by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & e've been waiting three years for a follow-up to Batman Begins, but the wait was worth it. That's because The Dark Knight joins the exalted ranks of sequels that are even better than their originals: We're talkin' Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day here, folks.

Anybody hoping to be knocked out by stylish director Christopher Nolan's second film in this destined-to-be-three-or-more-films series is in for a treat, one that'll leave them a little dizzy -- and hungry for more -- by the time the dark, satisfying ending rolls around.

There's that word again: "dark." It's in the title, and it perfectly covers the mood of this bigger, louder, more exciting, more brooding tale of life and death in Gotham City.

Kicking off with a blazing bank robbery that turns out to be engineered by a purple-wearing, greasy-haired, white-faced, really strange fellow who calls himself the Joker (Heath Ledger), this is also far more intense than the first film. We're never told how far after the original this one takes place, but Gotham City has again fallen into crime-ridden disarray, and prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from Katie Holmes -- good move!) has started dating Gotham's new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is so tough, so brave, possibly so foolhardy in his campaign to clean up the streets, some have started referring to him as "Gotham's white knight."

There are lots of stories going on here: those of Lucius Fox's (Morgan Freeman) constant contributions to his boss Bruce Wayne's never-ending demand for cool crime-fighting gadgets; of better-than-your-average-butler Alfred's (Michael Caine) ability to remain a voice of reason for both Batman and Bruce Wayne; and of Rachel's inability to figure out who she really loves -- Harvey or Bruce.

But there's a well-earned possibility that those stories will remain on the back burner of viewers' minds once the late Ledger launches into his portrayal of the Joker. Everything that everyone has hinted at or heard about Ledger's performance has, in actuality, been an exercise in understatement. When he's onscreen, whether he's talking in a quiet, sing-songy voice, or roaring out a threat or showing off a cycle of nervous tics or smug attitude, whether he's edgily licking his lips or giggling or darting his eyes around the room while talking to just one person, he owns the film.

The character is both very funny and extremely scary -- an especially bright man who's gone way off the edge yet displays an understandable but demented logic. He is, as Alfred suggests to Bruce, one of those people "who just want to watch the world burn."

But let's not take anything away from Christian Bale's slick Bruce Wayne and forlorn but dangerous Batman. He's just as fearless as the Joker, and perhaps even more vicious and violent toward adversaries. But Batman lives by a sole rule -- not to kill anyone -- and the Joker is an unrepentant sadist, ever ready to slice up someone's face, just as his was once sliced.

Bale also gives his alter-ego characters a sense that they're far more troubled this time. He's concerned and confused about his possible future with Rachel; about crime running rampant, headed up by someone who's seemingly unstoppable; about his reason for existing and accompanying thoughts about maybe hanging up the cape and cowl.

That's another helping of the film's darkness. It only seems to turn bright -- literally -- when the screen is lit up by plentiful explosions. But that's an exaggeration. Chris Nolan knows full well that a movie must also entertain, so he sprinkles this one liberally with small, sparkling bits of humor. And when the action takes to the streets, usually in fast-moving, often one-of-a-kind vehicles, forget about even thinking of taking or catching a breath. There are also additional villains -- one from the first movie in a minor role near the start, and another whose importance to the story grows after some hideous physical and painful emotional disfigurement.

The film, running at about two and a half hours, might feel a little long to some viewers. I wish it had lasted three.


Rated PG-13

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal

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