But Nolan had to deal with the most difficult element in a superhero franchise: the origin. Having gotten that out of the way, and with some time to think things over, he has now made what will, at least until his next film, be considered the best Batman film of all, and one of the most thoughtfully conceived superhero projects ever produced.
The Dark Night has everything you want in a Bat-movie. First off, Nolan covers all of the major philosophical issues associated with Batman (Christian Bale), easily the most philosophical of superheroes: the nature of Batman's motivation, the side effects of his actions, the way his influence can be malignant, that he exceeds reasonable and moral limits in the pursuit of unreasonable and immoral people, and that what he does may be, at heart, indecent. And yet at no point does the film become preachy or pretentious. Nor are the ideas given short shrift; though often introduced in dialogue, they're all carried out in action, and the story provides enough ambiguity that the story can't be reduced to a simple parable.
Further, and most strikingly, Nolan has completely rethought the visual aesthetic of the Batman movies, and has improved on it in ways that Tim Burton could never have imagined. Instead of going for the fantasy sets that have appeared in all of the previous films (including Begins, with its hidden monasteries and retro-futuristic rail system), The Dark Knight is shot entirely on found locations. Nonetheless, it maintains a strong visual identity. There's a recurring motif of long, low rooms with lit ceilings. Shot in extreme widescreen (the film will be shown in both normal and IMAX theaters), these scenes are breathtaking and evocative of the hidden, illicit power that both Batman and his enemies share. Then there are the gritty street scenes, where the low ceilings convert to cement overpasses and trash-strewn roadways. These are combined with gorgeous helicopter shots of Gotham's skyline (Chicago stands in for Batman's hometown here) and Hong Kong at night.
It should be noted that, though Batman does wind up briefly in Hong Kong, the film improves on its predecessor by focusing strongly on street crime in Gotham. Batman, after all, is not Superman. His enemies have to be real criminals, and his weapons are not only his fighting skills, but his capacity as a detective to trace and follow the trail of crime to its head, something he can best do in a city he knows by heart.
But Batman wouldn't be Batman if his villains weren't, in some way, larger than life. Of all The Dark Knight's successful elements, the most forceful is the character of the Joker as performed by the late Heath Ledger. Nolan and Ledger completely rethought the Joker, beginning with his look. In previous incarnations, the character was done up in perfectly applied clown makeup. Ledger's Joker looks like he stole discount beauty products from Kmart and put them on in the dark. Which makes sense, because the Joker's not a beautician; he's a psychopathic killer.
And Ledger's performance is amazing. His Joker is calculating but clearly unbalanced. His motivations highlight problems in Batman's own character, and his actions are disturbed, disturbing and elaborate while still maintaining a strong, if sociopathic, internal logic. While Ledger was excellent in his previous films, the Joker is a much more difficult character than he had to deal with before. It's too easy to create a cartoon character with the Joker, as Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson did in the role. Ledger tops them not by simply playing the part naturalistically, but by creating a character whose mind has become as distorted and exaggerated as a comic book while his actions must take place in a world where violence has consequences.
This is a tremendously violent film that you shouldn't take young children to see. But then, Batman's character has, right from the beginning, been about some unpleasant issues. Nolan deals with them here, fronting a story about the borderline amorality of an illegal hero like Batman, and the licitly heroic actions of Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). As Batman inspires copycat vigilantes, Dent tries to control a crime-ridden city by ethical means. Their interdependence becomes a point of tension, which rises throughout this very tightly paced film.
The tension is highlighted by the score from James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. While both of these composers have tended, of late, to sound a little too much like John Williams, in this film, they put their occasionally manipulative sensibilities to good use, subtly and repeatedly enhancing the innate suspense in the script.
The film's only flaws come from putting perhaps too many twists in the long plot, and from giving the Joker a sometimes supernatural ability to cause mischief, threatening to derail the suspension of disbelief that's always so precarious in a superhero movie. But these are minor points compared to the overall smarts, good looks and consistency of the film.