It's impossible to know how Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight might have been perceived had the actor lived to see the film's opening. His wildly different approach to the Joker ''totally fearless'' is how director Christopher Nolan described it in an interview on the set last year would surely have drawn attention anyway, if only for the deeply creepy clown makeup splattered all over Ledger's face. But the star's death adds a tragic resonance to the turn that nobody could have anticipated. Already there is talk in Hollywood about a posthumous Oscar.
Of course, The Dark Knight was intended to be one of this summer's biggest sequels. Picking up the story line from Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins and revisiting that film's gloomy, contemplative tone it once again stars Christian Bale as the brooding caped crusader, with Michael Caine returning as butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman as inventor Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman as Lieut. Gordon. This time, though, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne's love interest) and Aaron Eckhart enters the picture as DA Harvey Dent (a.k.a. Two-Face). Expect the usual eye-popping Bat-action, including a chase scene with a sleek new Bat-pod, much of it shot the old-fashioned way, with real actors and real explosions.
Still, there's no denying that Ledger's death has made The Dark Knight an Event Movie of an altogether different sort one of the last screen performances by a young actor who had already earned one Oscar nomination (for Brokeback Mountain) and who seemed destined for a career filled with more. Even before his death, Ledger's casting in Jack Nicholson's former role was one of the most intriguing aspects of this production. ''I knew from the first day on the set that Heath was going to totally redefine the Joker,'' says Eckhart. ''He just really got into it and took the character to the limit. He went for it. I know the film is going to be perceived differently now, but that could be a good thing. You know, maybe it'll just make people think about Heath's talent.'' (July 18)