Warner Bros. Pictures
Heath Ledger stars as the Joker, an unhinged and deranged villain, in the film "The Dark Knight."

THE DARK KNIGHT — **** — Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart; rated PG-13 (violence, torture, drugs, profanity, brief gore, slurs, vulgarity)

As its title suggests, "The Dark Knight" really is dark. It's dark as night, as a matter of fact ...

To be honest, there's even some question as to the age-appropriateness of this superhero movie, which is an even-more-disturbing follow-up to the 2004 hit "Batman Begins."

Like the earlier movie, this is pretty violent stuff, and there's material that may give young ones nightmares — especially those who are younger than 10.

However, those who are made of sterner stuff or are more mature will find the movie thrilling and surprisingly heady. It's as much a morality thriller and a gangster epic as it is a comic book action/adventure.

So, it turns out those early comparisons to "The Godfather II" weren't nearly as ridiculous as they once sounded. They're warranted, and that's a huge compliment.

This time around, Batman (Christian Bale) must face off with the Joker (Heath Ledger), a scarred and disturbed criminal who's first seen in the film robbing a bank that's mostly filled with mobster loot. (That opening bit was one of six sequences that were filmed in the IMAX format, and is best viewed that way.)

He also sees the Caped Crusader as his equal and begins playing a series of murderous games in attempt to get his attention.

To deal with this new threat, the masked vigilante needs help. And he's not sure if he can really trust Gotham's new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who's trying to use legal methods to deal with the city's rampant crime.

Harvey is also the romantic rival of Batman's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. He's now dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce's childhood sweetheart.

Co-screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan has taken a lot of chances here. One of them is the film's 2 1/2-hour running time, which seems a little long on the surface. And he's added new characters to an ensemble that was already large.

But most, if not all, of those risks have paid off. The performances are terrific and this feels different, more substantive, than any superhero movie that's come before it.

And besides, the whole thing would be worthwhile if for nothing else than the late Ledger's brilliant and creepy performance as the unhinged, deranged villain. Hopefully, his achievement will be remembered when film-award season comes around. His loss to cinema will be felt for years.

"The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of violent action (shootings and gunplay, brawling, knife violence, fisticuffs, explosive and vehicular mayhem, and violence against animals and women), sequences depicting torture and interrogation, drug content (various toxins, poisons and the like), scattered profanity, some brief gore, derogatory slurs and language, and some crude slang. Running time: 152 minutes.

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