Preface/Disclaimer: I love Batman Begins. Love it. Don’t have enough of a problem with the third act to raise a stink both based on the impeccable first and second acts and the understanding that a movie relaunching a major franchise needs to think about commerce and putting asses in seats and smiles on faces as much as it does setting a higher bar for the medium.

The Dark Knight is a gigantic movie. Long, sprawling, and dense. Far more layered and complex than any comic book feature that has come before and obviously treated with extreme care by the creators, studio, and associated bean counters to ensure an experience that is both a mainstream piece of entertainment as well as a selection of finely tuned art that just happens to be a Comic Book Movie. Due to the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film as well as the considerable hype and press on the film due to the untimely death of Heath Ledger, this is one of the few unmissable films of 2008. It is being touted as a masterpiece and one of the rare sequels that not only surpasses the original but one of the great movies of its kind of all time.

It isn’t. But it’s still quite good. Very good in fact. A tweak in the editing room and the culling of fifteen or so minutes and The Dark Knight could very well be the benchmark for how to transcend the medium. In a summer with the gleefully mainstream classic Iron Man [which I have already seen five times in the theater] and the offbeat and wildly creative Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Dark Knight is yet another in a series of very strong and progressive adaptations doing their best to turn the corner from being large scale pulp adaptations to the Hollywood’s most elite products.

As it stands, the film is quite special but where some films can weather extraneous or padded scenes, The Dark Knight has some distracting bloat to it which keeps it out of masterpiece territory.

The first film ended with a playing card showing up in the hands of the authorities, signaling the arrival of the dreaded Joker, a scheming maniac using Gotham City’s underworld like so many small-time puppets. The new film arrives with the Batman established and his alter ego Bruce Wayne honing his craft and rebuilding his lair (which was burned in Begins) while alternating between the playboy lifestyle and taking out the trash. New on the scene is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, the only man who should be considered to play Captain America), a District Attorney whose ideals and incorruptible spirit have the potential to do more for Gotham than Batman’s vigilante ways. They represent possible salvation for the troubled city, but when the Joker sets his plan into motion all bets are off. What follows is a layered and rich comic book movie that dares to push the boundaries just enough to allow the gray area that makes these characters special a lot closer to black.

Batman is one of the great conflicted characters and more than any other before it this film revels in it. He loves to make a difference, enjoys the thrill of the chase and the combat that lends the mystique to the shadowy hero but also feels he’s going about it the wrong way, adding to the problem rather than solving it. Additionally he’s living the life of Bruce Wayne, trying to reconcile the two and keep his well funded and high tech secret in the best costumes and gadgetry his wealth can allow without jeopardizing the whole house of cards. When Harvey Dent begins to accomplish more with words and well-planned stings than Batman can with his tactics, the conflict becomes even greater. Even with his allies behind the scenes [Michael Caine’s stately Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s nerdy realist Lucius Fox] and on the city payroll [including a much better utilized Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon], the masked detective has nowhere near the range. Tugging further is Bruce Wayne’s longing for a real life, who is single and longing to reconcile with longtime sweetheart Rachel Dawes [Maggie Gyllenhaal, quickly making us forget Katie Holmes’ take on the character]. It’s fun to watch the Batman struggle for an answer even though we know the outcome. A lot of the credit goes to Christian Bale, who treats the role like any other meaty acting opportunity rather than the commerce between real gigs. He’s confident in the role, able to pull off any of the many quirks required to flesh out the intense hero as well as the billionaire playboy and the nuances in his quieter moments with Caine and Ledger do a lot of the film’s heavy lifting for it. When in costume he’s also extremely effective but his gruff vocal take on Batman comes off a little too forced and sometimes goofy to totally work. There are moments where he’s nearly unintelligible, and the same sort of suspension of disbelief one needs to be watching a film like this in the first place needs to be in play regarding the voice of Batman. I understand that there’s a secret identity to protect but I’d rather the audience split hairs over whether it sounds obviously like Bruce Wayne than make fun of his tough guy Batman voice. Still, Bale is the perfect Batman. Great at the physical work, terrific out of costume, and someone who allows other actors to really bring their best work out without having to carry what is essentially the straight man of the piece. Make no mistake, Batman is beginning to show some of the cracks in his sanity but in a universe populated with very colorful characters you need a Christian Bale keeping everybody honest.

Then there’s the Joker.

Even if Heath Ledger had survived, the inclusion of the Joker and how he compared to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Hamill would be the number one draw to the film and I’m glad to say that Ledger has created the definitive version of the character. I personally am not a fan of the Joker and find him often grating and overused foil for Batman but there’s no denying his place in history and to many people the first film’s Achilles Heel was the lack of the signature Batman villain. Ledger has some moments where he gets to ham it up but his [and Nolan’s] incarnation of the character is much more obtuse and fiendish and truly in love with his chaotic impulses than Jack Nicholson’s famous, distracting take. He truly makes you believe that for him the thrill of the game isn’t the outcome but the ride there. He is a master schemer, manipulating all and doing it well. The plot here involving the Joker playing the Gotham mobsters [including Eric Roberts!]  against each other is fine, though awfully generic and had Ledger not really created a superior character it could have felt a little benign. Thankfully, there’s a lot of fun moments to be had and enough bodies to fill the set pieces to qualify this as a superhero movie. That said, the film’s real gold, the real bread and butter of the story, is when the Joker and Batman square off not physically but as two sides of a coin. The wisest decision to be made with a film about Batman and Joker is to not just create two characters and have them square off but rather focus on their similarities and create a very meaty dynamic between them. This film does that very well, and the best moments here aren’t the handful of IMAX-shot action sequences nor that big clashes between heroes and villains but when two outcasts with drastically different approaches have conversations.

Conversations are the secret weapon of comic book movies. In the past, the smaller moments were simple connective tissue, moments to allow the audience members to get a snack or hit the bathroom. Willem Dafoe speaking to himself in the mirror in Spider-Man, Professor X and Magneto discussing their plight in X-Men 2, and Tony Stark and Obidiah Stane discussing how to handle their newly discovered tech in Iron Men keep the excessive special effects and trailer moments from bludgeoning the audience into submission and remind us these are character stories. The most memorable moments in Batman Begins were of Liam Neeson and Christian Bale talking and not because the action scenes were bad [though they weren’t great]. In the past filmmakers recreated the action of comic books and the look of them, or tried wildly and often unsuccessfully to veer away from them. They’d copy story arcs and famous moments but never linger on the meat and potatoes that sold the action or twists or fancy costume changes. The Dark Knight is at its best when it slows down the action and dwells on the character moments and there’s a lot to choose from. These actors are first class and run with some very good writing, primarily supplied by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan.

The balancing act between a large group of characters has sunk many films in this genre and though this film has a monster sized cast of major roles, there’s no grandstanding or massive leaps in logic [there’s a few spoilery nagging things I’ll not address, but I will say that one involves a decision made by Lt. Gordon that we were all a little iffy on at the screening I saw] to accommodate them. The returning cast members all are given some terrific scenes, and the newcomers universally succeed, which is truly rare. Though Heath Ledger gets the most showy role and does great work with it, Aaron Eckhart does just as good with a character who is given no help when it comes to film. Harvey Dent is a bland character who could have easily been a device but Eckhart invests so much sincerity in him that you could see why Batman would consider giving up his night job with a man like Dent on the streets. Additionally, Two-Face is a generic villain who could have easily clouded the mixture but somehow his arrival allows the film to go into its later moments with a head of steam that wouldn’t have worked with just the Joker and his cronies. Eckhart may have the most exposition and dialogue to deliver in the film and he pulls it off superbly and without a lot of the tools the other major characters have.

But in the end it’s Christopher Nolan’s approach that makes these films special. This gritty, reality based Batman is fun to watch and there’s never the guilty pleasure needling that cheapened the Burton/Schumacher series. These are crime films, which ideally is Batman films should be. Nolan, despite the fact he’s prone to excess in terms of what story he wants to tell onscreen, is the right man for this job for as long as Michael Mann isn’t approached to do it.

Sadly, the film spends too much time with a subplot involving a Hong Kong organization being involved both with the mob and Wayne Enterprises, a decision which leads to a wholly pointless jaunt to the East for Batman to wrangle an escaped criminal and there’s a little too much time spent with the criminal underworld element. A little trimming could have sped the proceedings up and nothing would have been sacrificed. Though there are a few nice moments, the idea to modify the Batman model in a foreign country with too many unknown factors betrays the logic of the character. Especially when this film does a good job establishing how the rigors of the job and preparation are becoming more of a routine. The Hong Kong stuff would have worked just as easily and possibly more effectively had we seen Bruce Wayne stretch some of his other muscles to extradite the villain. The logitstics of Batman overseas just doesn’t work this early in the saga. Plus, there’s enough onscreen Batman in the film without it.

One of the things about Batman is that he’s got a shelf life onscreen, and the time he spends in costume to needs to show variety and be effective. Seeing the character peering down from a tall building is fine once or twice but there’s a finite amount of times he needs to be onscreen before it becomes too much. Some wise trimming and this film becomes damn near perfect. Especially considering the large cast and how well they do their part. From Ledger to Eckhart to Caine to Freeman, everyone is doing their part to keep the film from bursting at the seams. Even Tiny “Zeus” Lister gets a nice little scene.

It’s easy to just dismiss the film’s flaws for all it gets right but where some compromises worked with the maiden effort by Nolan and crew, this film has too much working for it to give it a total pass. The pacing, a few of the character moments I’ll choose not to spoil, and the fact that aside from the excellent street confrontation with the flipping semi the majority of the action isn’t as stunning as it could be takes what is nearly a great film a notch down.

It’s very good. The fans are going to eat it up. It’s got some really meaty drama and fantastic performances. It’s just not a masterpiece and the be all, end all many assume it will be.

But then again, who the hell are we to expect a masterpiece from a comic book movie anyhow?

The Dark Knight is one of the best out there. No doubt. It’s a very nice step forward in this new intelligent Batman series. As long as the filmmakers and stars stay intact, there’s no reason this can’t be a series that is able to sustain two or three more films provided they don’t feel compelled to up the ante in terms of spectacle at the cost of plot, drama, and what makes the films work.

Acting. Acting. Acting. With a little action thrown in.

Pros: Excellent work from Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, and Christian Bale. The Joker’s quieter scenes are outright classic, especially against Batman. Two-Face being used as more than a device. Fichtner. IMAX stuff is gorgeous. The joke about Batman not being able to turn his neck. Sound design is excellent.

Cons: Overlong. Bale’s Batman voice is distracting. Batman’s trip overseas wholly unneccessary. Guns on Batman’s bike are still guns whether used to shoot people or destroy obstacles. Use of Scarecrow more of a distraction than anything else. Mr. Nolan could still use a little help in the action choreography department. Batman’s tech goes a little too far with the sonar gadget. One too many shots of Batman standing on something tall looking over the city.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10