"The Dark Knight" has emerged as the next -- and possibly last -- must-see movie of the summer of 2008.
Women and teen and tween girls will flock to "Mamma Mia!" this weekend to see that Meryl Streep is brave enough to be photographed on this side of 60 (she just turned 59) in bright sunlight and to sing, dance and scramble around a Greek island like a giddy girl.
But "Dark Knight" gets a jump on the sun-splashed musical with 12:01 a.m. showings Friday and tie-ins such as Reese's Pieces candies in Batman black and blue, Domino's Gotham City Pizza and Batman Clipt! Digital Cameras and other gadgets. Advance ticket sales are as hot as the Bat buzz, and here's why:
1. Heath Ledger -- The shock and sadness of seeing Ledger in his Joker makeup -- the centerpiece of movie posters that have hung in lobbies since late 2007 -- has worn off. Now, six months after his death from an accidental drug overdose, we finally get the chance to see his last (completed) film performance.
It may be bittersweet, it may be heartbreaking but it also may be Oscar-worthy. Ledger, nominated for "Brokeback Mountain," could join James Dean ("East of Eden," "Giant"), Spencer Tracy ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), Peter Finch ("Network"), Ralph Richardson ("Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes") and Massimo Troisi ("Il Postino") as actors nominated posthumously for Academy Awards. Only Finch, as the mad-as-hell newsman Howard Beale, won.
2. Christian Bale -- He is the most underrated actor working today. If he has given a bad performance somewhere, we missed it. He brought a dark brooding obsession to "Batman Begins" and, thanks to director Christopher Nolan, deserves much of the credit for restarting the franchise. Most recently, he played one of the Bob Dylan stand-ins in "I'm Not There," a desperate rancher in "3:10 to Yuma" and a German-born American pilot shot down over the jungles of Laos in "Rescue Dawn." All worthy rentals, by the way.
3. Bigger is better -- Six sequences, including the opening six minutes, were shot with IMAX cameras. True, you need an IMAX projection system like the one at the Cinemark theater at Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer, to appreciate it, but it's another reason not to wait for Netflix.
4. Hellbent for heroes -- With a handful of exceptions, such as "Sex and the City" and the wondrous "WALL-E," it's all about superheroes and comic-book characters this summer, from Iron Man and Hulk to Hancock and Hellboy. But Batman is the best known of the bunch, because Superman and Spidey are on staycations.
5. No Katie Holmes -- Nothing against Holmes, her marriage to Tom Cruise or their young daughter, but her personal life overshadowed her portrayal of an assistant district attorney in "Batman Begins." All anyone wanted to talk about was then-boyfriend Cruise, their first date and other dishy details. Maggie Gyllenhaal assumes the role of Rachel Dawes and she is a stronger, more versatile actress with less backstage baggage.
6. Sizzling support -- Ledger and Gyllenhaal are just part of the excellent ensemble. Michael Caine returns as trusted butler Alfred, Gary Oldman is back as Lt. James Gordon and Morgan Freeman once more is Lucius Fox, head of Wayne Enterprises and gadget guru to Bruce Wayne. Also joining the fray is Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent, who is transformed into Two-Face.
7. Batman begins, again -- It's not the same old Wayne Manor, which burned to the ground at the end of "Batman Begins." The Dark Knight gets new digs in a penthouse and Bat-Bunker, a retooled Batsuit -- for when Bruce Wayne isn't wearing his Giorgio Armani Handmade-to-Measure suits -- and a chance to rack up frequent flier miles with a trip to Hong Kong.
Plus, someone pimped his ride to produce the Bat-Pod, a two-wheeled vehicle (don't call it a motorcycle, creators insist) that sports monster tires, weapons on both sides and is so powerful that the stunt driver had to steer from the elbows, not the wrists.
8. A cure for CGI fatigue -- In May, Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter explained why he was taking an early retirement package designed to trim the paper's staff. Among his reasons: "CGI fatigue," shorthand for the sort of digitally rendered special effects much on display in, say, "The Incredible Hulk." This Caped Crusader fights flesh-and-blood villains, not an 11-foot-tall mutant as in "Hulk," a reel relief.
9. He's just like us -- Sort of, since Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy and we're rooting around for change to supersize our drink. Bryan J. Dik, a contributor to the book "The Psychology of Superheroes," calls Batman a "superhero without actual superpowers (other than his athleticism, specialized training in martial arts and a utility belt full of gadgets that emulate superpowers)."
Other essayists suggest he pursues vengeance rather than justice, a theme explored in the film, and suffers from "self-indulgent aggression" which causes Superman to give him the stink-eye in Justice League ventures.
10. He's Batman -- Whether it's campy Adam West (Pow! Biff! Eeyow!) from the television show or any of Bale's immediate movie predecessors -- Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney -- the Caped Crusader has been around for almost seven decades. And The Joker is no joke, either, as an arch-villain.
So, bring on the Bat!'