After all the hype and buzz, The Dark Knight turns out to be a taut, morally ambiguous crime drama that shies away for superhero schtick in favor of something more understated and suspenseful. As long as you leave the movie somewhere around the halfway point. If you stay for the whole thing, then be prepared to put up with a movie that gets so carried away with its own cleverness and supposed daring that it manages to make even Heath Ledger's compelling performance as the Joker seem boring. Plenty of spoilers under the jump, so be warned.
The Dark Knight is very clearly a film of two halves, as the cliche goes. The first half is impressive, if flawed: Foregoing the flash of an Iron Man or Incredible Hulk in favor of direction and visuals that seem more influenced by movies like Michael Clayton and Heat, it's successful in spite of the men in the funny outfits fighting over who can try to save the day. In fact, for the first half of the movie, it's as if everyone involved is kind of embarrassed about Batman's involvement... which makes sense, considering Bale's performance when he's wearing the costume, all near-parodic husky whispers and threatening pouting (He's better as Bruce Wayne, thankfully). The movie comes to life more when we're watching Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon as the last two good men in Gotham trying to deal with the chaos caused by the Joker's appearance in the criminal underworld than watching Batman stiffly fight dogs and men in clown masks.
Not that there aren't good action set pieces - the climactic chase through Gotham where the Joker is both trying to kill Harvey Dent and simultaneously just piss off Batman is wonderful, over-the-top enough to be spectacular but realistic enough to be thrillingly believable, edge of the seat, viewing. A shame, then, that it happens less than halfway into the movie itself.
That's the main problem with The Dark Knight. We can put up with bad dialogue, accidentally homoerotic scenes of male bonding (The scenes of Harvey and Bruce falling for each other are unintentionally hilarious) and unimpressive second-fiddle villains as long as we have a story that actually worked. Instead, we get a movie that wraps up all of its themes with a literally explosive climax about ninety minutes in, and then forgets to stop. When Maggie Gyllenhall's Rachel Dawes - Katie Holmes' character from Batman Begins - gets killed as the result of the Joker's schemes at the same time that he escapes from the Gotham City police station and causes the accident that turns Dent into Two-Face, we're given a strong emotional end to all of the movie's character arcs - The (already cynical) idealism of the heroes has been shown as naive, Dent has compromised his morals for the woman he loves, and Batman has realized that he can't save everyone. It's a downer of an ending, but it is an ending... something that the moviemakers seem to have either missed, or else felt compelled to ignore in order to give the audience some kind of closure that is completely unnecessary.
Everything that follows the death of Rachel betrays the tone and intent of what came before. Batman goes from flawed hero to a man who - thanks to his new cell-phone-tapping sonar technology - can now see through walls, hear every conversation in the city, single-handedly defeat a SWAT team and the Joker and his henchmen all at the same time. Dent goes from a nuanced but fucked-up character to one-dimensional one-schtick murderer out for revenge at any cost. As the plotlines pile-up on each other - and there are three subplots in particular that serve no purpose whatsoever, although I guess that Chris Nolan got a trip to Hong Kong with one of them. The movie devolves into crass melodrama, something that is made all the more obvious by the end of the movie, where a small blond child tells his daddy (and the audience) that despite everything, Batman has done nothing wrong. The boy's daddy - Oldman's Jim Gordon, at this point finally the police commissioner - gives a long and sprawling monologue about the fact that Batman isn't a hero, he's more than a hero, he's a "silent guardian" and Gotham City's "dark knight."
The end of the movie in particular is, despite the intent of the creators, far too neat and tidy: The bad guys are either dead or captured, Batman makes a noble sacrifice for the good of his city, and everyone else pretty much goes on about their business in exactly the same way as they had at the start of the movie. It's a lazy and, considering the unsettling nature of the first half of the film, frustratingly safe way to finish.
There is one area, however, where all of the hype is earned: Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker really is everything people have been saying. Nervous, edgy, uncertain, he's magnetic everytime he's on-screen, and by far the best thing about the movie. For the first time outside of the comics - and perhaps just the first time anywhere - the Joker actually is scary and disturbing, fucking with everyone's heads just for the hell of it. Even when his character gets reduced to near-generic expositionary villain at the end of the movie, Ledger's performance really sells it. I don't know if that means that it's Oscar-worthy, as people have been saying, but it's stunning, stunning work.
The best way to enjoy The Dark Knight may really be to just leave once you've seen Aaron Eckhart lying in the hospital bed, half of his face, covered in gauze, weeping; it's not just that it doesn't get any better than that, but that it gets much, much worse. Stick around at your own risk.