SPOILERS follow for 'The Dark Knight'
Right now there are a lot of hyperbolic reviews and commentary swirling around The Dark Knight, and specifically Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, to the extent that you wonder how any film could possibly live up those kind of expectations. This movie does. You're never left wondering how, or why; it is grand cinema, from artists in their prime, and in one tragic case, the final furious statement of a gifted actor. TDK is not the Citizen Kane of comic book movies; to call it a comic book movie, or place it in that context is diminishing it. The film actually operates primarily in the crime movie genre, and has more in common with films like The Godfather, in its bredth and scope (a staggering cast of characters, multiple plot arcs, the city as a character - and Chicago - I mean, um, Gotham - has never been so interesting) and also Heat, which it actually has the most in common with.
TDK is also not the Empire Strikes Back of modern movies. That is primarily because its predecessor, Batman Begins, is not Star Wars. Begins was a great movie, hampered by certain comic book conceits that this movie does away with entirely. This movie, TDK, is Star Wars. It changes your head, and makes everything from here on out - its successors, both imitators and its own sure sequels - tethered to its accomplishments. One can't help but think that Christopher Nolan will find himself unable to top this; you won't fault him for it, because Heath Ledger sets such a high bar that all anyone else can do is stand there and look at it. I could go on about the intricacies of his performance - the manic tongue, the voice, electricity he generated anytime he's on screen - but it's simple enough to say he is the Joker, and his Joker is the strangest, scariest and funniest of all of them.
He overshadows many other fantastic performances, Christian Bale of course, but more importantly, Aaron Eckhart, who is actually the focal point of the movie as new Gotham DA Harvey Dent. We all know Harvey's future, but it's no less tragic to watch a good man brought so low. In TDK, good men do the wrong things for the right reasons. They spy. They kidnap. They take money from the mob to pay hospital bills. They lie. They fake their deaths, even to their own families. They take the fall for someone else. We live in a world where good men have been doing bad things for years now. You reap what you sow. In TDK, all that Batman has wrought, for good, and for bad, comes due and he reaps the whirlwind.
I haven't yet mentioned the action sequences. Normally in summer movies that's the first thing out, and that tells you what kind of movie this is. There is one stunning one, a chase between a semi and cop cars and eventually the Batmobile. The Batpod, the bike you see in the trailers, makes a stunning debut and does some gravity defying things that will please your geek soul. Also, enjoy the IMAX eye candy, which even in regular 35mm invites vistas you've rarely seen. Bravo.