It’s difficult to separate the movie from its mystique.

Even under ordinary circumstances, “The Dark Knight” would have been one of the most hotly awaited movies of the summer. The loss of Heath Ledger to an accidental overdose in January has amplified the buzz around the film — and his crazed performance as the Joker — to extraordinary levels.

Nothing could possibly satisfy that kind of expectation. “The Dark Knight” comes pretty close.

Ambitious, explosive set pieces share screen time with meaty debates about good vs. evil and the nature of — and need for — a hero.

Batman (Christian Bale) has been that hero. Now, he’s not so sure he should be anymore. The new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), seems to be putting a dent in organized crime with help from Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman). Perhaps Batman should return to his “normal” life as billionaire Bruce Wayne.

There’s nothing cartoony about Ledger’s Joker.

Yes, he’s funny, wringing laughs from both clever one-liners and maniacally grand schemes. His attacks on Gotham grow larger each time, which makes him so genuinely disturbing.

It’s also a neat touch that his makeup, which looked like a slapdash effort from the start, steadily deteriorates, streaking, cracking and peeling away as the film progresses; it’s an outward manifestation of his psychological spiral.

As Batman, Bale seems more assured than ever. He’s consistently proven he’s capable of going to dark, scary places for his characters (see: “American Psycho,” “Rescue Dawn”) and this is no exception.

Also returning are Michael Caine as Bruce’s butler, Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as gadget guru Lucius Fox. Both veterans help anchor the movie. As for Oldman, he disappears into the role of Lt. Gordon and makes you forget he’s acting.

As Dent, Eckhart’s subtle enough to keep us guessing until nearly the end as to where his morals and allegiances truly lie (though eventually he will become the villainous Two-Face, as we know).

But the key showdown, of course, is between Batman and the Joker. Theirs is a relationship that’s strangely symbiotic. Or as the Joker puts it, “You and I could do this forever.”

If only.


PG-13 for some sex-related comments. 108 min. Two stars out of four.

ABBA songs are, of course, evil.

Just try getting “Dancing Queen” out of your head once it’s burrowed its way in there.

But “Mamma Mia” might be the most tenacious tune in the 1970s Swedish pop group’s canon. The insanely catchy hit inspired a hugely successful Broadway musical a decade ago and now is the basis for a big, summer movie.

“Mamma Mia!” is a massive mess, but it’s fun, especially if you’re not in the mood for thinking too hard. If it works on any level at all, it’s through the sheer radiance of Meryl Streep, clearly having a blast letting loose as its star, the former rocker chick Donna.

Watching the woman who is considered the greatest actress of our time writhing around in overalls on top of a barn or belting out numbers in a spandex jumpsuit and platform boots can indeed be a hoot.

And she can indeed sing — a talent that’s been on display in bits and pieces in previous movies, most recently “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Amanda Seyfried (“Mean Girls,” “Big Love”) is also solid as her daughter, Sophie, who is getting married on a Greek island and invites three of Donna’s former flames to determine which one is her father.

Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are splashy scene-stealers as Donna’s best friends and former backup singers, but not everyone fares so well.

Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard should never be allowed to sing in public again — unless it’s karaoke night and copious amounts of alcohol are involved.

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