Heath Ledger in The Dark KnightTHE DARK KNIGHT

The buzz on Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight may start to wane by the time the late actor is awarded the Oscar for it, but the effects of this performance are likely to be felt for years, if not decades.

How, after seeing Ledger's work here, can the filmmakers behind subsequent comic-book adaptations content themselves merely with blandly money- or power-hungry megalomaniacs as their films' chief villains? How could audiences accept them? What Ledger does in director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins is deeper than a re-interpretation, and given the actor's tragic passing, it's even deeper than a cementation of his now-legendary status. Terrifying yet hilarious, wildly outsize yet devastatingly subtle, and at all times alive with the sheer playfulness of acting, Ledger's Joker has raised the bar for all future screen super-villains, and quite possibly, for all future screen stars.

A few hours after seeing The Dark Knight, I called a friend to tell him how incredible the actor was in it, and he asked whether I thought Ledger was legitimately great, or whether I thought he was great because he died. That might sound tasteless, but it seemed a fair question; our appreciation of Ledger's performance can't help but be affected by knowing there won't be any more in the offing. (Excepting, that is, whatever performance Terry Gilliam can forge out of the scenes Ledger completed for the director's forthcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But let's be honest - it's Gilliam, so I'm not completely confident that the movie will be released.)

I can't imagine, though, that Ledger's Joker would somehow be less astounding were the actor still with us - like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview, this performance is an instant classic. Finding worlds of depravity in his deliberately flat Midwestern cadences, Ledger - barely recognizable behind his character's scars and nightmarish make-up - speaks with an insinuating directness that suggests abject moral decay, and his herky-jerky physicality and facial tics keep you on constant edge. From moment to moment, you never know what he's going to say or do, which perfectly befits the conception that Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan have devised; this is a creature whose only one and only agenda is to cause mayhem. (In a magnificent throwaway, the Joker sets fire to millions of dollars that characters - including the Joker - have spent most of the movie trying to amass.)

It's a horrifying conceit that speaks directly to our current, collective mood of unease and instability, but neither the Nolans nor Ledger have any intention on punishing the audience with this sadistic figure; from his first (unexpected) appearance in The Dark Knight's dazzling prelude - surely one of the most exhilarating, unpredictable bank robberies ever committed to film - this Joker is majestically entertaining. Choose for yourself your favorite scary/funny moment, but right now I'm torn between his contrasting sick-joke monologues on how he received his scars, his stymied frustration after a series of explosives don't detonate as planned, and his magic trick involving a pencil. ("Ta da!") I should have it figured out after four or five more viewings.

In case you hadn't heard, though, there are a few reasons to check out The Dark Knight beyond its über-villain, the most basic being that it's awfully damned good. Not perfect, mind you. At 150 minutes, it's at least 20 too long, which wouldn't be that bothersome if you didn't keep thinking it needed to be longer; seemingly essential characters vanish without warning or reason, and a few sequences end well before they should. (After Batman rescues Rachel from her skyscraper tumble, what happens in the penthouse? Does the Joker quietly leave without incident?) A sidebar trek to Hong Kong leads to little except some lovely visuals. A few of the Gotham City chase scenes are so generically loud and oppressive that even Ledger gets lost in them. And I'm sorry, but Christian Bale's husky Batman murmur still sounds like a vaguely parodistic, and subsequently distracting, Clint Eastwood impression.

No matter. Nolan's staging and composition are, for the most part, spectacular, with Wally Pfister's moody, evocative cinematography even better - I can't wait to see this thing on an IMAX screen. And the movie features more excellent performances, perhaps, than any film in its genre ever has; Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart (fantastic as Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal (an indescribable improvement over Katie Holmes), and Bale - in Bruce Wayne garb, at least - are all superb.

Considering the technical virtuosity and emotional wallop of The Dark Knight, the cinematic-comic-book genre finally has its Titanic, with all the grandeur and overindulgence that implies. (Happily, it's considerably smarter than Titanic.) I do, however, realize that I've given short shrift to the film as a whole in favor of Heath Ledger's contributions to it, for which I hope I'll be forgiven - this performance, as you've likely discovered for yourselves by now, is just too extraordinary not to obsess over.

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