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Joker glows in ‘Dark Knight’

Heath Ledger's performance getting buzz

The Joker’s been a real wild card for Warner Bros. and “The Dark Knight.” But as the film’s bow nears, the studio is betting big that the dark villain of “Dark Knight” is a big draw.

After focusing the first phase of its marketing campaign around the maniacal villain in “The Dark Knight,” Warners faced an awkward challenge when Heath Ledger, who portrays the purple-clad killer, died in January.

The studio said then that it would eventually transition its marketing materials to revolve more around Batman.

But now, just weeks before the pic flies into theaters July 18, a new batch of materials — from billboards and bus-stop ads to TV spots and trailers — still have Ledger’s character menacing moviegoers with his creepy makeup-covered face as the centerpiece.

Even the film’s online viral campaign hasn’t steered away from the Jok-er, as the character takes over websites with his signature “HA! HA! HA!” laugh or unleashes new clues to fans.

Batman, to be sure, is featured in ads, but he almost takes a backseat to his arch nemesis.

The film itself pays tribute to Ledger in the final credits, and Ledger’s perf is described by some who’ve seen the film as a tour de force. An early review from Peter Travers in Rolling Stone gushes, calling him “mad-crazy-blazing brilliant,” an actor who takes the role to “shadows, where even what’s comic is hardly a relief.”

So it’s no surprise the WB is using Ledger as much as it can, no matter how dark the visuals may be. After all, that’s the point: The Joker isn’t Mr. Nice Guy.

Warners praised Ledger’s perf at Cinema Expo last week, with Monique Esclavissat, exec VP of European distribution for Warner Bros Pictures Intl., calling it “very disturbing and mesmerizing.” She said that the untimely death of the actor hadn’t altered the marketing of the pic in foreign territories.

“The Dark Knight,” which carries a PG-13 rating, maintains the serious tone of “Batman Begins,” says producer Chuck Roven. “Every parent needs to be their own guide on a PG-13 movie, he says, “(but) I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody under 10.”

“With “Batman Begins” there was a conscious decision to take the character back to his dark roots,” Roven says. “The desire to explore Batman’s dark side was “what interested (Chris Nolan) in making the property.”

Ledger’s Joker has been amply exposed in the promo campaign, giving parents a clear idea of just how scary this movie might be.

And Warner Bros. consumer products division is ready for that. The studio points out that there are two strains of merchandising related to the character: general Batman merchandise, which may be aimed at younger kids; and “The Dark Knight” tie-ins, which skew older.

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