LOS ANGELES – As the box-office bankroll climbed for "The Dark Knight" last summer, the Hollywood consensus was that a posthumous nomination for Heath Ledger was the Batman blockbuster's best Academy Awards hope.
Now that critics have gotten a peek at all the last-minute Oscar contenders, "The Dark Knight" has emerged as a solid contender for best picture and best director for Christopher Nolan.
Web sites such as TheEnvelope.com and Awardsdaily.com rank Nolan and Ledger among key Oscar contenders and list "The Dark Knight" alongside best-picture possibilities such as Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," Gus Van Sant's "Milk" and David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
"Far be it for me to try and predict, and I think that anybody looks like a (jerk) if you really try to predict what people are going to vote for. But certainly, for me, I think that the serious contenders in this movie in my mind are Heath, Chris for director because he's done an extraordinary job, and I do believe best picture, as well," "Dark Knight" star Christian Bale said Wednesday night at a cocktail reception for the filmmakers and critics.
It's unusual for an action flick to climb into the company of Hollywood's year-end prestige pictures, with Oscar voters tending toward highbrow literary works rather than comic-book adaptations. Among the action films that made the best-picture cut at the Oscars were the three "Lord of the Rings" movies and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
But building on the critical and commercial success of 2005's "Batman Begins," the sequel elevated the superhero genre to a new high, with critics ranking "The Dark Knight" as one of the year's best films.
"It is a genre movie, but I think it goes beyond it with the themes in this movie," said "Dark Knight" co-star Aaron Eckhart. "It's an important movie sociologically. I feel like in this day and age, with terrorism and with the cancers of the city and people trying to find a voice within their own city, this is an important film.
"But it's a Batman film, so it has that going for it. It has that going against it."
With about $1 billion in worldwide theatrical grosses, "The Dark Knight" arrives on home video Tuesday, two days before the Golden Globe nominations, where the movie could gain some Oscar momentum if it scores well there.
Ledger, who died in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose, is considered a likely supporting-actor nominee for his diabolical performance as Batman nemesis the Joker. Oscar nominations come out Jan. 22, the one-year anniversary of Ledger's death.
"I'd like to think he would be very quietly proud of the fact that people really responded to it in the way he'd intended, were moved by the performance," Nolan said. "As far as Heath goes, any and every validation of the success of his performance is a great source of pride to me and relief to me that I've done my end of getting his performance out there."