Hype is a double-edged sword. For entertainment, like movies, the hype can get people out to the theater with high hopes and expectations. Failing to serve on that hype serves to drive let-down audiences away. Rarely does a huge film ever come close to fulfilling the advertising promises and the trailer highlights. Even rarer, but thrilling, is when the film not only meets those expectations, but blows them apart.

This is The Dark Knight.

The movie starts with a complicated and well rehearsed bank heist. Men in clown masks break into a large bank, but start killing each other off as soon as the operation becomes an obvious success. One man in a mask, who we later find out is the Joker (Heath Ledger), goes to many of the bank employees placing grenades in their mouths that will explode once any pressure is relieved on the pin. Once the heist is through and the getaway car (a schoolbus) is secured, the Joker shoots the remaining accomplices and leaves the bank amidst school traffic.

From the very beginning, the audience understands, or at least recognizes, the kind of role the Joker will play in the movie. Bruce Wayne’s Batman (Christian Bale) doesn’t. This clash of character and worldviews – the fact that some men are not always motivated in ways we can understand, if at all – drives the movie. At its heart, the whole production is about motivation, and how it divides heroes and villains. Batman fights crime with a sense of right and wrong that errs on the side of zealotry. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) does the same, but does it without the mask. As Bruce Wayne calls him, he is the “White Knight” of Gotham, just as Batman is the Dark Knight. The fact that they are the light and dark side of the same coin is not at all a lost message, as Nolan drives it to the forefront as the focus of the film. Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is a mobilizer and a planner. While he stricken to ineptitude when Batman makes a decision that contradicts his own, he understands his place in the system and accepts it for the sake of Gotham. Yet when men like Dent, Wayne, and Gordon, men of integrity, idealism, and justice, are challenged by men like the Joker, who is nothing if not their antithesis, their foundations are shaken. The Joker introduces chaos unlike the lawmen of Gotham have ever seen, and the audience invited to bear witness to the destruction. As the movie progresses, the viewers see more and more that they did not expect and were not prepared for. From the destruction of Batman’s security as a hero in Gotham to the advent of Two-Face and the death that Gotham faces in between, we are there to see it all.

Technically, the movie is beautifully shot and introduces parts of Gotham not seen in Batman Begins. The costumes and makeup (notably the Joker’s) are impeccable and believable. Christian Bale looks like he just walked off of the set of Wall Street (or more appropriately American Psycho) in his impeccable Armani suits. The Batman suit underwent a redesign from three pieces to over a hundred to allow more mobility (this happens in the film as well as being an actual practical change).

As for the acting, Heath Ledger’s performance steals the movie. His rendition of the Joker is at once insane, frightening, and believable. Everything from his mannerisms to his laugh was spot on. It differs too much from Nicholson’s portrayal of the villain to really say whether it is surpassed by Ledger’s, but it certainly is a different, and probably more successful, approach. On the other hand, Bale-as-Wayne is par, but Bale-as-Batman is fine only as long as Batman is beating someone up. When the beatings stop and his mouth starts, the voice he uses is absolutely awful. Of course Batman would need to disguise his voice, but he sounds like he needs a Hall’s cough drop the way he rasps and growls outside of the lower range of his voice. It is this voice that almost breaks the spell the film casts, as it is so distracting and laughable that it’s amazing they didn’t find another alternative.

The supporting cast is beyond solid: Michael Caine reprises his role as Alfred, Wayne’s butler, perfectly; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox does what Morgan Freeman always does and shines in off-center stage roles; Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon gives another human performance of the same character he played in Batman Begins. Eric Roberts appearances are solid as well. The weakest link in the bunch is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes. It’s not that Katie Holmes was any better, but out of all of the characters in the film, Gyllenhaal gives hers the least believable performance, and looks as though she’s a complete amateur on the set. The fact that she’s very much not an amateur, and has given much better performances, is all the more troubling.

The story is indeed a saga, and I found myself wondering when the movie was going to end, but not out of boredom. The movie is so packed with action sequences, philosophical and psychological questions, horror, shocks, and surprises, that it seemed impossible for it to be strong from beginning to end of the entire 152 minutes. The only complaint I have about the story is the reveal of Two-Face’s face, which I felt came too soon for true effect. Yet as my only criticism of the storyline, it is almost too petty to voice.

I was expecting to get my money’s worth when I went to this theater. I’m a believer in the backlash from hype, and that more hype usually means a proportionally worse movie. Yet after only a few minutes of the movie, which lacked the stereotypical awful action one-liners and exhibitionist derailments of other similar films, I realized that it was going to be worth every penny. Christopher Nolan breathed life into a tired, flat, and melodramatic genre with his first take on Batman. With this film, Nolan not only makes it breathe, but he makes it walk, think, and surpass all other comic book movies in almost every way. It is, without a doubt, a fantastic film, and hopefully the herald of a new era of comic book movies to come.