Let us begin by shooting the giant elephant in the room: yes, Heath Ledger is actually that good, and people would still be saying he was that good even if he were alive. His work as the Joker is just about the finest imaginable, and one of the most intense, most dangerous performances of a psychopath ever captured on film (And I don't just mean dangerous for the actor - though obviously, it was that. This is the kind of intensity that is at least a little bit damaging even to the viewer). There are levels upon levels to his creation of the funniest & scariest villain in superhero movie history; he does not merely play the Joker, he transforms physically into the Joker. So many individual elements of the performance demand your attention that the eye and ear and brain can hardly keep track of them all: his lilting, nasal voice, based on tapes of ventriloquists; his walk, with his head slumped into his shoulders as far as it will go, while he plods heavily rather than striding; the outsized, fluid gestures he makes with his arms; his spot-on comedic timing (his character is a clown, after all); the inexplicable and terrifying thing he keeps doing with his tongue, darting out like a lizard's or a pedophile's; and his positively bloodcurdling laugh. If you, like me, thought that Mark Hamill in the animated series had the final word on the Joker's laugh, then you, like me, are going to be delighted to be proven completely wrong.
Is it the case that Ledger's performance is the very best thing about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the feel-shitty action movie of the summer? Hard to say. Like all great films - and The Dark Knight is a great film, all right, so obviously the best superhero movie ever that it seems silly to mention - it's hard to pull out one element and say that it's "the best" or "better" than some other part of the movie. What we can say is that Ledger's Joker, less a character and more an avatar of chaos, is at the center of what makes the movie so damn good, and it's hard to imagine the film having a fraction of the same impact without such an anchor.
Anyway, before I get into that, I'd like to at least pretend that I am capable of this thing called "critical objectivity," and go through the things that the movie doesn't do well, or at least doesn't do as well as Batman Begins. The chief of these, tragically, is that Wally Pfister's cinematography isn't nearly as brilliant as it was in the first film, or in The Prestige. I say this without having seen the film in IMAX, mind you, and I'm very much looking forward to doing so. But even a giant movie screen isn't going to change the fact that the photography isn't as coherent with the total film as it was in the last Batman picture, where it was one of the chief vehicles used to express the film's mood and theme. By all means, Pfister's work in The Dark Knight is the work of a great craftsman with finely-honed skills. Shocking how that could be a step down from his last two collaborations with Nolan.
Related, undoubtedly, to the less-commanding cinematography, the overall look of the film - its design, that is - doesn't fit very well with Begins, and in a way that generally tends to favor the first movie. Compared to the Burton and Schumacher films, Nolan's first take on Gotham was a very model of gritty realism, as shot and staged, there was still something vaguely otherworldly about it, like maybe it was a little too gritty - it was a nightmare that a city had about itself, maybe. The version of Gotham we see in The Dark Knight is a quite a bit cleaner, for reasons expressed in the script, and a whole lot earthier: it looks quite a lot like any city in the world. Particularly, it looks quite a lot like Chicago, where it was shot, and in a few scenes the attempt made to hide the fact was so sloppy that I'm compelled to assume that Nolan and returning production designer Nathan Crowley were paying some kind of tribute to their host city when they left so many signs with the word "Chicago" on them - to say nothing of the flags advertising the Lyric Opera - so prominently in view. But I don't mean to get all sidetracked: my complaint is that the magical realism in Begins is gone now. Where the first film took place in a mash-up of the '40s, '70s and '00s, the new one is set firmly in an urban center of 2008. Lastly, a nitpick: there is no reason I can imagine that the Wayne Building, with its lovely art deco El trains, should be replaced in this film, and it doesn't help that in the first film, the Wayne Building was played by 1 N LaSalle, one of the most iconic skyscrapers in Chicago.
A final point of comparison where The Dark Knight falls behind Begins is the least clear-cut, and probably more a matter of personal taste. The story in the first movie is a timeless, mythic fable about how Bruce Wayne, the tormented prince of Gotham, turned himself into the Batman, and in the process destroyed himself. As presented in the film, that arc takes on the air of a Greek tragedy. The newer film lacks such an obvious narrative spine to hang everything else upon, though I'm pretty sure it thinks it has one in the fall of Gotham's White Knight, Harvey Dent, and the painful decisions that fall forces Batman to make, to save his city.
Which is not to say that The Dark Knight doesn't have an effective narrative scope, just that it isn't so elemental as Begins. Instead of being an heroic epic, the sequel is something like an apocalypse myth. I'm not going to recount the plot, because I'm not even certain that I could; instead of a clear structure, The Dark Knight feels more like a jumble of things happening, and as time moves forward those things become increasingly nihilistic. It's all centered upon the Joker, who is here presented not as a criminal quipster (as he usually is), but as a force of pure, destructive insanity (as he is in the very best Joker stories). Inasmuch as there is an arc, it is something like this: a sequence in which Batman fights mundane evil, the Gotham mob; followed by a sequence of general mayhem; followed by a sequence of very personalised chaos. Without seemingly trying to, the Joker's madness narrows in on what, specifically, will most torment Batman.
It's easy and probably accurate to read the story here as a typical crime drama (Nolan has claimed Heat as an influence), though one where the hero wears a superhero costume, which is suddenly halted and redirected into a semi-plotless pageant of agony by a force that can't stand to see anything "typical" permitted to live. As the Joker directs what happens in The Dark Knight, so in a way does he direct the structure of the film; this, along with Ledger's incredible presence, is why he dominates the film despite appearing in, at most, thirty minute of the the two-and-a-half-hour running time.
I can't imagine that having to play the human element in this madness was terribly easy, but the non-Ledger actors in the film all acquit themselves finely. Christian Bale, given a significantly less-demanding arc to play than before, still proves himself to be the most inspired actor ever to don the cowl. Taking a hoary old device like the love triangle, Bale is good enough, and wounded enough, that the subplot actually works, and actually stings. The implication at the end of the first film, that Batman, having first destroyed Bruce Wayne, would discover that he would like to bring Wayne back to life, is given a hefty workout throughout The Dark Knight, and the actor thrives on it.
The supporting cast is as good or better than they were in Begins: Morgan Freeman is given less to do, but he has one of the best lines in the film and he delivers it well; Michael Caine's role and performance have not changed in the slightest; Gary Oldman's Lt. Jim Gordon gets his own hint of a tragic arc in this go-round, and whereas he was merely pleasing before, now I found his performance to be genuinely moving. Of the newcomers, Aaron Eckhart's idealistic Harvey Dent is played without flaw - indeed, for the first 100 minutes of the film, I'd say that Eckhart gives the finest performance of his career. When the totally unsurprising surprise comes, that Dent is disfigured and driven mad and becomes Two-Face, we're treated to some horrifyingly effective make-up, and a somewhat disappointing downshift; though he's incomparably better than Tommy Lee Jones was in the same role in Batman Forever, Eckhart is also nearly invisible next to Ledger, and though he plays every one of his Two-Face scenes exceedingly well - the character's coin-flipping gimmick has never seemed so fucking scary before - he doesn't blow the doors off the film, and so he's somewhat easy to forget. Lastly, the celebrated arrival of Maggie Gyllenhaal to a role originated by Katie Holmes; to be completely honest, I never disliked Holmes in the first film (she did fine with an underwritten part), and I am resolutely unconvinced that Gyllenhaal improves the character of Rachel Dawes in the slightest. Oh, she's fine in what continues to be an underwritten part, but she's still the weak link on the A-team.
But back to that apocalypse: if I made it sound like the film is not at all fun, I'm not sure that I treated it fairly - it's not completely un-fun. There are some funny lines and rousing setpieces, though fewer than in Begins, not a film noted for its good cheer. Frankly, The Dark Knight is a very exhausting film, the very opposite of escapism. Not because it is so long - for indeed, it feels hardly long enough, and though you feel every minute of the running-time (unlike e.g. the fleet Begins), this is because every minute counts, and when it's all over, you're kind of sad, like when Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is over. Of course, I forget that not everyone cares for Wagner, so you can feel free to substitute your own favorite 4+ hour opera into that simile.
Nolan has made a bit of a career for himself in making superhero movies - those can't-miss popcorn hits - into dour explorations of humanity's dark places, and to this I say: thank God and all the angels for Chris Nolan. Superheroes are, say it with me, Our Modern Mythology, but we maybe tend to forget that myths and epics are very bleak places to find yourself. Every myth foreshadows destruction, for the purpose of myth is not to give us a rollicking entertainment but to hold up a funhouse mirror to who we are as a people and where we are going because of it. Batman is the superhero Id, and it's not for nothing that he is called the Dark Knight, and not for nothing that Nolan chanced upon that title. Entertainment is entertaining and is a valuable thing, but The Dark Knight is something far more than just an entertainment; it is the most unsettling corners of the human psyche laid raw on a slab.