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Diablo gets the first look at The Dark Knight

Rock 'em, sock 'em Batman flick features jaw dropping final performance by the late Heath Ledger

Halfway through an early screening of the Dark Knight, the sensational new Batman movie by British director Christopher Nolan, the picture went dark and the film stopped. A half filled IMAX theater of critics and entertainment insiders booed and hissed the faux pas like a batch of petulant babies. But not me. I sat in the theater quietly, trying to absorb the 90 or so minutes of brilliance I had witnessed, when I realized that my heart was literally pounding from the suspense that Nolan had been cranking from the film's first scene.

This is not your typical summer blockbuster.

Dark, brooding, and best for adults (or older teens), The Dark Knight  feels more like A Clockwork Orange or Silence of the Lambs than it does  your typical superhero blockbuster. This extra tension comes in part from top notch editing, crazy-cool stunt work, and jaw-dropping action sequences. But mostly it comes from the performance of Heath Ledger, the brilliantly talented Australian actor who died from a prescription drug overdose earlier this year. Ledger's Joker is a villain for the ages, a whacked out psychopath who kills with glee and causes chaos for his own crazed amusement. In a post 9/11 world, he's a chilling entity. In the action/fantasy/sci-fi movie world, he's an instant classic character.

What works so well in The Dark Knight, is that the Joker is the only over the top character. The rest of the film unfolds like a gangster epic, with a densely layered plot involving international mob syndicates—it's more like Heat or The Departed than Spiderman 2 or Iron Man. In addition to Ledger's showy turn as the Joker, the cast is excellent, with Christian Bale reprising his role as the conflicted Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as his faithful butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as techno-genius Lucius Fox. Aaron Eckhardt is very strong as ambitious district attorney Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman is outstanding as special crimes detective Gordon, whose off-the-record involvement with Batman brings in the bad guys, but also has polictical costs.

A minor quibble: the movie runs 2 and 1/2 hours, and (to me) felt about 10 minutes too long— a few too many scenes involving Eckhardt's character occur in the conclusion. But this is a very minor complaint. I can't even remember how many summer action movies I've sat through in the last 20 years, feeling like the median IQ of moviegoers was dropping as the film unspooled. (I still can't believe how stupid Independence Day was, even Titanic was loaded with way too much pablum). The Dark Knight creates a new trend: a summer blockbuster with all the thrills, wows, bells and whistles (see it in an Imax screen if you can!), but also with brains, character arcs, and psychological drama. Hats off to Nolan (whose Y2K breakout hit, Memento, remains one of my favorite movies of the past decade), for reminding us that Hollywood has a great tradition of making worthwhile pop entertainment.