07/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dark Knight, Bright Extinguished Star

No, it's not because he's dead. It's because he's that good.

Friday, July 18th the latest chapter in the Batman motion picture franchise opened. But this one is like no other, surpassing even its predecessor whose superior acting by Christian Bale and mixture of real action and personal character studies snatched these films from becoming comic book parodies of a blockbuster and turned them in to serious movies about comic book heroes.

But that's what makes "The Dark Knight" work. While recent affairs like "The Incredible Hulk" have mixed "serious" actors in comic roles, they never captured the nuance and colours that Bale, the new DA in town Harvey Dent (a brilliant Aaron Eckhart) and the perfectly cast late Heath Ledger as the Joker do in this latest incarnation.

This film directed by Christopher Nolan asks questions and then explores answers instead of making them plain. Can Bruce Wayne really get away with bopping around by day as a billionaire and then fighting criminals at night, without the criminals deciding time to get rid of the threat? And if they do turn united against Batman, does he become the kind of "hero" that would kill to protect and serve? Will he die a hero or live long enough to become the villain?

And what of modern day heroes? "The Dark Knight" tries to point out that what people need are people they can see, that they can believe in, that they can trust; that heroes are every day politicians and police that do their jobs with heart and soul and dignity, and that heroes need not be dark, foreboding figures in the night. Victory can have a face...or, in this case, perhaps two.

But no Batman film would tick without and villain, and in the best personification of any comic villain Heath Ledger takes the prize (and most likely a posthumous Oscar). This "Joker" is a real criminal, a schizophrenic psychopathic killer who would just as soon cut your face open as to play a gag upon you. There's no figuring out the "why" to what this character does, because there is no "why" to it. Ledger captured the perfect incarnation of a human devoid of compassion or emotion, a human so damaged at some other point, so far away from any rational thought that Joker almost seems sane in his insanity.

And that befuddles Batman, or Wayne, because he's all about good, and evil, black, and white. And Ledger's Joker is every shade of every color in between most of them horrendous and putrid.

Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman return and of course, Michael Caine's "Alfred" adds all the dry wit, charm and even more credibility to the all-star talented cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal as a doe eyed lady love is fetching enough. These are not high priced actors mugging and playing dress up for the camera. These are actors who have thought about the genesis of each of their character. Each of these actors forms the foundation, including Bale and Eckhart, on which the powerhouse performance of Ledger stands. Make no mistake, this is the Joker's movie, and it's no joking matter.

The one thing hard to believe is that the film is PG-13. The body count is VERY high and while they don't show the gore in the film, the convincing depth of insanity Ledger brings to Joker was frightening enough for this 40-something adult, let alone a 13 year old.

And that's the truly haunting part of the movie. The Joker as played by Ledger is a very real character, a very real criminal, one many in the audience will recognize as someone from the news, or worse, someone they've encountered. The makeup doesn't get in the way, one understands why this person would don the persona of The Joker. But as the makeup streams and the terror begins, Ledger and the rest of the cast sink so deeply in to their characters that the faces beneath no longer matter.

And that's the sign of a great film, not a good one. Big stars, big budget, but enough suspended disbelief, enough actual story or plot, that the characters become bigger than the actors themselves.

Ledger would have been remembered for this role no matter what, had he died or no. Just as Bale is now the perfect Batman, Oldman the perfect Commissioner Gordon, Eckhart a fabulous addition as Dent, Gyllenhall damsel enough to cause distress and inspire rescue, Freeman the technical wizard and Caine an Alfred few other actor's could achieve.

And that's why they should stop here; not the franchise, just this incarnation of it. These last two films have been about as great as any could be for the genre. Burton's original is still so dark I can't stay awake through it all. The films that came later nearly destroyed the franchise. This one will make it one of the most successful comic franchises of all time.

If it were the old "Batman" series, a giant "KO" would appear in a big splashed text bubble. Director Christopher Nolan, Bale's Batman, Ledger's Joker, the entire cast has crafted complex and mysterious film personification of the "Dark Knight" and the caveats of the souls of those around him, himself included. Everyone is so perfect here (except the editor who kept us in our chairs about 20 minutes too long, but I realize it was Nolan and not they who decided such things), that this cast, this director and this incarnation of the franchise should go out an enormous success.

But some how, some way IF Nolan, Bale and the others along with inventive new additions to both cast and character get together for a third outing and it is one-half the movie this one is, then those three Batman films combined would be one of the biggest triple-threat action packages of all time.

As it is now, this is not a one-two punch, a mere sequel in a franchise. It's a dark vision of good, evil, insanity and what happens when the lines between them all get blurred. It's Hollywood craftsmanship on all level's at its finest.

As Summer Blockbusters go, it rivals any the inventor of the genre, Spielberg himself, has brought forward this time of year, or any, for that matter, in the genre.

(note: see it in Imax if you can, it's worth every bit of extra effort).

Karel is a number one rated talk show host for KGO AM 810 San Francisco and entertainment reporter/film critic for KNX1070 Los Angeles. He is a writer for the, and IN Magazine Los Angeles (and others). His website is