Andy Bockelman: 'Dark Knight' is comic book moviemaking at its best

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As dusk falls on Craig's West Theater and Steamboat Springs' Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas, so begins the unsettling saga of "The Dark Knight."

As billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is starting to learn, the protection of Gotham City is a difficult task. Even in his guise as the cowled hero, Batman, Wayne's nightly efforts to keep the city's populace safe are increasingly becoming overwhelmed by the sheer amount of criminals who endlessly plague Gotham.

However, Batman has allies in law enforcement, with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) straightening up the police department, and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) waging his own war on crime through the courts. Still unsure of who can be trusted, it becomes obvious to Wayne he will need all the help he can get once insane master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger) makes himself known through nonstop acts of terrorism, threatening all who possibly could stand in his way.

Bale is solid in his second outing as the Caped Crusader, whether he is giving Bruce Wayne his lolling intonation or Batman his raspy growl.

Although, even with his inner demons, Batman is almost nothing compared to Ledger's slant on the Clown Prince of Crime - the psychopath with a permanent smile carved on his face inspires such terror, viewers will laugh out of fear alone.

As far as non-costumed characters, Eckhart is a great fit for Dent, a dedicated public servant not afraid to get his hands dirty when cleaning up the streets of Gotham. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes, thankfully, as Dent's fellow attorney and girlfriend, Rachel Dawes, who is torn between him and her former flame, Wayne, whose alterego she is keeping secret.

Also in on the dual identity are Wayne's steadfast butler, Alfred Pennyworth, and business cohort/technical advisor, Lucius Fox, excellently played by Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, respectively. The list of top-notch actors continues with William Fichtner, Anthony Michael Hall and Eric Roberts.

The psychologically deepest, most violent and most disturbing installment of "Batman" is by far the best, and possibly one of the greatest, comic book movies ever made. With characters who are developed besides the Bat and the villains involved - yes, plural, as one has yet to show his face - the film becomes a thoroughly layered examination of all the players in the Gotham epic.

With inspiration from "Batman" graphic novels such as "Year One" and "The Killing Joke," director/co-writer Christopher Nolan continues the exquisite restructuring of the series he started with "Batman Begins." Within the bounds of the lengthy but well-paced timeframe, the filmmaker pulls no punches whatsoever: innocent people die, heroes rarely are given their proper respect by the public, and all the while, The Joker cackles constantly at the chaos he lovingly has formed.

As an afterthought, it becomes glaringly obvious by the film's end just how damaging playing the part was to the late Heath Ledger.

In constructing the unstable psyche of the supreme scoundrel, Ledger just may have taken it one step too far. His untimely death reminds us how much an actor must suffer for his craft.

Sure, the result is a great movie, but at what cost?

With a legacy that will live on for years, "The Dark Knight" is the ultimate summer movie. Besides making Batman and company more intense than one possibly could imagine, it shows just how profound a superhero film can be.

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