t ruin any of it. Just rest assured, you will be amazed by how much director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer and brother, Jonathan, pack into the film and by how seamlessly it all ties together. Even at more than two-and-a-half hours long, it seems fast.

The Nolans also deserve credit for being unafraid to go places other filmmakers wouldn’t. No character is safe in "The Dark Knight."

The supporting cast is excellent. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Roberts are all spot-on, and even the bit players are outstanding But despite the most stellar cast of the year, this is Ledger’s movie. He makes a shockingly brutal entrance in the first scene, uses a pencil in the most demented magic trick in cinema history and looms over every scene, whether he appears in it or not. The bat signal may float among the clouds, but Ledger’s Joker rules everywhere else.

Jack Nicholson’s incarnation of the character was loony and scary enough, but he was also cartoonish and mostly harmless. He destroyed works of art and killed mobsters. Big deal!

Ledger’s Joker knows no boundaries. He is a true psychopath willing to kill thousands of innocent people with no more hesitation than when he kills a mob kingpin. He calls himself an "agent of chaos," and that’s apt. The Joker’s intent is to undermine any sense of safety Gotham’s citizens may cling to and to wreak havoc on as massive a scale as possible.

Do those intentions sound familiar? There is something terroristic about Ledger’s Joker. Nolan is wise not to push the movie into national security debates, but make no mistake: This is a Joker for the post-9/11 era.

As the action intensifies and consumes the entire city, Gotham is reduced to the boxing ring in which Batman and The Joker spar. (Parents should heed the PG-13 rating, because this is yet another comic book movie with realistic, brutal violence. The gun play here is just as intense as it is in any R-rated crime movie.)

Ledger’s death now seems even more tragic, since it would have been a joy to watch him and Bale go at it for one more film, if not a few. We’ll never have the chance to do that, but we can revel in his chilling, tour de force swan song.