Heath Ledger, in the second instalment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, gave us one of the great villains of movie history, a demented clown who channels the chaos bubbling beneath our civilised society.
His Joker is not as physically imposing as Christian Bale's Dark Knight. Yet Ledger's crazed carny disturbs because his evil is rooted in human frailty, a busted doll (hence the smudged make-up) discarded by society and out for revenge.
Ledger's performance is so funny and ferocious that the actor being passed the bad-guy baton in the new Batman movie, fast-rising British star Tom Hardy, was always doomed to toil in the late Oscar-winner's shadow.
What's amazing, however, is the extent to which Nolan hobbles Hardy on the latest episode, making him wear a mask that covers half his character's face and distorting his voice through the same kind of vocal manipulator used by Batman.
Hardy works hard to impose himself on The Dark Knight Rises, playing the bald-headed, muscle-bound thug Bane, using a florid upper-crust British accent to taunt his enemies and his brawn to pound Batman into submission.
But the electronic facial codpiece and the actorly growl (he sounds like Sir Ian McKellen doing Darth Vader as a party trick) is laughably old-fashioned and annoying rather than powerful and fearsome, depriving The Dark Knight Rises of a charismatic villain to match the movie's enormous ambition and its several astonishing action sequences.
Indeed, Hardy's Bane is the least interesting comic-book movie bad guy in memory, a hammy bore that won't stop pontificating yet never persuasively lays out the reasons why he and his rogue army is justified in laying waste to Gotham.
Without a charismatic villain, this final instalment in Nolan's Batman trilogy, while brimming with moral weight, political urgency, powerhouse confrontations and breathtaking imagery, ultimately lacks the richness and emotional force of The Dark Knight.
Still there is plenty to keep us interested during the film's almost three hours, beginning with the spectacular James Bond-inspired opening in which Bane and his cohorts hijack a plane - from the outside - carrying the Russian scientist who knows how to turn Bruce Wayne's miracle power generator into a nuclear weapon.
Picking up almost decade after the last movie, The Dark Night Rises sees Batman living in gilded seclusion. He's hung up the bat suit because the Dark Knight is now despised by Gotham. He's blamed for the death of crusading lawman Harvey Dent.
When Wayne's fingerprints are stolen by Catwoman (a wonderfully sexy and wry Anne Hathaway) and his fortune stolen by Bane during a stunningly staged raid on Gotham's stock exchange, the billionaire superhero must again don the disguise and come to the rescue of a city that doesn't want him.
That brief summary doesn't begin to describe the narrative sprawl of The Dark Knight Rises, with Nolan piling on the characters and subplots to make sure audiences know they're not watching another cheesy caped-crusader flick but The Godfather of comic-book movies, a serious-minded epic with a lot to say about post-9/11, post-Occupy Wall Street America.
And it certainly grabs you in sequence after sequence, with Nolan eschewing the heavy use of CGI to orchestrate a series of jaw-dropping large-scale Michael Mann-inspired action scenes in the city streets that remind us what we've been missing in this era of synthetic digital movie-making. Nolan also keeps the gunplay down - Batman has vowed not to kill but you sense Nolan, too, is concerned about this American disease. Instead Batman and Bane slug it out like two street brawlers, giving the film a shocking visceral quality a universe away from the Marvel movies.
Unfortunately Nolan, while widely considered one of the great contemporary directors, has always been a rotten screenwriter (all of his films are 40 minutes too long).So rather than drama and suspense, we get big dollops of windy exposition followed by breakneck action, then more talk, much of it incomprehensible and unengaging because of those damn vocal synthesisers worn by both antagonists (it's like battling FM radio announcers).
Also, the terrific idea of Bane tapping into the anti-capitalist and anti-establishment sentiment swirling in the underclass of Gotham - Nolan's Batman movies all mirror contemporary fears and grievances - never takes hold because of the clumsiness of his storytelling.
But these are complaints I've had about the previous two Nolan Batmans, even the one featuring Heath Ledger. It seems if you want to take the good Christopher Nolan, you have to swallow the bad, which, I guess, is the overall theme of The Dark Knight series.