'Dark Knight' begins prod'n early next year

The Bat will fly again as Warner Bros. announced it’s starting production early next year on “The Dark Knight.”

Heath Ledger has signed to play the Joker in the sixth Batpic, with Christian Bale back as the Caped Crusader and Christopher Nolan returning to the director’s chair.

Jonah Nolan — the helmer’s brother — is penning the script based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer.

“The Dark Knight” will be produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan.

“Batman Begins,” the franchise’s first installment in eight years, took in $205 million domestically and $166 million overseas.

Monday’s announcement comes amid a less-than-stellar summer for the studio following releases of “Poseidon,” “Superman Returns” and “Lady in the Water.”

Warner didn’t disclose whether Legendary Pictures would finance “The Dark Knight.” Legendary put up half the financing for both “Batman Begins” and “Superman Returns.”

With production starting next winter, it’s likely “The Dark Knight” will be slotted into the summer 2008 lineup.

Two pics are already sitting on the first weekend of May 2008 — the 22nd James Bond feature, from Sony/MGM, and “Iron Man,” from Marvel and Paramount. Disney’s next “Chronicles of Narnia” installment is also expected for release that summer.

Bale was most recently seen in Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” Ledger was nommed for a best actor Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain.”

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