And let me just get this out of the way--it's abso-freakin'-lutely awesome! And IMAX is definitely worth it, if there's a theater near you. I have a very busy schedule, with movies, work, and personal life, but I might just have to make time to see this again.
I have to explain from where I'm approaching this movie. When I saw "Batman Begins", I readily acknowledged it was a great movie--well made, exciting, and dramatic. Really more of a drama with action and masks than a typical "superhero" movie. I fully approved of the restart to the series, and looked forward to many sequels. However, in all the drama and logistics of how to create Batman, I missed Tim Burton's sense of humor. All superhero movies previously had a healthy dose of goofy fun, and I wasn't ready to get rid of this. I know this is almost blasphemy, but for me Michael Keaton was still Batman and Tim Burton was still the best Batman director (we shan't speak of Joel Schumacher's shit-tacular sequels).
Then last December I grew worried when I first saw the teaser opening 5 minutes last year. It looked like Chris Nolan still hadn't found that sense of humor that would've made "Batman Begins" perfect. And there's something very wrong about a movie starring the Joker that doesn't have any jokes. I couldn't escape the irony of the marketing campaign asking "Why so serious?" when I was asking the same thing of the movie.
That was then, this is now. Chris Nolan still didn't put much humor in there (unless you're the Joker--he thinks it's funny), but he did something more amazing--he made me not miss it. "The Dark Knight" is a tense, smart drama with great action. You have to pay attention to understand the plot twists, and it really doesn't let up. There's practically no break to catch your breath and relax.
Now a lot of people are talking about Heath Ledger possibly winning a posthumous Oscar. I wouldn't put that out of reach--he's awesome--but I want to throw some kudos to the other actors. Gary Oldman was interesting as the young officer Gordon in "Begins" and is perfect on his way up to commissioner Gordon now. Aaron Eckhart is perfect as Harvey Dent--the white knight taken down. And his Two-Face makeup is amazing--this is not the silly Tommy Lee Jones Two-Face. This isn't even the scarier Two-Face of the animated series. This is fucked-up scary Two-Face. Maggie Gyllenhaal did great replacing Katie Holmes. Honestly, the weak link in the cast has to be Christian Bale. Sorry, but there's a part of me that still believes Michael Keaton is Batman. And there's a bigger part of me that believes Christian Bale can only really act when he's emaciated ("The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn" are two great movies that showcase his skill much more than either of his Batman movies). Anyway, if the Academy ever wakes up and realizes they need a Best Ensemble Cast category, "The Dark Knight" would be in the running.
As a last note, I'd like to comment on a particularly stupid phenomenon I've seen where people try to read "The Dark Knight" as a political movie. Some see it as a pro-George Bush movie, others see it as more generally advocating stronger tactics in the war on terror. The first take is pretty absurd (Batman is actually competent), the second is a little more interesting but I think still misses the mark. I'll now enter into some spoilers, I'll try to keep it light. The Joker is referred to explicitly as a terrorist and someone who isn't interested in money, he just wants to watch the world destroy itself. Batman is a formidable foe, but the crime world in general and the Joker in particular see him as weak because he plays by rules--e.g., don't kill anyone. Batman learns that to fight such evil he has to make tough choices that will sometimes result in deaths (he also blatantly violates personal privacy to track the Joker). He'll be vilified and hated by the citizens, but he's the hero that Gotham needs, not the one it wants. I think references to terrorism are intentional but are simply there to better resonate with the audience. The critical point that keeps this from being a treatise on how to run the war on terror is simple--Batman is not and cannot be an instrument or symbol of government authority. Batman can do the dirty work and be hated (and hunted) because he's an outlaw and a rebel. He can be just as bad as the bad guys (but on the good side), but law and order would not survive if the government was also that bad. Government needs to be seen as clean, and needs a face like Harvey Dent (Gotham's White Knight) to lead it. People don't follow the mysterious guy who leaps from the shadows to mete out his brand of justice (or rather, they shouldn't--Batman wannabes create problems in the movie), they follow the public figure who urges them to follow their better instincts. Rather than advocating harsher, dirtier government tactics, "The Dark Knight" makes the case that without a government that strictly adheres to rules of proper conduct, society goes nuts and chaos ensues.
Of course, all this ignores the fact that it's a movie! A fantasy meant for entertainment, not as a policy statement. And as entertainment, it's top-notch. In fact, all the philosophizing on how Batman needs to be darker to get the job done, really made a case for me to love the movie despite the lack of Tim Burton's humor. So while you can argue whether or not in real life a dark knight is the kind of hero we need, "The Dark Knight" is now the kind of hero movie I want.
By the way, as for Klavan's WSJ article also mentioning that "300" is also somehow about the values of the war on terror, see my post on that movie for the complete opposite take.