Even darker and more relentlessly serious than "Batman Begins," Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" pits the troubled superhero (Christian Bale) against his most troubling foe—the Joker. As played by the late Heath Ledger, with tangled greasy hair, grotesque white makeup, darting mad eyes and an obscene tongue that keeps licking his slashed, painted-on smile, this Joker is an agent of chaos so arbitrarily evil he strikes terror not just in his foes, but in the mobsters who hire him to eliminate Gotham City's caped crusader. It's a stupendously creepy performance, wild but never over the top. He cuts a figure so dangerous that you wonder if Batman is up to the task—or if our hero himself will have to become as ruthless as his foe. When you're fighting an enemy who plays by no rules, do you have to abandon your own moral code to vanquish him?
This is the ethics dilemma Nolan explores in his impressive, and sometimes oppressive, epic. Bruce Wayne/Batman has a formidable new ally in his fight against evil: Aaron Eckhart's crimefighting D.A. Harvey Dent (a.k.a. Two-Faced Harvey), who is also Wayne's rival for the affections of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Together with police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), they attempt to rid their city of organized crime in one fell swoop, only to discover that every good deed backfires, putting Gotham City in greater jeopardy.
Nolan dispenses with the stylized Gothic sets we're accustomed to in the series: he makes no attempt to hide the fact that Gotham City is modern Chicago. Gone, too, is the antic sense of humor that Tim Burton brought to the show. There's not a touch of lightness in Bale's taut, angst-ridden superhero, and as the two-and-a-half-hour movie enters its second half, the unvarying intensity and the sometimes confusing action sequences take a toll. You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn't be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not "Hamlet." Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun.