It was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman — still the greatest of all comic book adaptations — was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a saga that’s as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. Christian Bale, a talented thespian who makes humorlessness look less like a performer’s choice and more like an established school of acting, was a logical choice to play millionaire Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego. In this outing, Batman and his ally, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, like many others a returning cast member), have done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who control Gotham City. They’re aided in their efforts by a newcomer: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an idealistic district attorney who’s championed as the one man who can save the city from its criminal elements. Batman/Bruce Wayne initially has his doubts -- and his jealousies, as Dent’s dating his longtime love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, thankfully replacing Batman Begins’ Katie Holmes in the role) -- but he soon realizes that the D.A.’s intentions are on the level. But their combined attempts to corral the city’s crooks are hampered by the presence of The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychopath whose lack of a master scheme is what makes him an especially potent villain; Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) sums up the mindset of such men by declaring how some people commit evil just because they “want to watch the world burn.” Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture’s most fully realized characterization. Still, we all know who’s the MVP of this particular show. Even if he hadn’t tragically died this past January, Ledger would have been the talk of the town -- any town -- for his remarkable turn as The Joker. Deprived of a back story and thus denied any possibility for even an ounce of audience sympathy, this lunatic is a whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin. Ledger makes the character as scary as possible, and if we laugh at the manner in which he, say, slicks back his hair as he prepares to tangle with Rachel or performs a magic trick by making a pencil disappear (in gruesome fashion), it’s a laugh of sweaty unease, an involuntary chuckle designed to convince the character that we’re as cracked as he is, lest he leap from the screen in disapproval and practice his chaos theory on us. Ledger’s work is so mesmerizing that he has us believing The Joker could indeed penetrate that fourth wall. Now that’s a great performance.
Meryl Streep fans and ABBA fans can at least count on those two components firing on all cylinders in this adaptation of the Broadway smash. Everyone else, though, may be forced to rummage through the debris that constitutes the rest of the picture to find anything worth salvaging. Anybody who saw Streep’s terrific, Oscar-nominated performance in 1990’s Postcards from the Edge knows she can belt out a tune (she also tackled some songs in A Prairie Home Companion), and here she’s aptly cast as Donna, a former singer raising her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) at her hotel property located on a lovely Greek island. Sophie’s about to get married to hunky Sky (dull Dominic Cooper), but first she’s determined to learn the identity of her father. After sneaking a peek at her mom’s old diary, Sophie invites to her wedding the three men who all had carnal relations with her mom two decades earlier, hoping to ascertain which one is actually daddy dearest. The three men are suave Sam (Pierce Brosnan), uptight Harry (Colin Firth) and rascally Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and as long as the actors essaying the roles stick to walking and talking, they’re fun to watch. But whenever one of them is called upon to sing, be prepared to duck and cover as their aural ineptitude bombards our eardrums. In fact, Streep is one of only two people who can apparently hold a note in this film. The other is Broadway star Christine Baranski, but her musical appeal is negated by the fact that she’s insufferable as Donna’s perpetually horny friend Tanya. Director Phyllida Lloyd helmed Mamma Mia! on stage, and bringing her to the screen as part of the package deal was the worst thing that could have happened to this production. There’s no reason this motion picture couldn’t contain all the effulgence and expertise of other musical adaptations like Hairspray and Chicago, but Lloyd appears to be so blissfully ignorant of the dynamics of moviemaking that, aside from the songs themselves, there’s little joy to be found in the musical numbers. The clumsy camerawork, editing and staging all diminish rather than enhance the perceived showstoppers, and the choreography ranks among the most dreadful I’ve ever witnessed in a big-budget musical -- especially check out the dance steps of the hunky boys on the pier and tell me if a sixth grade theater class couldn’t have produced the same herky-jerky moves for their annual fundraising musical held in the school gym. Mamma Mia! registers as the biggest disappointment of the summer movie season, though that probably won’t stop it from raking in plenty of (to lift an ABBA song title) “Money, Money, Money” at the box office. Meanwhile, one of last year’s best films, the Beatles-catalogue musical Across the Universe, failed to find much of an audience during its theatrical run. Them’s the breaks in this business, of course, but these results nevertheless strike me as decidedly off-key.