PEOPLE Review: No Joke – Heath Ledger Makes The Dark Knight Unforgettable

07/16/2008 at 03:20 PM EDT

PEOPLE Review: No Joke – Heath Ledger Makes The Dark Knight Unforgettable
Heath Ledger as the Joker (sitting) and Christian Bale as Batman, in The Dark Knight
Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros
Step aside, Spider-Man 2 and Superman II: The phenomenal The Dark Knight now reigns as the greatest superhero film of all time. From its exhilarating first frame to its bittersweet last, it sets a new standard for the genre – and redefines what a summer popcorn movie can be.

After starting to clean up corrupt Gotham City by becoming the caped crusader in 2005's Batman Begins, billionaire Bruce Wayne (a superb Christian Bale) has the city's bad guys on their heels. He's joined in the fight against crime by the equally committed district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – fated to fall from grace and become the ghastly Two-Face – who is romancing Wayne's old flame Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a spry upgrade over Batman Begins' Katie Holmes).

Enter the Joker (a fearless Heath Ledger), a jittery, terrifying fly in the ointment who goads Batman into a battle for no less than the soul of Gotham – and its residents. Fulfilling Begins' promise, director and cowriter Christopher Nolan skillfully weaves first-rate action and suspense with a stirring, startling emotional undercurrent.

While Bale again astounds, The Dark Knight's real star is the late Ledger. Many thought that Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in 1989's Batman would never be topped, but Ledger manages to do just that.

His angrily applied white makeup accentuates the hideously creepy scars carved into his cheeks. And while Nicholson was a merry, scary jokester, frying a foe with an electrified joy buzzer, Ledger's gags, like making a pencil "disappear" into a victim's skull, are even darker. His haunting Joker helps make The Dark Knight unforgettable.

The Dark Knight (PG-13) opens Friday.

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