Batmobile rolls into town for premiere of 'Dark Knight'

Huge crowds, a red carpet snaking the length of Leicester Square and celebrities galore. This, though, was no ordinary film premiere – the first sign of that being the two-ton black Batmobile that crawled slowly through the streets of the West End before pulling up at a Bat-emblazoned Odeon theatre to offload its A-list cast.

And something else served to remind the VIPs and thousands of fans penned behind crash barriers that the European premiere of The Dark Knight was no regular screening: the dozens of RIP placards.

Heath Ledger's role as Batman's nemesis, The Joker, was his last full film role before dying in February this year, aged 28, of an accidental prescription drug overdose. He has been tipped for a posthumous Oscar since the film opened last week in New York. And the crowd last night was no place to find voices moderating that hype. Commuters interrupting their journeys home and loyal fans watched spellbound as huge screens played clips of Ledger in action.

The other stars of the film, Christian Bale – who reprises his incarnation as Bruce Wayne/Batman – Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman all attended. Journalists were asked not to press the actors too much on their tragic co-star.

Bale said the success of the film had been an "incredible surprise" to him. "Most of the movies that I've done have bombed," he told reporters. "I've been referred to as 'box-office poison' quite a lot." The actor added that it felt "almost inappropriate" that Ledger could not be with them: "His portrayal is really iconic. He's done a far more fascinating version of The Joker than anything I've ever seen before. He was a wonderful friend."

Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne's butler and father- figure, Alfred Pennyworth, said: "We've gone through the mourning [period] for Heath and we're now in the tribute. When I saw the movie on screen I was completely blown away by the performance – I think it's one of the best performances of a villain I've ever seen. And he's also funny, and clever. He was such a wonderful actor – what a pity, eh?"

Another of Ledger's co-stars, Maggie Gyllenhaal,said that working with him had been "inspiring" and that his performance warranted a posthumous Oscar nomination.

"In a way I feel funny thinking about Oscars because he isn't alive. But at the same time, I am a member of the Academy and I will vote for him," she said.

Among the celebrities walking the red carpet was the model Daisy Lowe and her music producer boyfriend, Mark Ronson, the television presenter Alexa Chung and Gary Lineker.

One of the fans packed behind the barriers was Gerry Mayo, who arrived three hours earlyto secure his spot. "I'll be first in the queue to watch the film when it goes on general release on Thursday. I've had my ticket booked for ages," he said. "But I had to be here. I'm a massive fan of Morgan Freeman and when you put a talent like his alongside Christian Bale and Heath Ledger you are guaranteed a good film. These guys have really brought the characters alive. I just wanted to tell them that."

The Dark Knight took a record $158.3m (£79.2m) at the box office on its opening weekend, beating the previous best of $151.1m set by Spider-Man 3 in May 2007.