There are many ways to anticipate The Dark Knight. You can assemble a fake plot out of the numerous clips circulating the web, you can stitch together adorable bat-toys, or just rewatch Christopher Nolan's first entry in the Batman franchise. However, there's a lot more to this sprawling, nearly three hour rush of furious confrontations and haunting corruption. The greatest Batman stories emphasize the character's shadowy nature, and Nolan pulls from many of them to create the intensely moody aura of the latest film. You don't need to know anything about the character to enjoy the movie, but it certainly expands the experience to do some research -- and allows for a greater appreciation of the filmmaker's efforts to honor the nature of the character.
Here's a look at some antecedents to the current interpretation from the last two decades.
1. The Killing Joke (1988)
Legendary comic book scribe Alan Moore penned this one-shot, a brief, conventional story of Batman facing down the Joker that nonetheless remains memorable for its fantastic interpretation of the Joker and his relationship to Batman. Two scenes stand out: A numbingly violet late night visit by the Joker to Batman buddy Jim Gordon's home, when the Joker harms a member of the police commissioners family, and an eerie epilogue following the climax during which the Joker explains his senseless corruption with oddly compelling timing. The Joker is certainly a psychopath, but he's still a funny guy.
2. Batman: The Long Halloween (1997)
Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale made this unforgettable story of Gotham City getting plagued by a mysterious killer named Holiday with the stuff of nightmares. Just like The Dark Knight, there's more being explored here than simply Batman and his personal woes: Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, the Joker terrorizes a family on Christmas Day, and Gotham's preeminent crime family, the Falcones, struggle to sustain their power when faced down by an evil so strange and outlandish they don't understand its potential. And so they lose.
3. The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
In Frank Miller's near-future classic, Bruce Wayne has grown old and weary of his Batman antics and needs a new strategy. Gradually rising to help a city that won't get fixed with ordinary police work, Wayne breaks all the rules and invents some new ones to restore a new order to the town -- Batman's. In doing so, he faces off with Superman, creating one of the finest battles in comic book history.
4. Batman: The Animated Series (1992 - 1995)
Quite possibly the strongest interpretation of Batman in moving image format, this marvelously grown-up series owes much to co-creator Bruce Timm's love for art deco, which he infused in the visual design of the show. However, it's the writing that really shines in nearly every episode, as all the great Batman stories receive their quintessential treatments. Even Robin haters would like his bleak origin tale, and the (appropriately) two-part Two-Face story combines elements of classic horror films and Greek tragedy without getting too heavy-handed. Unfortunately, the network clamped down on the series during its later incarnation and forced it to become less violent (and hence less exciting), so you're better off with the earlier seasons.
5. Batman: Year One (1987)
Miller's version of the Batman origin story gets it better than most by ramping up the depravity of Gotham City's criminal problem and emphasizing the hero's early relationship with do-gooder Jim Gordon, whose infant Batman manages to save in a frightening climax that provides, in a slightly different format, the finale of The Dark Knight.
6. Batman Returns (1992)
Not everyone loves Tim Burton's take on the character (the biggest complaint seems to revolve around the slim storylines), but I've always been captivated by this sequel's hyperstylized interpretation of Batman's world, where the entire universe seems predicated on gothic traditions. It's also got a monstrously spot-on performance by Danny DeVito as the Penguin, a conniving freak straight out of a Todd Browning movie -- or, for that matter, The Dark Knight. Jack Nicholson's Joker looks downright goofy compared to Ledger's mannered antagonist, but nobody out there could possibly outdo DeVito's kooky felon.
7. Batman: Ego (2000)
Comics writer Darwin Cooke started out as a storyboard artist for Batman: The Animated Series, and you can see it in this harrowing Joker tale (a one-sheet available in the collection of the same same). Akin to The Killing Joke, the revelation about the Joker in Batman: Ego is that you can't defeat him simply by putting the guy behind bars. As long as his anarchistic needs are satisfied, he wins. And that makes him virtually unbeatable.