Right about here is where all the gushing and excitement and enthusiasm should begin, because I'll tell you right off the "bat" that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is cause for celebration indeed. But then you'll figure out -- after only one sentence -- that I pretty much loved this movie, and then you'll head off to another, more unpredictable film critic. But it's the WHY that interests me so much. What I enjoyed about Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy 2 could probably be covered in one lengthy -- and inevitably nerd-tastic -- conversation between the two of us. But The Dark Knight... Well, clearly we're approaching a whole new level here.

Several of the pre-release gushings are accurate. Some say "Scorsesian" and others reference Michael Mann. Many spend paragraphs on the (truly amazing) penultimate performance by Heath Ledger, while others will revel in the grown-up tone or epic scope of the film. What amazed me most about The Dark Knight, among several things, is that the flick's got more layers than an onion farm -- and yet it never loses touch with the idea of FUN. True that we're talking about a comic book fun that's decidedly more melancholy than the cinematic exploits of The Marvel Gang, but dang if TDK isn't supremely satisfying for about a dozen different reasons.

Plot-wise, this film is a dense and somewhat twisted affair, so I'll leave the specifics for you to discover and I'll just focus on the big picture. And here it is: A maniacal super-villain known as The Joker has brought all of Gotham's criminals together for one key goal: Kill Batman. To say that there's a LOT more to the plot (both the surface story and the more subtle ideas) would be a stunning understatement, but it's a long series of plot threads that are best enjoyed by watching, and not by reading in a wordy plot synopsis.

But for a movie that clocks in at a very meaty 142 minutes, The Dark Knight barely slows down to take a breath. I'm not saying the movie is non-stop action (just the opposite, as a matter of fact, which is fine by me because too much action generally indicates a lack of better ideas), but that Nolan has a very structured story on his hands and he just keeps hammering us with new plot divergences, practically daring us to keep up with his tale. Every time we manage to slow down and chill out with all these colorful characters, another crisis or discovery is unleashed and we're tossed down another dark alley. Very fun stuff, but like I said: Not exactly The Fantastic Four.

As expected, Christian Bale handles the Bruce Wayne character with equal parts class, malice and wit. We like the guy with no trouble whatsoever, but there is a slight creepiness just beneath the skin -- because no matter how much good he does, he still chooses to dress up like a bat. Say what you want, but that's just weird. (One of my very few complaints about the movie is also slightly weird: As compared to Batman Begins, Bale seems to have deepened his voice for "extra gravel," and in more than one scene it sounds a bit ... silly. I'd be thrilled if someone actually tweaked the audio for the DVD. I doubt Bale and Nolan wanted Batman sounding like a really broad Eastwood impression. Or hell, maybe they did. Like I said, complaining about the Batvoice is like smacking Santa Claus for not wiping his boots.) Nerdiness aside, Bale is aces here, as usual. The guy's always good, and I challenge you to prove me wrong.

I'll save the inevitable question of "Is it better than Part 1?" to smarter geeks than myself, but I can say that The Dark Knight works as a companion piece to its predecessor like very few sequels have. Sure, there's one big personnel change (which is actually an improvement), but it's almost as if the storytellers (Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) had an actual arc for the whole trilogy! Like they actually thought ahead! How very novel. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman (d)evolve in ways that are both realistic and comic-book fantastic, tonally and visually the sequel is a dead ringer for Part 1, and the bulk of the stellar supporting cast is still on board.

It seems monumentally redundant to spend a full paragraph singing the praises of actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman, but I'd just like to make note of what performers like these bring to a movie like this: Heart, humor, heroism, realism, warmth, nobility, and an awesome talent for delivering (potentially dull) expositional plot points as if they were the most fascinating pieces of dialog ever written. With such a dark, strange hero at center stage, an audience really needs a few "sidekicks" they can relate with. You could make a movie entirely bereft of bat-stuff and these three actors / characters -- butler Alfred Pennyworth (Caine), engineer Lucius Fox (Freeman), and Detective Gordon (Oldman) -- would be great to spend another two hours with.

And yes, The Dark Knight offers some very spectacular action scenes -- and many a Batgeek will have to admit that the "close quarter" fisticuffs are a little less "Bourne-esque" than they were in Part 1 -- but it's the stuff in between the action that keeps us stuck to the screen. (And damn that's a nice reversal from most action movies, in that generally we tolerate / withstand the "talky bits," just so we can get to the chase / brawl / nuclear explosion.) It's not just that the action sequences spring naturally from a twisty-yet-logical plot, but that when the movie does slow down to talk ... we're not bored! The story is interesting! The characters aren't morons! There's some basic yet intelligent symbolism and subtext at work here! I'm being treated like an intelligent grown-up at a mid-summer mega-blockbuster superhero movie!

As if the cake needed any more icing, the series welcomes three new arrivals that add a whole lot to the series: As Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is charming, strangely adorable, and enjoyably matter-of-fact. She's neither a bombshell or a wallflower, just a plain, smart everywoman who lives in one really strange city. And while many reviews will (rightfully) focus on the stunning Heath Ledger / Joker performance, one would be remiss by not mentioning the fantastic work of Aaron Eckhart as Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent. It's very tough to play "earnest" in such a relatively downbeat story, but Eckhart is both instantly likable and smoothly fascinating ... as if you just can't wait for those first cracks to show.

And the late Mr. Ledger. In a word: Damn. I mean "damn" as in "Even if Heath Ledger were alive and well I'd still have been stunned, floored, tickled, and blown away by his work in this movie," and I also mean "damn" as in "What a massive tragedy that a talent like that died so young." I distinctly remember seeing Ledger in movies like A Knight's Tale and The Patriot, and dismissing him as little more than an affable heartthrob type. Brokeback Mountain proved that opinion ridiculously wrong, and now it's been underlined with bold and italics. Or I could put it this way: "Best. Super-Villain Performance. Ever." And just leave it at that.

Sometimes some folks just get it right. Bryan Singer was right for X-Men, Sam Raimi was right for Spider-Man, and dear lord is Christopher Nolan right for Batman. Maybe not the campy old Batman that the nostalgia fans know and love, but if the character had any clear path to follow after the disaster of Batman & Robin and the renaissance of Frank Miller, then this is where he should be: Anchoring a smart, dark, daring, and very intelligent movie that celebrates most of why we love the damn Bat in the first place: He's hurt, he's angry, he's conflicted, he's kinda weird ... aside from the money and the suit, he's pretty much just like everyone else.

[ For a slightly more erudite (but no less enthusiastic) take on The Dark Knight, check out my pal James Rocchi's review right here. ]