It could have gone either way.
After Batman Begins, a film that was half about slowly rebuilding the iconic character and his franchise in the eyes of the fans and half about being a kickass Batman flick, it could have all started going downhill straight away or the sequel could have used Begins as a template to build something bigger and better on.
Yeah they got it right.
What Batman Begins really needed was a good villain and The Dark Knight certainly delivered that. The late Heath Ledger giving a unique, unsettling performance as The Joker and Aaron Eckhart, so good as Harvey Dent, giving us THE best and most intimidating Two-Face ever put to screen. And that's saying a lot seeing as the Two-Face from the Animated Series scared the shit out of me as a kid in that first couple of episodes. It's the first time in a Batman film where you really feel that the hero is actually in danger of losing everyone he cares about and losing the fight overall. The unpredictable Joker playing the entire city throughout with crushing moral choices and sinister tricks, even Two-Face only a mere pawn in the villain's masterplan.
For an "agent of chaos" he sure knows what he's doing and everything that happens seems planned to the letter. His goal being to destroy Gotham, not through some doomsday machine like Ra's Al Ghul in Begins, but rather through mind-games and pitting people against each other in order to show that men and women, when the shit goes down, show their real, shameful selves. You really feel like the entire city is resting on a pretty weak scale with Batman, Gordon and Dent on one side and The Joker on the other along with every other criminal in the city. As it turns out, this balance is a fragile one and little by little it all comes crashing down no matter how badass the good guys are.
Along the way you've got some amazing action sequences: whenever something big is about to happen, you know it's coming and you can't wait. The truck chase with the Tumbler and the Bat-Pod being the main highlight for me, you also get Batman travelling to Hong Kong to drag a criminal back to Gotham (the first time I remember the character ever leaving the city), and a thrilling climax in a skyscraper The Joker has taken over. But this isn't all about spectacle, there's a lot of nail-biting suspense there and the dense plot is multi-layered, surprisingly deep and ultimately heartbreaking.
The film boasts a terrific cast with the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and even Cillian Murphy all returning from Begins. Although why they bothered to include Murphy at all without involving him more substantially in the actual plot is beyond me: he is quickly discarded and his character is used to layer the plot even further rather than actually give us a good Scarecrow, finally. This is one of my main nitpicks about the film, sometimes scenes are rushed through which you just wish they'd spent more time with. A scene involving the death of a main character is given about 3 minutes to resolve itself, we cut to buildings WAY too often in the middle of conversations and the whole Two-Face thing should have happened much earlier in order to allow for more awesomely creepy moments with the villain.
But those are, indeed, nitpicks.
Overall, The Dark Knight is certainly the best Batman film since Batman Returns and although my heart lies with the first two films (the stylised film noir look something I just always associate with Batman) I can't deny that this one is probably a comic-book movie masterpiece. No matter how you feel about parts of it, for a Batman flick this is a remarkably intelligent, thoughtful, epic achievement which makes the Spider-Man films look like a Saturday morning TV kids' show.
A hard act to follow...