So finally the next Batman film, The Dark Knight, lurches into theaters this Friday. Anticipation is intense, as Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's reboot of the franchise, was such a dark success. Of course, though, the real reason to see the film is Heath Ledger as uber villain The Joker. The buddingly talented actor died all too young in a SoHo apartment this past winter, leaving this as his last complete performance. So yeah, that's all we really care about when surveying the early reviews (we already know that Christian Bale will be gruff and brooding, Morgan Freeman sage and weary, Maggie Gyllenhaal unsurprisingly better than Katie Holmes, the film as a whole loud and jangly). So what do the critics say? Mostly, that he's fantastic. The increasingly-irrelevant Peter Travers, of Rolling Stone, calls the performance "mad-crazy-brilliant." The Davids Edelstein and Denby worry that Ledger stepped perhaps too far into the abyss to access the character. Basically, we're excited. Read a digest of the reviews after the jump.

  • "Nolan was wise enough, however, to give Ledger plenty of room to shine - albeit in the actor's indelibly perverse, twisted way. There's nothing cartoony about his Joker. Ledger wrested the role from previous performers Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson and reinvented it completely." [AP]
  • "Ledger's performance is a beauty. His Joker has a slow cadence of speech, as if weighing words for maximum mischief and contempt. He moves languidly as if to savor his dark deeds, his head and body jerking at times from an overload of brain impulses." [THR]
  • "It's a stupendously creepy performance, wild but never over the top. He cuts a figure so dangerous that you wonder if Batman is up to the task-or if our hero himself will have to become as ruthless as his foe. When you're fighting an enemy who plays by no rules, do you have to abandon your own moral code to vanquish him?" [Newsweek]
  • "I can only speak superlatives of Ledger, who is mad-crazy-blazing brilliant as the Joker. Miles from Jack Nicholson's broadly funny take on the role in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Ledger takes the role to the shadows, where even what's comic is hardly a relief. No plastic mask for Ledger; his face is caked with moldy makeup that highlights the red scar of a grin, the grungy hair and the yellowing teeth of a hound fresh out of hell. To the clown prince of crime, a knife is preferable to a gun, the better to 'savor the moment.'" [Rolling Stone]
  • "How is Heath Ledger? My heart went out to him. He's working so very hard to fill the void, to be doing something every second. It's rave and rage and purge acting. This Joker is a straight-out psychopath-a Stephen King clown-demon with smudged greasepaint and yellow teeth and hair that appears to have never been washed. As written, the Joker is like a souped-up Andy Robinson in Dirty Harry (only this Harry won't blow him away with a .44 Magnum), and Ledger revs it higher and higher. He bugs his eyes and licks compulsively at the gashes that extend his mouth. He tries on different voices. First he sounds like Cagney in White Heat, then slides into a prissy singsong like Al Franken's Stuart Smalley, then throws in some fruity Brando flourishes and a dash of Hannibal Lecter. He's lethal-fast with sharp objects-but apart from a gruesome bit with a pencil not terribly prankish. I couldn't take my eyes off him, but in truth, I found the performance painful to watch. Scarier than what the Joker does to anyone onscreen is what Ledger must have been doing to himself-trying to find the center of a character without a dream of one." [NYMag]
  • "[Bale's is] a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone's face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He's part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He's mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in 'Brokeback Mountain.' It's a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery. At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you're watching him, you can't help wondering-in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism-how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss." [New Yorker]