It often seems like with these big films you know the whole thing before it comes out. I’ve mentioned the pros and cons of this a couple of times before. It certainly seemed to be the case with The Dark Knight, probably the most hyped film of this year, but actually I was surprised by the way it is pulled off and how much it lives up to expectations.

The basics you’ll probably be aware of if you’ve seen any of the now oppressive coverage on TV. The Dark Knight is a movie about Batman, or at least it purports to be. It actually focuses quite a lot on a quartet of characters. First, Batman, who’s war on crime really seems to be working one year after the events of the first film. This is thanks in part to his close partnership with Lt. Gordon, the head of the Major Crimes Unit. New on the scene is the recently elected district attorney, Harvey Dent, who’s charismatic appeal and forthright values are inspiring people to take a stand against crime and corruption. Everything is going swimmingly until the mob, now on the run, turn to an odd character for help, an anarchic psychopath known as The Joker.

Perhaps the largest surprise was to what extent this movie focuses on these other characters, without really being to the detriment of the main character. I was especially shocked at how much of the movie surrounds Aaron Eckhart (who has been somewhat elbowed out of the hype preceding the film) and he does a good job with almost everything he’s given, his character running quite a range. It’s also nice for Gary Oldman to get more attention, being more of a bystander and even shuddering ‘comic’ relief in Batman Begins. You get the feeling this relationship is what Nolan would have liked to try with the first picture. The Dark Knight supposes that Oldman and Bale trust each other and have been working together as close partners for a while, which is a logical jump to make a year into the future after Begins, but it’s a shame we didn’t see more of that in Begins before we leap head on into the heavy stuff here. In fairness a more realistic approach would probably not have taken as well in Batman Begins, which still kept a little too much of the campy tone of the previous series, probably the crime of hack screenwriter David Goyer.

Ledger is also excellent as the Joker, you’ll have heard this by now, by far the most interesting performance of the year. I must say, rather than the tortured soul described in tabloid headlines, Heath Ledger looked like he was having an absolute ball in this part. He’s funny and scary, strangely lucid with a flash of genius intelligence, and rather pathetic but dangerously squirrely. The screenplay is a big present with a bow on it for the actor who got this part. He’s set up to be the life of the picture, tearing through with a great burst of energy anytime a situation would threaten to get stale. Part of the praise for his performance has certainly gotten mixed up with fondness for the character, with his clever little plans. Nevertheless he’s wonderful and the picture would be nowhere near as entertaining without him. It’s quite likely that another actor might have made a horrible fudge out of it, and I hope they don’t bother with recasting for the next film.

This is a film with a remarkable amount of things going on in its two and a half hour running time. You’ve got maniacs with a number of targets, crisis of identity, crisis of morals, mob trials, crooked accountants, car chases, double-crosses and dogs getting a kicking to say only the half of it. However I didn’t think it’s particularly obnoxiously flabby. The fact that it’s jam packed with little events and side stories is what keeps it moving forward so successfully, and the film doesn’t drag, apart from one sequence that takes place in Hong Kong which was probably unnecessary.

It’s funny that characters in this sequence keep saying that “this could be handled with a phone call” as if they themselves know all this is fairly ancillary. The action sequence which caps this Asian jaunt is quite cool, but I’m sure they could have worked a similar thing in at home without going all the way to Hong Kong just so Edison Chen can show his face for a few seconds in something other than a sex tape. I’d believe the production got some kind of payoff from the HK tourist agency, except they don’t really make the most of the location at all (from the angles they show, it looks a lot like Gotham) and the filmmakers have spoken of the rotten time they had working there.

There’s a few other niggling points to be made about the picture. It feels that Harvey is dealt with a little too soon. Certainly I’m not implying that the film should have gone on even longer, but that he perhaps could have had a bit more space in a film of his own, finishing this movie with his fall from grace and expanding on the rest next time. As is, his transformation and his rampage are cut a little short and don’t all entirely add up quite as well as they ought to.

Nolan’s direction is generally good but he still can’t grab hold of a fight scene. I know he wants to shoot every part of every scene himself, but this is somewhere where he maybe could use a second unit. The fight with the dogs near the beginning is particularly bad for telling what is going on, but the final tussle is also a bit of a smudge collection in parts. He’s fine with big showy situations, an 18 wheeler going end over end on a highway, or someone leaping off a building, but he seems to have no idea what to do in a fist fight. I thought perhaps this approach is done for the rating, but considering this film got a PG-13 with all the disturbing things in it already, I don’t think a few clearer punches in the stomach or slapping a dog would put it over the top, but I could be wrong. Whatever it is he’s going for, it has to stop. It seemed at the beginning, when Batman starts to take down his first few goons, that he had learnt his karate lesson but don’t hold out any hope, it soon goes back to Begins level.

I know a lot of people are more worked up over this movie than I am, and are more likely to have much stronger reactions for and against various elements. For instance, I’ve read no end of comments about the voice Bale uses as Batman. Personally I think it’s fine, it didn’t bother me in either film, but it does sound a little odd when he’s making longer speeches with it. It certainly didn’t have anymore effect on me than Gary Oldman’s American accent slipping for a bit on the roof of the police station. Likewise replacing empty headed Xenu vase Katie Holmes with acclaimed basset hound actress Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t do anything for the by the numbers character they both played, no more interesting here than in Begins.

Despite all the hype, I can’t imagine anyone who wants to watch this will be too disappointed. For Batman fans, it’s surely the best movie featuring that character ever made. For those curious about Ledger’s final performance, they can rest assured he went out on a high note. The general audience just looking for a good time with a summer blockbuster will most certainly get it. A remarkable amount of things blow up, are crashed into, are flung about, etc. Even though they’ve done away with all the goofy gothic sets in favour of real locations, this is a movie where all of the money seems to be on the screen.

There’s a lot of praise for the film working as a crime drama, which it does. It’s a rather curious policer, in which one of the cops wears a cape, and that’s probably how it should always have been played anyway. At the same time, I wouldn’t go over the top with how well it functions with it’s foot in another genre, as some have with the dropping of other titles like Heat or The Godfather, which is simply ridiculous. If you ask someone to recommend you a great crime film and they say The Dark Knight, sigh and walk away.

But in general, the picture is a huge achievement. It feels as larger and more thoughtful than anything Hollywood has produced in quite some time. The question isn’t really if it’s successful as a comic book picture, or a crime picture, but how is it for a huge tent pole picture that probably cost 180 million dollars? In that regard, it’s a massive success for common sense, in that a studio has hired a creative team and given them a load of money, and then backed off to let them create. I’ve no doubt they’ll be significantly rewarded and repaid many, many, many times over by the time this film comes to DVD.