It's taken almost 20 years for Hollywood to envision the kind of Batman that has appeared in the comics since the 1970s. First and foremost, The Dark Knight is an intense crime drama, with the broader superhero tropes underplayed. This is always how Batman has worked best on the page: more noirish grit, less fetishizing of the costume, less of the gothic alienation of the Tim Burton version. Beginning with a dramatic bank heist, the movie is so tautly paced it takes your breath away, reminding you what a sharp script, a dynamite ensemble cast and unified vision can do. We haven't seen this sort of blockbuster in awhile---one where the third act isn't predictable from the midst of the first. Having relaunched the franchise with Batman Begins in 2005, returning director Christopher Nolan---now joined by brother and co-scripter Jonathan---this time channels the visual style of Michael Mann's Heat and Collateral. A pulsating score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer (its theme established in the last picture), is used to much greater effect here, giving the aerial shots of Gotham City (Chicago standing in nicely, shot by Wally Pfister) a hypnotic darkness, even in daylight. For the first time, Gotham is uncomfortably recognizable as being in our world.
A good villain is essential, and Heath Ledger's psychopathic Joker is everything people have been saying he is: funny, frightening and totally magnetic. He helps establish our hero, as does Batman's own self-doubt and rage when organized crime and chaos threaten to capsize his city, and a new champion, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), rises to do what a masked vigilante can't. The situation gives Batman a tantalizing out, but also forces him to define his mission and his ethics.
The movie isn't perfect: The plotting in places is so dense it's almost overstuffed; the emotional conclusion comes 45 minutes before the actual end credits, with some scenes cut a little too tightly, and a few boiling-over subplots might have been best saved for the next installment. But when it works---and it does, for long sections---The Dark Knight simply soars.