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Even before shooting had wrapped on “The Dark Knight” last year, the movie already seemed destined to become the defining film of the 2008 summer season. Anticipation was building for director Christopher Nolan’s sequel to his well-received “Batman Begins,” which had salvaged the durable Batman saga from the pop-culture junkyard of passe camp and made Gotham City hip and menacing.


Then the tragic death of Heath Ledger in January ramped up public curiosity about the actor’s performance as the villainous Joker. And the early, rapturous reviews of “The Dark Knight” that have surfaced on the Internet over the past two weeks have amplified the movie’s pre-release buzz into a loud roar.


When “The Dark Knight” finally opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday, it stands an excellent chance of dethroning “Spider-Man” as the highest-grossing comic-book movie of all time. But even if it comes up short, the movie will have accomplished something else: marking a definitive turning point in the rapidly growing genre of comic-book superhero movies.


Although many films based on graphic novels have proven the literary and intellectual possibility of the genre (“A History of Violence,” “The Road to Perdition,” “300”), superhero movies still tend to trade in visceral thrills and high-flying adventure. Even in sophisticated films such as the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” trilogies, metaphors on everything from the pain of adolescence to the perils of racism and prejudice were relegated to the deep background, never to get in the way of the popcorn thrills.


But “The Dark Knight,” which really is as dark as its title implies, feels different: Here is a superhero film in which the hero is not always able to rush in and save the day, where a pasty-faced anarchist threatens to blow up a hospital - and succeeds - and where death and danger do more than just threaten major characters.


It is the adult tone of “The Dark Knight” - arguably the first comic-book movie whose PG-13 rating should be taken seriously - that is likely to fuel its popularity at the box office.


“Popular culture is doing things today that are much more ambitious from a storytelling and thematic standpoint than they were doing a century ago,” says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “Comic books have been moving into much more literary territory for a while now, because the superhero genre is a good one to enact an immediate response to changes in a culture’s zeitgeist.


“And so you now have an entire generation of filmmakers who have never struggled with the idea of the superhero genre taking on serious themes,” Thompson says. “They’ve just assumed it from the very beginning. They’ve grown up with the idea that a comic can be as serious as a novel or a symphony. Superhero movies have been a huge beneficiary of that.”


The plot of “The Dark Knight” may sound like business as usual: Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his alter-ego Batman team up with the police commissioner (Gary Oldman) to take down a gaudy, flashy troublemaker who wears face paint, calls himself The Joker and is wreaking havoc in Gotham City.


But the gravity with which director Nolan approaches this familiar scenario is a noticeable departure from traditional superhero movies, which accentuate the fantastical elements of their stories via gee-whiz special effects and a prevailing tone of “Isn’t this fun?” Even more than “Batman Begins,” which already displayed an uncommonly somber tone, “The Dark Knight” often feels like a straightforward crime-drama - one peppered with occasional appearances by men in outlandish costumes.


“I really wanted to push the sense of realism much, much further than we did on the first film,” Nolan says. “For ‘Batman Begins,’ we shot on real locations for one month. This time we shot in Chicago for four months, using real streets and real interiors instead of sound stages. My overriding instinct is that if things feel more real and tactile, then the thrills and action become more exciting, and the emotional impact of the story is magnified. That was crucial, because we’re actually shifting genres slightly from the first film. This one is more of a crime epic that sprawls across an entire city, like Michael Mann’s ‘Heat.’ That’s the feel we were going for.”


Running 2 ½ hours, “The Dark Knight” has its share of sensational action sequences, all shot with IMAX cameras (a first for a feature-length Hollywood film). For all its serious intent, “The Dark Knight” is still, first and foremost, grade-A escapism.


But the script, which Nolan co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, is an unusually thoughtful meditation on our collective day-to-day struggle against corruption and how, in an increasingly anarchic world, it is getting harder to play always by the rules. As Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart), a straight-arrow politician, tells Batman: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You’re wrong.”


“It feels like there’s something futile in an attempt to play by the rules when the rules have all been pulled down around you,” Nolan says. “It’s really a question of to what extent are you hampering yourself in the fight against evil by adhering to the tenets of good? Batman is the most dangerous of superheroes because he’s driven by anger and the desire for revenge. How far can you go before you cease to be on the side of good?”


Nolan stops short of saying that “The Dark Knight” is intended as a commentary on modern-day world affairs and the U.S. war on terrorism.


“We wanted to give story elements real weight and write about the things that frighten us,” Nolan says. “We live in the same world as everyone else. But I wouldn’t necessarily want the film to be interpreted as a specific political statement.”


But the fact that such a reading of “The Dark Knight” is even possible is a testament to the overall maturity of the film.


“The Dark Knight” is not the only summer movie to shake up the long-held standards of the comic-book superhero film. The unlikely casting of Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist Tony Stark in “Iron Man” drew audiences that might have never even considered the movie, turning it into the biggest hit of the summer thus far, having grossed more than even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”


Although “Iron Man” follows the template of countless superhero films before it - it is a straightforward “origin” story - the movie also has the sparkle and wit of an A-list Hollywood production, with a supporting cast (Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow) to match.


Then there’s Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which opened Friday. A sequel to 2005’s “Hellboy,” which was a modest hit but far from a sensation, the movie takes an opposite approach to realism, embracing its genre roots with such fervor that it becomes a thrilling fantasia of ogres, fairies and trolls. But what makes “Hellboy II” so transporting is not just its visuals but the way in which the movie anchors them with resonance. Like a classic fairy tale, “Hellboy II” uses monsters to illustrate the unstoppable nature of love and the way in which men, like any animals, will fight to the death to protect their own.


“One of my favorite artists is Roy Lichtenstein, because of the way he showed form can really be content,” Del Toro says. “He basically took a single comic book panel, blew it up onto a large canvas and then literally changed its entire meaning with his mere gaze. That’s the same thing that’s happening with a lot of genre and comic-book films being made today. Many of the people who are making these films are artists, just like Lichtenstein, are doing a lot more with the movies than just putting on a good action sequence.”


Whether or not audiences can appreciate the artistry of a “Hellboy II” remains to be seen. But the $85 million movie is proof that in Hollywood, the comic-book superhero genre is no longer being seen as just a cash cow that ebbs and flows according to ever-changing popular tastes.


“These superhero movies are all formulaic stories at heart, and they’re all really well known,” says Chad Hartigan, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations, a box office tracking firm. “In most cases, there’s only so much wiggle room. So it’s not surprising that filmmakers are starting to tinker with what is possible within the genre and the directions in which they can take the movies. No one doubts ‘The Dark Knight’ is going to be really big, because it looks less like a superhero movie and more like ‘American Gangster’ - cops versus robbers led by huge stars. The excitement around that movie almost has nothing to do with Batman himself.”

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