Blaze and Means: Ledger?s Joker burns to fire up discord.

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“Let’s wind the clocks back a year,” the Joker says to a gang of miscreants in need of some anarchic guidance in The Dark Knight. You follow his instruction: Back in the summer of 2007, fanboys had begun to be placated about the counter-typecasting of Heath Ledger as Batman’s clown-faced villain, as images leaked of a pretty boy turned creepshow, his hair greasy and matted, his face scarred and messily L’Oreal’d like an Extreme Makeover contestant who got caught in a hurricane. Word of Ledger’s phenomenal performance followed—then, in January, his sudden death.

Since then, there’s been posthumous Oscar talk. Best Picture chatter, too. Consider all this, and set the clock back to now. Whether the film is any good has almost stopped being an issue. The real question is: Can The Dark Knight possibly live up to all its hype?

Of course not—but it does come close. Christopher Nolan’s sequel to his darkly psychological, nearly Ang Lee-ian rebooting of the Caped Crusader franchise, 2005’s Batman Begins, is as rich and epic as his origin story (152 minutes to the predecessor’s 140), satisfying as a well-crafted crime drama but notable for lacking any traces of camp. Though, in the new installment, the vigilante shares the screen with two iconic villains, the Joker and Two-Face, it’s un-likely that more outlandish series characters such as the Penguin or Mr. Freeze will ever walk Nolan’s universe. Like Iron Man, this Batman (Christian Bale) is a superhero of the real world. His “powers” come courtesy of technology, not freak accidents. He works with local law enforcement, such as Gotham City police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and, under his billionaire do-gooder guise of Bruce Wayne, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). And Martin Scorsese, take note: In The Dark Knight, Batman battles, of all rivals, the mafia.

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There’s less fun in Nolan’s interpretation, but the saga is just as exhilarating. Ledger’s Joker supplies the only traces of humor in a script (co-written by the director and his brother, Jonathan) whose plot is complex but fundamentally deals with the evergreen topic of good versus evil and the angst that ensues when the lines between the two blur. The Joker is introduced in the opening sequence, supervising a daytime bank robbery and ingeniously killing off each of his clown-masked accomplices as soon as they’ve completed their integral tasks.

He doesn’t really care about the money, though, which actually belongs to the mob. The Joker just wants to introduce a little chaos to Gotham City, and he uses the cash to leverage the aid of organized crime in ridding the world of “the Batman” and, worse, public sweetheart and all-around good guy Dent. Speaking of sweethearts, Batman’s former squeeze, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, mercifully taking over for Batman Begins’ Katie Holmes), is now with Dent but has promised Bruce that they will be together again once his dress-up days are behind him.

Now, Ledger. Yes, his performance is every bit as inventive, freaky, and career-making as rumors and trailers have led you to believe. His Joker’s voice is slightly fey, his speech often deliberate, like someone—appropriately—who mentally isn’t all there. He smacks his lips—his smile extended by knife scars—and darts his tongue. This Joker’s origin is unclear—he tells different stories about who cut his face and why. (The first version, which lends the film its “Why So Serious?” tagline, is absolutely chilling, thanks in no small part to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s spot-on score.) Ledger’s odd mannerisms are small, however, putting miles between his and Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in 1989’s Batman and moving into Anton Chigurh territory: As with the No Country for Old Men villain, you’ll get tense when the Joker’s onscreen, ready for some horrific act to follow. But the most complimentary thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance is that, except for that turn-back-the-clock line, you don’t spend the movie thinking about his passing—and that’s because Ledger isn’t there. It’s only the Joker you see.

In comparison, Bale is positively wooden—that logy Batvoice has got to go—and the best part about Eckhart’s contribution is the ghoulish special effects once Dent finally becomes Two-Face, which happens way too late and way too easily. (Poor editing also truncates crucial sequences such as the well-publicized party scene.) The action, however, is thrilling: From gigantic explosions to an airborne rig to a nearly silent shot of Batman gliding from a rooftop on a dark Hong Kong night, Nolan crafts images that are both heart-stopping and beautiful. The new Batsuit, -mobile, and -pod? All barely noticeable—or notable—when there are fireballs to behold.

Overshadowed by the Ledger buzz is The Dark Knight’s technological milestone: Nolan filmed approximately 30 minutes, mostly action sequences, with IMAX cameras, marking the first time such a technique has been used in a feature film. The result—shots that are expansive, deep, and immersive—may not be immediately obvious to anyone not looking for the cinematographical switches. But walking out to a parking garage or your own city’s streets afterward, you’ll likely have a “Hey, this isn’t Gotham!” moment. It’s a level of transportation that no cackling, Kool Aid-colored villain could achieve, but it’s what every comic book fan truly wants.