STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you break away from the television, your movie choices include one opening today that is inspired by a comic book. Kenneth Turan has our review.

KENNETH TURAN: "The Dark Knight," the new Batman film with Christian Bale in the title role, may be the most hopeless, despairing comic-book movie in memory. It creates a world where being a superhero is at best a double-edged sword and no triumph is likely to be anything but short-lived.

Because superhero movies are only as strong as their villains, a good part of the credit for the film's success goes to the late Heath Ledger. He gives a transfixing performance as Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker, a god of chaos whose hardcore nihilism is bone-chilling. He is a different kind of evil than we're used to - very different.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Dark Knight")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER (As The Joker): This town deserves a better class of criminal, and I'm going to give it them. Tell your men they work for me now. This is my city.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) I won't work for a freak.

Mr. LEDGER: (As The Joker) Why don't we cut you up into little pieces and feed you to your pooches, hmm? And then we'll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.

TURAN: With Christopher Nolan as director, "The Dark Knight" moves briskly along, even at 2 hours and 32 minutes. Nolan has increased the intensity by shooting several of the film's action sequences - including the flipping of an 18-wheel, 40-foot tractor-trailer - with a large-frame IMAX camera, giving them an extra sharpness.

The Joker's first official words on screen are: What doesn't kill you makes you stranger. With his disfigured face, his white makeup, coal-black eyes and smeared red lips, he is as strange and sadistic as it gets.

It's what he represents, not what he looks like, that is finally the horror of The Joker. He has no scruples, no morals, no goal except anarchy, no plan except the end of planning. As the movie carefully explains, some men aren't looking for anything logical; some men just want to watch the world burn. That's quite a challenge for Batman, and for us.

INSKEEP: Ken Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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