"The Dark Knight" may technically be a Batman movie. But everyone knows that this comic-inspired sequel belongs to Heath Ledger, the Aussie actor who portrays the Joker with such memorable, maniacal relish that he may very well earn his second Academy Award nomination for the role.
Most also are aware that, sadly, Ledger died last January, a fact that put Warner Bros. in the awkward position of attempting to posthumously promote his work in the film without appearing to exploit the deceased. The studio undoubtedly struggled with that same delicate dance while putting together the DVD ($28.98 single disc; $34.99 special edition) and Blu-ray ($35.99) releases of "The Dark Knight," arriving in stores next Tuesday. Perhaps as a result, the discs' extras focus largely on the technical wizardry and special effects behind the box office smash and refrain completely from commenting on Ledger's passing or the impact it had on cast and crew.
Call me morbidly curious, but given all the speculation about the alleged toll that playing the Joker took on Ledger's psyche, I had hoped to see more behind-the-scenes footage of the star at work, or perhaps even a few on-set interviews. The absence of any extensive insight into his performance -- or even a brief tribute to his career -- leaves a gaping, undeniable hole at the center of these "Dark Knight" releases, one that I found hard to overlook.
Still, there are some solid reasons to recommend "The Dark Knight," including the quality of the movie itself. As the first feature film ever shot in part with Imax cameras, its dark, slick vision of Gotham transfers especially stunningly to Blu-ray. (The six Imax action sequences also appear on the second disc of the DVD special edition.) Frankly, getting to watch the knock-out, opening bank robbery sequence over and over again, in any format, is worth the cost of at least a rental, if not a purchase.
The strongest special features appear on Blu-ray in the 18, one-hour-plus "Gotham Uncovered" featurettes, which explain how the movie's wide array of explosions, Batmobile mash-ups and 18-wheeler flips were created for the big screen. All of the segments can be viewed individually or in tandem with the film itself, a particularly nice touch. (Only two of the featurettes show up on the DVD special edition.)
The rest of the Blu-ray extras include six episodes of "Gotham Tonight," the faux cable news show featured in the movie (these segments will be most enticing to fans of Anthony Michael Hall, who plays anchorman Mike Engel); photo galleries; a 46-minute, intermittently engaging documentary about the history behind Batman's gadgets; and a second 46-minute documentary about the psychology that motivates "The Dark Knight's" characters. (Allow me to summarize: The Joker is totally nuts. The end.)
The Blu-ray also promises a set of BD-Live features -- accessible via the player's Internet connection -- that, among other things, allow viewers to create their own commentary tracks. Cool, right? Well, it would have been if they weren't such a hassle to access. For some reason, Warner wants users to register on their Web site before they can dive into the bulk of the material, a process that wouldn't work when I tried. When I sent an e-mail to the studio's BD-Live support desk, it bounced back and said delivery had failed. (A Warner representative was looking into the issue but did not respond before deadline.)
Given how eager the studios are to encourage Blu-ray use, the folks at Warner Bros. sbould have made this process as easy and engaging as possible for consumers, especially on what may be their most anticipated release of the holiday season. I mean, come on. Any joker knows that.
Bonus Point Most Likely to Induce Vertigo: Several of the "Gothan Uncovered" featurettes deliver major adrenaline rushes, particularly "Hong Kong Jump," which shows stuntman Buster Reeves swan diving from the top of an enormous building in downtown Chicago while attached, via bungee cord, to a helicopter. The Chicago leap was merely a rehearsal for what would have been a jump during the Hong Kong shoot, one that ultimately got scrapped for reasons director Christopher Nolan describes as "bureaucratic." (Oh, and if you're wondering, Christian Bale really did stand on the precipice of that skyscraper in China. So don't ever say Batman lacks courage.)
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PHOTOS: 'The Dark Knight' -- Warner Bros.; 'Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian' -- Walt Disney Pictures