Last night was the first junket screening for The Dark Knight, taking place on an IMAX screen in Los Angeles. The screening was at 7, but the theater was packed at 6, unheard of at press screenings. The house was so full by 6:45 that the movie started fifteen minutes EARLY, something I never thought I’d see (press screenings invariable start ten minutes late). Now the people who were at the screening, while still under an official embargo, have begun talking about what they thought of the film, and the only word that comes to mind is ‘hyperbole.’

You’re probably wondering what I thought of the film. While my official review won’t run until the week of the movie’s release, I’ll tell you that I liked it. It’s better than Batman Begins in every way. It’s an epic crime film filled with interesting characters (none of them played by Christian Bale, sadly). It’s filled with action and excitement. It’s also fat – at least thirty minutes could have easily been excised in the script stage, and twenty could be trimmed now in the editing room without blinking an eye – and has a number of odd story problems. Christopher Nolan still can’t direct an action scene.

These aren’t major complaints, but when I see someone, like my friend Steve at Collider, call the film ‘flawless’ and ‘a masterpiece,’ I know we’re in for a tough couple of weeks. The movement to give Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar, which was starting up from about the second he died in January, will pick up so much steam that I think he’s almost guaranteed a nomination based on the hype and nothing else. Between now and the film’s release I think the hype over this film could build to a deafening crescendo, one that will result in an inevitable backlash when the movie finally screens for the non-junket press in about two weeks. And that backlash could easily hit the fanbase as well – when The Dark Knight fails to actually change their lives, will the hardcore fans feel a touch disappointed?

For the record, Heath Ledger gives a tremendous performance as the Joker. He makes the character his own, and I think he delivers a Joker so definitive it’s going to change the way he’s written in the comics and will become the touchstone version of the character. I also think that if he was alive fanboys would be the only people talking about giving him an Oscar. Dying is often the best thing that you can do for your career (just ask Elvis), and Ledger picked a good role to die on, one where he really gets to have some fun and make some interesting choices. The Joker is nowhere near the character that Ennis Del Mar is, but Ledger brings a similar sort of fascinating internal quality to the role. If Ledger gets a nomination it surely wouldn’t be the most egregious postmortem nod ever, but it will still be one based more on what happened outside the film than what he did inside of it.

What’s important to keep in mind over the coming days as you see more and more reactions to the current round of screenings is that there is no group less reliable than the LA junket press. These people live for the ability to name drop and for their free swag, and they get more excited about seeing the film first than about seeing a good film (imagine a whole community of Harry Knowles types and you’d probably have it). It’s a good movie, and many of these people want to be out the gate first saying how much they liked it.

On the other hand, a friend of mine who writes for the web and who I think is not only a terrific critic but also has tremendous taste in films has compared it to Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II. I can’t even begin to agree, but I respect his position on the film, and I don’t think he’s coming from the same fatuous place that most of the junket press does.

I’m thinking about writing my review right now and banking it, to be honest. I like to wait a while to write a review, to let a film simmer in my head for a couple of days or a week or two, but the level of hyperbole that I’m seeing begin right now is only going to get worse and worse over the next few days and may peak for me personally at the junket on Sunday. I fear that being annoyed at over-the-top praise of a good film might hurt my opinion of the film in general (I’m only human, and if I spend all day Sunday explaining to people why this film is far from flawless, I know my mind will begin fixating on these problems in the story).  I’m sort of keenly aware of my reputation as the anti-Batman guy (and I honestly don’t like the character all that much), and I walked into this movie with an open mind, intending to give it a fair shake. I want to make sure my review reflects that fair shake and not the growing Browncoat aspects of the people who came into that IMAX theater in wheelchairs last night and left on their own two feet.