The Darkest Knight
The film picks up where Begins left off - Batman's actions have led to an escalation of violence from the criminal fraternity. The opening bank robbery is a tense sequence and a neat way to introduce the Joker (though, as usual with psychotic villains, it makes one wonder why anyone would work for someone who kills all their goons).
This is soon followed by Batman in action and the brief return of the Scarecrow. It's amusing to see some Batman copycat vigilantes, clearly inspired by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. After some slow, but not boring scenes setting up the characters, there's a subplot with Batman tracking down a crooked Chinese businessman that feels more like a James Bond movie, but in a fun way. Generally, the action scenes are an improvement over the last film, but still a little incoherent. It's funny that two much-derided gadgets from Tim Burton's Batman Returns - the bat glider and the batmissile which shoots out of the Batmobile - are reworked successfully here by Christopher Nolan.
The middle section is the strongest part of the movie, with the Joker hatching increasingly demented plots while the trio of Batman, James Gordon and new DA Harvey Dent try their best to stop the city descending into anarchy. There's a genuinely shocking resolution when the Joker traps Dent and Rachel Dawes in separate locations with explosives and Batman can only save one of them (and even that one not completely).
The last act of the film is one that some critics have had problems with, and while it's still very good, it's true that the motivation for Harvey becoming Two-Face and turning against his friends is weak. It might have been better to introduce Dent in the last film, or have saved Two-Face for the sequel so we could get more hints of his dark side. There's also a surprisingly positive resolution of another Joker dilemma when he rigs two ferries with explosives (doesn't anyone check for bombs in Gotham?) and gives each boat the power to blow up the other. The ending, on the other hand, is powerfully downbeat.
Every element of the film is finely crafted. All of the performances are good. Christian Bale remains a strong physical presence, though his Batman voice is still ridiculously gruff (one thing that Michael Keaton did better). Heath Ledger gives the definitive Joker performance, and all the talk about a posthumous Oscar is not just hype. It's clear we lost a very special talent. The character is brilliantly psychotic, and pokes fun at pop psychology when he keeps telling a different story about how he got his scars.
Gary Oldman is excellent as Gordon, who in many ways is the true hero of the film since he's just a regular guy. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement over Kate Holmes, though her character is still little more than a plot device. Aaron Eckhart erases all painful memories of Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face, though his CG-enhanced make-up is a little distracting at times.
The music is impressive and the direction and editing even more so (despite the two and a half hour length, it doesn't feel overlong). Overall, it's about as dark a comic book movie as you could possibly imagine. I still slightly prefer the characters in Batman Returns, but in all other respects this is definitely the best Batman movie. Speaking of Returns, it's amusing that sixteen years ago, that film was considered too dark by parents, but now we have a Batman movie breaking box office records despite definitely not being suitable for kids. How times change.