'Dark Knight' and Great Expectations

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HOLLYWOOD -- There weren't too many unforgettable moments at the MTV Movie Awards this year, but there was at least one: A faux "viral video" was shown with Robert Downey Jr. meeting a sullen teenager who had seen "Iron Man" three times. Downey is elated until the pudgy kid gives his review: "It'll do until 'Dark Knight' comes out."

That about sums up the intensity of genre fans who are treating the Christopher Nolan franchise as the most astute comic-book adaptation to date -- or at least a contender for that title with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" and Bryan Singer's "X-Men." "Batman Begins" took the familiar legend but rooted it in a more realistic Gotham than Burton ever presented and, in many ways, its nihilism pulls as much from Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" and Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" as it does any Saturday morning cartoon.

" 'Batman Begins' was about the process of Bruce Wayne finding himself and his purpose and making himself an instrument of that purpose," Nolan said. "The advantage of this second film is that he is now fully formed and we can go straight into the story."

"The Dark Knight" has political messaging in its themes of extreme measures taken in the face of terrorist threats, but Nolan would rather steer clear of too much analysis. Nevertheless, "The Dark Knight" will be parsed for political themes " Batman's trustworthy aide Alfred (Michael Caine) at one point rebukes his boss for trampling privacy rights in his fight against terrorism.

Plot security was intense during shoots in Chicago and Hong Kong to preserve "all the things we want the audience to see for the first time when they sit down in the theater in the dark," Nolan said. A major character is murdered, and, when the end credits roll, Batman is in a far darker place.

This much can be said: "The Dark Knight" finds a new political force in Gotham in Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, a crusading prosecutor played by Aaron Eckhart, and a deranged new criminal in Heath Ledger's mysterious Joker. Batman, meanwhile, is ready to hang up his cowl after watching the distorted shadows cast by his growing street legend. Back from the first film are cast members Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, while Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes. For Nolan, the movie is an unsettling crime film, not a super-hero escapade.

"I think in the past there have been movies in the genre, even movies made by very good directors, where there comes a moment where you realize they do take what they are doing seriously," Nolan said. "The approach we have is take the tropes and iconography of the action-hero genre and ground it in a reality. Real life is more tactile, more threatening, more emotional. The experience is amplified. I very much consider it my job to entertain the audience. I learned some things watching 'Batman Begins' in a crowded theater with the audience. ... I don't make movies for myself."


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