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    By Josh Moss In a summer of superheroes — from Ironman and the Incredible Hulk to Hancock and Hellboy — director Christopher Nolan has raised the bar with "The Dark Knight," the latest Batman epic. Sure, there are violent action sequences and Batman burning through Gotham City’s streets on his motorcycle dubbed the “Batpod.” But this is so much more than a summer blockbuster to flaunt some nifty special effects. "The Dark Knight" burrows to the core of its characters and examines the relationship between good and evil. It’s ambitious filmmaking that transcends the superhero genre. Sound deep? Don’t fret. The villain this time around is the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, and his performance alone is enough to delight any moviegoer. Ledger almost makes Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker in 1989’s "Batman" forgettable. White paint crusts his face. His teeth are yellow, his cheeks stitched into a permanent smile. When he talks, he can’t hold his tongue in his mouth. It’s a fearlessly creepy piece of acting that leaves any sign of the actor himself undetected. And it’s better than Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning role as killer Anton Chigurh in last year’s "No Country for Old Men." Ledger deserves the Oscar for best supporting actor, and, though it’d be a posthumous award, it wouldn’t be out of sympathy. It’s Ledger’s best work, hinting at the actor he was one day capable of becoming. The Joker is just part of Gotham City’s problems, though. Since 2005’s "Batman Begins," the city has tumbled into near mob rule. Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (again played by Christian Bale) is tired that he’s viewed as a vigilante when he moonlights as Batman. He is ready to let district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) take over on the crime-fighting front. That way, Wayne can focus his attention on long-time love interest — and Dent’s current girlfriend — Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaall, an upgrade from Katie Holmes in "Batman Begins" and one of the few who know Batman’s true identity). The Joker, however, has another plan. Dude craves chaos, nothing else, and will kill as many innocent people as necessary until Batman is willing to show his face. Though the Joker is the film’s most memorable character, "The Dark Knight" boasts an ensemble cast with no weak link. Bale as Bruce Wayne has just the right amount of arrogance as he enters a room with three bombshells under his arms. Eckhart can pull of emotional pain when the script requires it. Michael Caine, as Wayne’s butler Alfred, offers a tad of humor, and Morgan Freeman, as Batman’s R&D team and a Wayne Enterprise employee, proves he can still nail a minor role that doesn’t require him to narrate. Nolan, who also directed "Memento" and "The Prestige," co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, and it works on many levels. The opening bank robbery, in which the Joker proves he’s loyal to nobody but himself, immediately establishes the villain as a lurking presence, which provides tension even when he’s not on screen. And the Wayne-Dawes-Dent love triangle adds to the story because Nolan knows not to harp on it. Visually, cinematographer Wally Pfister creates the dark tone Gotham needs, to reflect the lunatics who are on the loose. When we actually get some daylight, it’s surprisingly refreshing. Honestly, the only complaint involves a side plot that sends Batman to Hong Kong to bring an “accountant” back to Gotham. Other than that, "The Dark Knight" — clocking in at more than two hours — flies by. Although a lot of scenes are memorable, one has stuck out long after leaving the theater. The Joker, in a stolen police car cruising down city streets at night, hangs out one of the back windows, eyes closed, taking everything in. We suggest you do the same. 3 and 1/2 fleurs di lis out of 4

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