It's not often that a movie leaves me speechless. I think it happened with 'Pan's Labyrinth.' But 'The Dark Knight' just stopped me in my tracks. This isn't simply a comic book movie, or a Batman movie. It falls into the crime and noir genre, but transcends it as well. It's big ideas cloaked in the garb of pop culture. It's art, and if you have a problem with me saying that, too bad.
Much has been made of Heath Ledger's Joker, and for good reason. It's a definitive performance by an actor, consistent and fully developed. Many have said that Jack Nicholson's Joker could never be topped, but instead of outdoing it, Ledger gives us a completely different vision. Nicholson's Joker was a mobster turned eccentric criminal, Ledger's Joker is a force of nature, schizophrenic, without reason or motivation. He brings method to chaos, but never tries to control it.
This is contrasted with Christian Bale's Batman. He plays his character in three ways, Bruce Wayne the smart ass, carefree playboy, Bruce Wayne the determined do gooder, and the raspy voiced Batman (some people hate the voice, I just can't believe Bale can augment his voice without screwing up his vocal chords). To me, the performance is understated, and can be lost when compared to the Joker, who's a swirl of facial ticks, gestures, and quips. But that's the point, Joker is the 'unstoppable force' while the Batman is the 'immovable object.'
Ultimately, I tip my hat to the director Christopher Nolan, and fellow screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and David s. Goyer. They've taken the best aspects of the Batman mythos (most notably Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 'Batman: The Killing Joke' and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's 'Batman: The Long Halloween') and swirled them together into a pop masterpiece, filled with twists and turns and puzzles to keep you guessing throughout the film. The fight scenes, a previous weakness in Nolan's films, are better in this, and the cinematography is gorgeous, filled with grayish blues and sickly orange-yellows at night. Nolan also knows when to give the audience moments to cheer and laugh amid the pathos, but in this film they are far between.
'The Dark Knight,' in the end, is a tragedy, and like the best of tragedies, it hurts. No doubt they'll make another Batman film, but this one stands so well on its own merits, that I certainly would not mind if they never ever made another one.