The first thing to say is that this is an excellent movie. The second is to ask whether it's as good as it should be.
On many levels, the answer to that question is 'yes'. 'The Dark Knight' is a deep, richly textured, brilliantly acted and shot film, packed with exhilarating set-pieces and genuine heart-pounding moments. Unlike many a superhero movie, it possesses a genuine tension, and is not forced to rely on the ersatz shock value of 'big-bang' surprises (although there are plenty of those too).
It is slightly disappointing simply because the most crucial element, the story, does not match up to the rest of the film. Basically, it is weakly constructed and unbalanced with a bloated and unsatisfying coda that diminishes a lot of what went before. So, although the ride is undoubtedly a thrill, the full-blooded satisfaction you get from seeing a truly great movie - something this had the potential to be - eludes it.
'The Dark Knight' opens with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Bale) closing in on the remnants of Gotham's crime fraternity. With the help of campaigning district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart), who is playing his part by prosecuting the criminals in court, the criminals are on the run and desperate. Minor problems - such as copycat Batmans (Batmen?) and the usual relationship issues - persist, but all in all, things are under control to the point that Batman is considering making himself redundant.
But. A new villain, The Joker (Ledger), enters the fray and unlike the criminals he has replaced, he is not governed by any discernible moral code or goals. Chaos - a desire to "watch the world burn" as Alfred (Caine) puts it - is his sole motivation. It soon becomes clear that The Joker has taken 'the game' to the next level; the question is whether he will force Batman to do the same.
A desperate game of brinksmanship - including a trip to China for an 'extraordinary rendition' and an unbearably tense 'double bind' hostage scenario - ensue. At the same time, a Wayne Enterprises employee closes in on Batman's secret. The moral issues each crisis raises are to the fore, with the players constantly being challenged to examine their own motivations and core beliefs.
The intentional resonances with post-9/11 society are skilfully managed; no easy solutions are proffered. All in all, there's lots going on and most of it is very entertaining. Heath Ledger's Joker dominates the screen whenever he appears, really getting the film humming through what is a mesmerising performance. It is Ledger that the film has to thank for the pervasive sense that everything is on the line.
Read a review of Heath Ledger's performance here.
Christian Bale is once again a superior Batman, while Maggie Gyllenhaal is a charismatic and empowered Rachel Dawes. Gary Oldman's Gordon is also very satisfyingly played, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman again make successes of their turns as Batman's other helpers.
So, what's not to like?
It's not the length alone, it's that ‘The Dark Knight’ breaks the oldest rule of showbiz and fails to leave the audience wanting more.