The late Heath Ledger chillingly remoulds the familiar character of The Joker
By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News
New Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight sees the legendary superhero confront a familiar foe.
But The Caped Crusader's battle with The Joker takes on a gritty reality in director Christopher Nolan's very sombre - and at times unnerving - new twist to an old tale.
Batman is played with brooding intensity by Christian Bale, while The Joker is reinvented by the late Heath Ledger as a twitching, evil psychopath smothered in gruesome, smeared make-up.
British-born Nolan says reviving The Joker was an important part of keeping the franchise exciting and "challenging" to the audience.
Christian Bale effectively captures Batman's duality
"Batman has always thrived on reinvention and it was very exciting to look in a very fresh way at a character who is almost as iconic as Batman himself," he says.
"The Joker was always designed to cut through the movie like the shark does in Jaws, and with his evil energy he tests all the other characters," adds the film-maker.
The Joker wreaks havoc across Gotham City with no apparent aim, leading to spectacular explosions, high-rise confrontations and a spine-chilling character study from Ledger.
Nolan said the actor developed into the role "organically" as the project progressed.
"You could see him take on one thing at a time, a particular prop or item of clothing and you would see the movements and the character's energy develop.
"He'd figured out how to approach this character and was very excited and confident," explains the director.
Ledger's performance has created a wave of excitement and praise from his co-stars, including Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent and is involved in a tense, pivotal scene with the deranged Joker.
"Filming with Heath was my favourite part of the movie, just to watch him work. I felt like we went into that day not knowing what we were going to get and coming out with something that was satisfying."
Nolan adds: "It's been a great relief to me to see people respond to his performance in every way he intended it to affect people. He would be very proud of it."
Sir Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne's trusty butler Alfred, cites a subtle moment from Ledger in a movie full of spectacle as his favourite.
"As the Joker, Heath sees Rachel [Maggie Gyllenhaal] and says 'here is a beautiful woman' and makes a very feminine gesture by flicking his hair.
The film contains some spectacular stunts
"His look at her was so masculine but he made a very feminine movement. It was amazing," says the Oscar winner.
Nolan chooses the "satisfying" ending of the film as his best moment - although he refuses to speculate on making a sequel to The Dark Knight.
"We certainly haven't saved anything for another film. We've put everything we wanted to see in this story into this movie.
"But then I had no thought of making the second one while I was making Batman Begins," he adds.
The film is also rich in slick and masculine gadgetry - and to Christian Bale's relief, his batsuit was updated for the new film.
"I could breathe better and do more. The old one gave me migraines. It was a desire of mine to be able to turn my head and have a little more motion to it," he says.
"And it was easier to press!" quips Sir Michael, his faithful manservant in the movie.
The legendary British star says he felt from an early stage that The Dark Knight would prove to be box office gold.
"I saw the completed movie and said, 'Uh-oh, there's something special here.'
"I thought this is going to make more money than any movie I've ever made - and it's done more than any three movies I've ever made!"
Nolan says he "never viewed the movie as a superhero film" and does not compare it to recent comic book-style releases such as Iron Man.
He adds that being in the same category as five other superhero films could have hindered its box office progress.
But with its dark, sweeping storyline and striking sense of realism, it is easy to set this film apart.
The Dark Knight is now showing in the UK and in North America.