"The Dark Knight" is one of the most anticipated movies of 2008, and for months Batman fans have been debating the film's biggest wild card: the choice of Heath Ledger as the Joker, a role that comes with the considerable challenge of filling the clown shoes so memorably worn by Jack Nicholson back in 1989.
If the first six minutes of the film -- shown Tuesday night in an invitation-only sneak preview at the Bridge Cinema's IMAX -- are any indication, Ledger and director Christopher Nolan have come up with a grim new interpretation of the villain that is no laughing matter.
"I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you . . . stranger," Ledger says as he stands over an employee during a bloody heist at Gotham National Bank. His white-chalk complexion and green hair are there, but this scarred-up Joker looks more like the title character from "The Crow" than like Clarabell.
The footage was shown in IMAX 2-D and the event was attended by Nolan, who welcomed a small audience with a brief description of the IMAX process and described it as something he's wanted to use for 15 years. Afterward he lingered at a reception and chatted about his return to Gotham and the characters who populate that world.
"Heath's Joker is like none we've seen before, but it's also very true to the iconography of this character," Nolan said. "His work is very compelling, and it's not easy to describe what Heath has accomplished with it . . . we don't know much about the Joker's past. He is more interesting in the present, I think . . . he's relentless, he tears through the movie like the shark in 'Jaws.' "
The opening sequence, one of five scenes in the movie that were specially filmed for the IMAX format, will be shown as a preview at screenings of "I Am Legend," which stars Will Smith and opens Dec. 14.
Arriving in July, "Dark Knight" is the sequel to "Batman Begins" from summer 2005. That Nolan film was widely hailed for taking the caped crusader, with Christian Bale in the cape, toward a sort of gothic James Bond vibe as opposed to the bloated and campy versions of the hero that reached the screen in the 1990s. As in the previous Nolan film, the opening of "Dark Knight" shows a more realistic Gotham than the macabre funhouse imagery of Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman."
Also different from the Burton and Nicholson portrayal of the Joker: There is no back story here; the clown criminal arrives on screen this time as a fully formed villain with a mysterious background.
In addition to Bale as Batman, the film again stars Michael Caine as Alfred, the hero's dutiful butler; Morgan Freeman as weapon-designer Lucius Fox; and Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, the one good cop in a bad city. Katie Holmes is absent this time, replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Aaron Eckhart portrays Harvey Dent, the Gotham district attorney who will become the disfigured villain Two-Face; and Eric Roberts and Anthony Michael Hall also join the cast.
Ledger's Joker has jagged, facial scars at the corners of his mouth -- picture the type of scars you might get if you fell on your face while you had a knife clenched in your teeth and then had the wound stitched up by an amateur surgeon. And though the Joker as portrayed by Nicholson has permanently whitened skin and green hair because of an unplanned chemical bath, this version of the villain is a sociopath who wears only "war paint" makeup, as one of his doomed henchmen describes it in the opening sequence, and his stringy hair is a more subdued spinach-tint.
The Joker first appeared in comics in 1940 as a leering and sadistic killer, and his disturbing visage was based, according to Batman creator Bob Kane, on the rictus grin and wild eyes of Conrad Veidt's character in the 1928 film "The Man Who Laughs." Through the next few decades in comics, he became more of a Dick Tracy-style villain with a penchant for theatrical gadgets and elaborate crimes. Nolan said he wanted to get back to the mysterious and malevolent roots of the character.
"I can't wait for people to see what Heath has done with this character, and this opening sequence, which is intended to stand on its own as a mini-movie, gives people a taste of that," Nolan said.
Cillian Murphy, who played the villain Scarecrow in "Batman Begins," is also in the cast credits, but Nolan only smirked when asked if that suggested that Batman would have three villains to deal with this time around. "He is in the film briefly, yes, but I don't want to give away all of our surprises."