Batman Begins. Whilst furthering the realistic edge of the first film, Nolan goes in an almost entirely different direction in his choice of Batman's enemies. Whilst Batman Begins is notable for featuring some of the Caped Crusader's least theatrical villains who had limited mainstream recognition before their appearance in the film, The Dark Knight features two of Batman's adversaries who are not only amongst his most well-known and extraordinary, but who have also featured prominently on the big screen in the past. Casting the late Heath Ledger as The Joker also appeared to many as a risky decision when first announced considering the acclaimed performance given in the role by Hollywood heavyweight Jack Nicholson in 1989's Batman, not to mention the character being undoubtedly Batman's most notorious and well-loved nemesis.
The film takes place some six months after the events of Batman Begins, as Batman, the crime-fighting alter-ego of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), works with Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and other members of the Gotham Police Department against bizarre criminal mastermind The Joker (Ledger). Joining the fight is newly appointed district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), determined to rid Gotham of crime however he can; whilst Bruce sees Harvey as holding the potential to lead Gotham into a brighter future, matters are complicated by Harvey's relationship with assistant district attorney, and Bruce's childhood friend and love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
The Dark Knight is just as successful as its precursor, partly because many of the things that worked so well in Batman Begins are retained. The returning cast again put in superb performances: Bale is given the opportunity to flesh out both Bruce Wayne and Batman further, building on his strong performance in the first film; Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth is predictably excellent, the chemistry between his character and Bale's even more palpable and authentic; Oldman as Gordon is again a genuine highlight, continuing the character's development arc with subtlety and humility; and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox is, unsurprisingly, a joy. All of these performances tied together by Nolan's captivating direction, adrenaline-charged action sequences and polished script (again crafted with brother Jonathan) gives The Dark Knight a strong foundation upon which to build the film's new elements.
The new cast members are comprehensively excellent, their characters fitting perfectly into Nolan's Gotham. Gyllenhaal takes on the role of Rachel Dawes capably, developing the character and making it her own, to the extent that when recalling the character it is Gyllenhaal who comes to mind first, despite Katie Holmes originating the character in Batman Begins. Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent is flawless, delivering the many shades of Dent's character effortlessly, and playing out his tragic story arc with such class and pathos that it can't fail to impress on the highest level.
Of course, the film's biggest and most successful addition is that of Ledger's Joker. It's hard to say anything that hasn't already been said about Ledger in The Dark Knight. The character's introduction in the film's opening sequence lets you know that what you are witnessing in the combination of Ledger's performance and Nolan's script is something very special, and once The Joker lays his intentions bare to Gotham's gangland leaders (opening with a simple "magic trick" you'll never forget) neither Nolan nor Ledger let up until the closing scenes. It's a performance which captivates, redefining one of the most iconic antagonists ever created, striking the perfect balance between The Joker's overtly comic book foundations and Nolan's real world aesthetic.
The Dark Knight may be less epic and more episodic in its structure when compared to Batman Begins, but this never counts against it. In salvaging the Batman franchise, Nolan pulled off what many thought impossible and struck gold. Through The Dark Knight, Nolan manages to produce a film against which all comic book adaptations are likely, nay deserve, to be measured. It soars as an action film, broods with psychological drama, and reaches heights neither this comic book franchise nor any other has achieved before or since.