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<i>The Dark Knight</i>: Believe The Hype Let's get the hype out of the way: Yes, The Dark Knight was hyped, hyped, hyped. Yes, it's opening on about seven gazillion screens (more than 4,300, to be precise). Yes, the hype got even more deafening after Heath Ledger's tragic death. The hype factory for this movie was working at such volume, in fact, that the rest of the movie sort of got lost in all the white noise. (For example, Aaron Eckhart? Fantastic in his own right, but there's nary a mention of his performance in the media coverage up to this point.)

Okay then, hype acknowledged -- about the movie, and about Ledger's performance in it. And to think I foolishly worried the movie couldn't live up to it all.

The quickest way to silence the hype -- and the inherent doubt that accompanies it -- is to go see the movie. It's as good as a superhero movie gets. Sure, it's dark and violent and sorta scary (it's as violent a PG-13 rating gets, and probably ought to be R; leave the kids at home), but it's one of the few superhero movies that you can realistically buy into. This isn't some guy bumbling around as Clark Kent and then saving the world all bright and squeaky clean as Superman. This is Batman: shadowy and underground, trying to protect Gotham from itself and the evils it breeds.

One such evil is the Joker, played by Ledger in his final full performance. This is the kind of iconic portrayal -- like Javier Bardem's last year in No Country For Old Men or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs -- that will sear a villainous character into your brain so deeply and permanently that it will haunt you for years to come. Dead or alive, Ledger would earn (and deserve) the Oscar for this role. He dove into it completely and wholeheartedly, and created one of the most memorable maniacal psychopaths in the history of cinema. It's a performance that won't soon be forgotten, and a fine one to add to Ledger's impressive legacy.

The movie has its flaws -- even though it stretches to two and a half hours, there are plot holes and crucial elements that are breezed over so you find yourself wondering what just happened -- and if you loved the earlier Batman films with their colorful, cartoonish, sometimes slapstick villains and Batmans, you might hate this one for its unmitigated darkness and severity. But it's hard to quibble when so much is right.

There's fine filmmaking, fine acting (not just Ledger's either; Christian Bale is dead-on as Batman, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes you actually care about Rachel, and Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Eckhart are all are in top form), and a compelling, twisting story that will keep you entranced for a good long while. In other words, The Dark Knight doesn't disappoint a bit. Quite the opposite, in fact: It manages to exceed the loftiest of expectations.

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