Using Batman Begins' epilogue as a jumping-off point, The Dark Knight finds Lieutenant Gordon's (Gary Oldman) warning to Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) about the threat of escalation manifested in the Joker (Heath Ledger), who emerges without a past or explanation with a single-minded, anarchic purpose. Let me tell you what you already know: Ledger is mesmerizing as the Joker, a Nietzschian force of nature worthy of mention alongside all-time great movie villains from Hans Becker to Anton Chigurh. An early scene where the Joker makes a pencil disappear elicited spontaneous applause from the audience, and deservedly so - it's impossible to take your eyes off Ledger whenever he's onscreen, and to attribute this to his untimely death is both crass and inaccurate. The hissing tongue, the Jimmy Stewart from Mars voice, the ugly-duckling way he walks in the nurse's uniform (probably my favorite moment) and every other detail he gives the Joker are more than a bag of self-conscious actorly quirks. Ledger's performance is a triumph of extremes that succeeds in making us believe in a villain who is both completely mad and frighteningly logical about his identity and purpose - when the Joker tells Batman "You complete me," we're left with the disturbing implication that in this round of good vs. evil, the bad guy has the upper hand.
This Joker provides more than enough conflict for one movie, but he's just the prime mover of Nolan and his brother Jonathan's marvelous, intricately plotted script. A bank manager (William Fichtner) complains that criminals used to believe in something; this Gotham is a city of dying ideals, and its good guys are measured by how they protect these ideals while still effectively doing their jobs. At the heart The Dark Knight is the contrast between idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, less showy than Ledger but just as effective) and Wayne (Bale, underrated for his subtle work here), who accepts his own corruption as a means to an end. The choices these two men, as well as Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, endearingly square), Dent's girlfriend/Wayne's former squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal - upgrade!) make are never simple, and Nolan doesn't provide us with easy answers. In a time when big-budget movies are designed to be as reassuring to an audience's assumptions as possible, it's sort of amazing that Nolan was able to make a superhero movie this complex. Gotham (as played, stunningly, by Chicago) is a labyrinth of moral ambiguity, and Nolan challenges us to question our own assumptions about heroism and decency in a way that couldn't be more relevant (I'm only beginning to process the film's many layers of meaning).
But while mine is one in a sea of raves for The Dark Knight, I was confused by the number of reviews that claim the movie is no fun. It's wildly fun, almost dangerously so since most of the film's most entertaining moments arise from the shock of how far Nolan lets his Joker go. Balancing dazzlingly executed action sequences with carefully composed emotional beats (Gyllenhaal's delivery of the word "Listen" kills me). It's exhausting in the end, to be sure, but only because it's such a complete moviegoing experience - immersive, visceral, technically perfect (DP Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard all deliver their best work) and flat-out astounding. Nolan reveals an ambition unseen not only in most comic book adaptations but in most movies, period. It feels like his entire career has been building to this, as he reveals himself to be one of the great cinematic storytellers, and The Dark Knight an unqualified masterpiece.