Okay. So I’d like this to not automatically be about Heath Ledger and what an awesome actor he clearly was and how his interpretation of The Joker is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in a summer movie. And that’s why I went ahead and made that my opening statement and decided to take it from there to discuss some of The Dark Knight’s other qualities. Because there are other good qualities to this celebrated motion picture.

After seeing it a third time, it dawned on me that this thing would have been a huge hit even if Ledger were still alive to receive his much-deserved praise. It’s just so unique. And it’s utter bullshit that Ledger’s death is what led to the huge opening box office. He was still very much alive the first time I saw that two minute teaser unspool on a big screen before I Am Legend. The buzz in that packed theater was palpable. It was the 16 de Julio, by the way – Cinema I. Not that you’d care.

But there were two energy-charged moments during that screening. First, that trailer. Then the little bit at the beginning of the Will Smith epic where you see a teaser poster for a World’s Finest movie sometime in our future.

Good stuff.

So, would The Dark Knight have opened to 165 million dollars were Ledger walking the red carpet a few nights before? Maybe not. Maybe it would have opened to 159 million. What difference does it make? This thing was poised to be the biggest movie of 2008 because people really wanted to see it.

And what about the second weekend win? Word of mouth helped… And deservedly so. Because it’s a terrific film.

And here’s why (It goes without saying that if you still haven’t seen it, stop reading now):

This cool homage to Michael Mann’s Heat was, I thought, an extraordinary way to open a picture. You have total silence with the production company logos… That weird blue smoke thingamajig with the bat symbol coming through… And then – BAM! That wonderful shot of downtown Chicago.

Wally Pfister… I want to eat your dick.

As the very interesting strains of Zimmer and Howard’s Joker theme kick in…

A window gets blown out and we see two men wearing clown masks rappel down onto another building.

We are then drawn to a mysterious man with his back to us, holding a very specific clown mask, and we KNOW – This is The Joker. Or, rather, we feel it in our gut.

What to say about that bank robbery sequence? Wonderful stuff. All of it. The double-crosses. The air of mystery that permeates the proceedings. The razor-sharp pacing, the snap-crackle-pop intensity of the whole thing… Bill Fichtner and his indelible little cameo. Who says Christopher Nolan doesn’t know how to stage action?

All leading up to that final gag with the school bus and the great Ledger reveal.

I am so thrilled that I never got to see the “preview” of this months ago and avoided it on YouTube. The effect of actually sitting in a theater watching this as part of the whole piece, not knowing what to expect is something I wouldn’t have traded for the world.

You know what I’m talking about, in essence… And it’s a great gag, of course. But I’m really just using it as a header for the entire element that is The Joker himself. It was bold and effective to write the character this way. To not try to explain him with any specifics and just let him exist. It’s true that Heath Ledger does an amazing job and deserves every accolade. He’s scary, yet hilarious and strangely poignant – all at the same time. There is a depth and a texture to his characterization that rewards repeated viewings. It’s more than the funny lines and cheeky bits (like his little dance as he comes out of the hospital). It’s more than the powerhouse deliveries of his multiple origin stories… There’s something elemental there. It’s in his eyes, the twitch of his mouth.

It’s unfair, though, to say he upstages Nicholson. I don’t see it that way at all. They’re not playing the same character. Nicholson did the best he could with the cartoon fop he was given – and looking at it that way, he was undeniably brilliant. Ledger, luckily, has much more to work with and rises to the occasion as only a truly great actor can. The Joker, as conceived by the brothers Nolan, is one of the great screen villains. He won’t be soon forgotten.

I’ve pretty much repeated what many have said. But, it had to be said.

And who would have thought that the heart and soul of the picture rests in the cockles of Aaron Eckhardt? Or whatever… Harvey Dent is such a surprise here. A sympathetic character that you root for all the way. That scene where he’s interrogating the loon from the parade? Terrific acting. And not because of the histrionics – the conviction is what sells it.

And then, in the third act, he is asked to portray one of the most patently absurd fictional concoctions ever created… A guy with a face split literally, specifically in half… A fucking unrealistic cartoon concept. A guy who flips a coin before deciding if he’ll blow your brains out. A guy who realistically couldn’t possibly walk down the street without screaming in agony 24/7 and at some point his left eye would shrivel up and fall off…

He is asked to give life to this ridiculous notion that made Tommy Lee Jones look like an asshole and a putz… And he does. And he makes it convincing.

I couldn’t believe that shit. Yes, it’s a very well-written, meaty part. But it still took talent to make it exist beyond the page. And that scene in the hospital? After Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister gets blown to smithereens? When he pulls his bandage off and screams… Silent. It lasts about a third of a second or something… And it has all the power and nuance of Al Pacino with his mouth wide open for 40 seconds at the end of The Godfather, Part III.

I’m dead serious.

(That’s a private in-joke. But I’ll explain it to you if you want)

Okay… Maybe Harvey Dent is the soul of the picture. Because the heart of it really belongs to Jim Gordon. There is a nice subtlety to Gary Oldman’s performance … And I knew he wasn’t dead. But there’s something to be said for a character that actually makes you stand up and cheer in the Pete Hammond sense when he reveals himself to be alive. When he puts the shotgun to The Joker’s brain stem and says: “We got you, you son of a bitch.” It’s triumphant – And neither Oldman nor Nolan oversell the moment.

He is given a very effective emotional scene at the film’s conclusion and then asked to deliver the final monologue to send us out into the light. He does both things with solid conviction.

It was Devin who referred to the Batman character as “uninteresting” and others have complained about the fact that he seems to be in the background of his own movie.

I see it differently. I see Batman as our guide into this dark exploration of criminal psychology. Even when he isn’t on screen, you feel the presence of Batman… This is his movie. You can complain about Christian Bale’s silly Batvoice all you want but he’s true to the character. Why does he talk to Rachel and Lucious Fox with that voice when they know who he is? Because he’s in character, that’s why.

Batman Begins was The Batman Show. It was about him. Period. Hence the title. But Nolan and company couldn’t do the same thing again… And this time, they accentuate the “symbol” aspect of the character while telling a story that shows the effects of his actions on the city he’s trying to protect. It’s only natural that this city and its inner workings take center stage this time around. And it’s refreshing…

And no one does a better Bruce Wayne. Some may say he’s basically reprising Patrick Bateman. But that might be the point.

Interesting that the big climax of this superhero adventure doesn’t really boil down to Batman and The Joker duking it out on top of a high-rise. Yes, there is that. But the real impact of the climax is about making choices. The people on the booby-trapped ferries must make the choice to save their lives while becoming murderers or face their inevitable deaths with dignity. And Batman must make choices at the end as well… He chooses to save the Joker and chooses to act on impulse resulting in the final destruction of a man he truly admires…

Most action/adventure movies would have just left it at “the good guy kicks the bad guy’s ass” … Here, you are asked to think about the implications of those final moments and the effect is strangely sobering for a Summer Blockbuster. That final image of the Joker dangling and delivering his final speech – his last line, in particular: “Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!” That will definitely stay with me for a while.

This is a really loaded little movie.

…Which is not to say The Dark Knight is directed by Bergman from a screenplay by Chekov (Not Walter Koenig – the other one).

This is still a balls-to-the-wall Summer movie with all the trappings. Plenty of action and lots of fun. My pulse still quickens when I think of that car chase setpiece… The French Connection by way of Joel Silver… It works.

It’s a kick-ass popcorn movie. Of course it is. But I’m thrilled that Nolan and company were able to execute it with such intelligence and complexity.

The best superhero movie of the summer is Iron Man. But that’s because The Dark Knight is not a superhero movie at all. It is a dramatic thriller with a superhero as its main character. And there’s a subtle difference there.

I don’t think its an exaggeration by any means to suggest that this movie could receive a best picture nomination. Why?

Rocky. Jaws. Star Wars. Raiders of the Lost Ark. ET. Fatal Attraction. Ghost. Silence of the Lambs. The Fugitive. The Sixth Sense. Gladiator. Lord of the Rings.

All hugely popular genre entertainments. All of them nominated. Some of them even won.

This movie is every bit as good as those and better than some of them.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I would, in fact, be quite pleased.

This one’s going on my 2008 ten best list for sure. And, so far, it’s in first place.

Make of that what you will.