June 30, 2008 - It isn't an overstatement to call The Dark Knight the most sophisticated and ambitious work of its kind. Superior to all three Spider-Man installments and even its amazing predecessor in terms of conceptualization, writing, acting, and direction, Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins is a dark, complex and disturbing film, not the least of which because it grafts its heroics onto the blueprint of actual reality rather than that of spandex-clad supermen. And while such a distinction may make little difference to those already eagerly anticipating the return of the caped crusader, suffice it to say that The Dark Knight qualifies as the first official comic book adaptation that truly succeeds in being a great artistic achievement in its own right.

Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne, the billionaire playboy who moonlights as Batman. Having eased more comfortably into a lifestyle of excess, Wayne lurks on the fringes of his family's corporation as CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) runs the boardroom. But when an ambitious district attorney named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) comes forward to challenge Gotham City's villainy through proper legal channels, the man also known as Batman sees an opportunity to replace his vigilante persona with a figure of virtue who will truly inspire the best in the citizenry.

Unfortunately, Batman's success as a crime fighter has generated new problems for Gotham, including a consolidation of the crime lords who once controlled the city independently. Meanwhile, a new adversary named The Joker (Heath Ledger) proves particularly dangerous because he seeks not only to advance the cause of Gotham's underworld, but obliterate the foundations of liberty and order that Batman protects. Torn between championing Dent and meting out justice as a masked vigilante, Wayne soon finds himself at a crossroads between being the hero that Gotham needs and the one it deserves.

Click on the image above to watch our video review of The Dark Knight.

The great triumph of The Dark Knight is that it manages for the first time ever in the history of the genre to transplant comic book theatrics into the real world – and moreover, to examine precisely what it could mean if a person decided to strap on a super-suit and start attacking the world's criminals. The first film certainly hinted at this possibility, thrusting the hero and his alter-ego into a world where Wayne's frivolity was as despised as Batman's vigilantism. But even with real-world explanations for such improbabilities as Scarecrow's ability to scare, this was still a world where the Batmobile was cool and the climactic battle took place on a speeding train as a bomb ticked toward its inevitable explosion. Here, the Tumbler barely survives its first appearance and with the exception of one or two cooler-than-cool moves that will no doubt thrill fans, its replacement/substitute – the Batpod – serves as a largely utilitarian device for Batman to get from one crime scene to the next. (That said, I still want one.)

More important than this, however, is the idea that Batman is not just a guy in a suit, but a symbol and there are people in the film – most notably The Joker – who want to destroy that symbol. While Batman's identity remains secret and his motives unknown to Gothamites, he represents hope in a city that has little to spare and embodies a pursuit of justice – and further, a code of behavior – that quite literally threatens these criminals' way of life. By throwing Gotham into chaos and testing the limits to which Batman holds himself, The Joker is not merely plying death and destruction but willfully destroying the philosophical foundations of organized society. The closest such examination another comic book-oriented film has ever attempted was the emotional throughline of the Spider-Man films. Peter Parker's struggle was almost exclusively personal, whereas Wayne not only has to find a way to maintain his moral compass, but consider what the repercussions of his heroism are to both the public and the criminals themselves.

While all of this sounds lofty – and it is – Nolan examines these themes in beautifully human terms, projecting his examination of "the hero" into the hearts and minds of his characters. Wayne, less outwardly conflicted than in Batman Begins, sees Dent's ascension as an opportunity to stop playing dress up and reunite with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – the one woman who knows his secret. Meanwhile, Dent and his sometimes partner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) look at Batman's existence as a good thing, a fulcrum against which they can enforce the law and sometimes bend rules to accomplish loftier goals. And, of course, The Joker wants to destroy all of that, albeit less because of some law of movie villainy than because he sees his existence as the necessary antithesis – or perhaps ultimate extension – of the murky morality of Batman's brand of justice. When, after all, was the last time a movie criminal wasn't merely mad, but had a deeper ideological motivation for his dastardly deeds?