NEW YORK — If the opening frames of "The Dark Knight" are any indication, Batman will have his hands full come June. The Joker is on the loose, and MTV News has seen just how devilishly maniacal and dangerous he can be.
On Monday night, a small crowd in New York gathered to watch the first six minutes of director Christopher Nolan's eagerly awaited sequel to "Batman Begins" and, holy extended trailer, the footage did not disappoint. Introduced by the beaming director and displayed on an 80-foot-tall IMAX screen, the opening of the film welcomed Heath Ledger's Joker to the Nolan/Batman universe.
And it was clear from the start, much as you might have loved Jack Nicholson's villain, the purple-clad bad man won't have the time or inclination to dance to Prince this time around. Nolan spoke at length with MTV News immediately prior to and following the special event, clearly proud of his new villain. "I think what Heath is doing is very adventurous," he said. "What he's doing is very radical. It's very much what I wanted. I knew I needed someone really fearless."
The opening sequence — specially filmed in the IMAX format, and set to debut December 14 with prints of "I Am Legend" in theaters — fulfilled a dream for Nolan, who said he had been wanting to shoot in the format for 15 years. "In the finished film, there will be four or five IMAX sequences," Nolan explained. He continued excitedly before the screening: "Everything about doing this in the IMAX format is trying to get that feeling back when I was a little kid when I'd sit in a movie theater and see images that were larger than life. That's what I'm trying to get back to with this material. I felt like introducing the Joker in this way because he's such a huge character [and it] would be a very fun thing to do."
But Nolan also revealed that not all the IMAX scenes will be action-filled. "Some of them are actually quiet scenes which pictorially we thought would be interesting. It's not all the slam-bam scenes," he said.
As the lights dimmed, the first images were revealed, of a gleaming and bright Gotham City. The camera moves in close on a building when suddenly the calm is shattered, quite literally, by a broken window. A group of clown-mask-clad robbers are about to seize a bank. They bicker about the mysterious man who has employed them. "Why do they call him the Joker?" one asks another. It's a refrain almost identical to those rooftop thugs who wonder about the mysterious "bat" in the opening frames of Tim Burton's "Batman."
Soon we are inside the bank as a tense standoff is under way. None of the employees resist, save one played by character-actor extraordinaire William Fichtner. This is a mob bank, we learn, and the wrong place to mess with, even for a group of seasoned criminals.
The controlled heist degenerates into a mess quickly enough, with each of the robbers mysteriously getting taken out. But it's not Batman knocking them off — rather, it's one of the robbers themselves. Just as the final two robbers are set to leave, one pulls a gun on the other. "I bet the Joker told you to kill me as soon as we loaded the cash," he says, clearly with the upper hand.
The eerily calm but playful response comes. "No, no, no. He killed the bus driver."
Before the gun-toting clown can finish asking, "What bus driver?," he is taken out by a school bus crashing into the bank. "School's out. Time to go!" screams the sole survivor of the gang.
All that remains for him is the bank employee (Fichtner) lying at his feet. By now we're pretty sure these are going to be his last words: "The criminals in this town used to believe in things. Honor. Respect. What do you believe in?" He screams it again, louder, "What do you believe in?"
And the mask comes off. The grinning, scarred face of the Joker is revealed at last. His face filled the 8-story-high screen as the clip played. "I believe whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you ...," he said. He pauses on the last word: " ... stranger."
As the Joker made his getaway, the sequence ended, but before the lights returned, the audience was treated to quick tantalizing flashes of the rest of the film. The Joker firing what looks to be an automatic weapon in a city street. Police Commissioner Gordon raising an ax dramatically. Batman whizzing by in his batpod. And finally, Gordon lowering the ax, destroying what we see now was the bat signal. Troubled times clearly await in Gotham. And it's clear who's to blame.
Nolan explained to MTV News that the Joker we meet in "The Dark Knight" is fully formed. Don't look for an origin story here. "To me, the Joker is an absolute," he said. "There are no shades of gray to him — maybe shades of purple. He's unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics."
Though there was no sign of much of the supporting cast in this extended preview, Nolan stressed there's much more to the story. Asked about Aaron Eckhart's Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, the director said "his story is in some ways the backbone of the film. [Bruce Wayne and Harvey] have an interesting relationship. They're friends and rivals."
And what about the caped crusader we left at the end of "Batman Begins"? Nolan explained that "he's a little more sure of himself" in the new film. "We didn't want him sitting around wrestling with the same angst. It's all-new angst," he laughed.
Nolan, who wrapped filming just two weeks ago, said he's shooting for a running time comparable to the first film's 140 minutes. Congratulated on the ambitious slam-bang start to his sequel, MTV News asked if the next six minutes could help but live up to the first. The director smiled and sighed nearly in unison. "That's what I'm working on now."
Check out everything we've got on "The Dark Knight."
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