A sequel surpassing the original, Christopher Nolan's second film starring DC Comics' costumed crimefighter Batman takes the expectations attached to superhero movies and subverts and reverses them in unexpected ways, asking pointed questions about that heroic archetype without sacrificing action and suspense. In many ways, The Dark Knight is less a "superhero movie" than it is a moody thriller about a special-ops vigilante in a high-tech suit.

Batman himself is an anomaly as one of the few superheroes without superpowers, and his essential vulnerability has always grounded his adventures in relative naturalism. Nolan and company recognize that virtually unique quality, and not simply in an early scene showing Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) stitching up the wounds from his latest foray as Batman. The film lets us see that human fallibility in deeper ways. To view the confusion in Batman's eyes as dominoes fall in ways he never predicted, as unintended consequences pile up past his plans, is to peer beneath a mask that has nothing to do with a cowl and bat-ears.

Taking place a year after the events of Batman Begins (2005), the film springs immediately into action with a split-second bank caper that pays homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), in which clown-masked robbers execute a similar plan. And then The Dark Knight twists things with more literal executions. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman reprise their roles as, respectively, aide de camp Alfred, police lieutenant James Gordon and brilliant inventor Lucius Fox, all helping create an admirable sense of ensemble in which Batman is as dwarfed by the forces of fate as he is by the monumental skyscrapers of Gotham City and Hong Kong, where he stands, vulnerable but fearless, on more than a literal precipice.

During his year one, Batman, to his dismay, has inspired wannabes who mostly—and in one case fatally—bite off more than they can chew. Having set up that logical action-reaction, Nolan naturally assumes another end of the spectrum: the sociopathic mastermind The Joker, who as played by the extraordinary Heath Ledger makes the Jack Nicholson Joker of Batman (1989) seem like the Cesar Romero Joker of the camp ’60s TV series. No less mesmerizing than Hannibal Lecter, this Joker is a grand-master of murder, signaling his über-mensch ego with an inspired variation on Nietzsche: "Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you stranger."

"Inspired" also describes the late Ledger, who plays a criminally insane man in the hardest and most satisfying way one can: as someone who believes he's the only sane visionary, and who tries to seem as normal as possible. Even his hideous countenance gets explained logically in an offhand aside: It's his war paint.

Co-starring an adequate Maggie Gyllenhaal succeeding the blank Katie Holmes as Wayne's childhood friend and love interest Rachel Dawes, and Aaron Eckhart pulling off the difficult role of D.A. Harvey Dent, who becomes the anguished madman Two-Face, the film is less about plot machinations, as diabolical and diabolically clever as they often are, than it is about sustaining a mood that's like a first step into Hell. You could call it a post-9/11 paranoia, but it's made of the same stuff as in the German Expressionist films put out in the interregnum between the two World Wars—a palpable jitter that as civilization crumbles, you don't know who you can trust. The haunting image of a fire truck on fire describes the city's helplessness without a word. What light that does shine comes from ordinary people forced into “Sophie's Choice” decisions. And while the film's most explicit physical violence takes place off-screen or is only implied, as in the manner of old Hollywood crime pictures, the psychological and emotional violence is a lot stronger than PG-13.

The IMAX version of The Dark Knight contains six sequences, including the heist opening, shot with IMAX cameras on that format's 15/70mm film, the use of which on a major studio film is a first, according to Warner Bros. During these scenes, the 2.35 widescreen image expands vertically to fill the much larger IMAX frame.