That’s weighty fare for a summer blockbuster, and it’s the biggest risk to public acceptance of The Dark Knight. No one wants a lecture during their chosen popcorn flick, and if a film is going to push buttons related to the War on Terror, it’s guaranteed to divide audiences. It’s a tribute, then, to Nolan, who also co-wrote The Dark Knight, that this potentially heavy material balances strong moral condemnation of terrorism with a cold examination of motives and tactics that have unintended consequences. And all this in an entertaining package, albeit a relentlessly dark one.

Driven by a strong performance by Heath Ledger and excellent support from Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight strengthens the franchise’s reputation under Nolan, who took the Batman saga back to its origins in Batman Begins and now moves it forward with another solid effort, laying a strong foundation for future films in the series. The main drawback to the film is that, just as the public has entered into a period of “war fatigue,” The Dark Knight stretches and tests the patience of its audience. By the time the film reaches its final half-hour, viewers may begin to wonder if, to borrow a title from a well received documentary about the current war, there’s “no end in sight.”

It’s a trade-off worth making: a final half hour of sound and fury that don’t amount to much, against two full hours of absorbing drama and action that precede those 30 minutes. If nothing else—if the war parallels and social commentary aren’t your thing—Ledger’s final screen performance (he died soon after filming was completed) will stay with you. It’s the highlight of an all-around strong, if overlong, entry in the superhero genre.

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  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A judge takes out a bottle of liquor in response to a death threat.
  • Crime:  Gotham City is under the influence of the mob; attempted blackmail.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some foul language.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Brief kissing.
  • Violence/Other: A bank robbery involves multiple murders; a lawyer punches a defendant; a man is slammed into a desk; multiple shootings and stabbings; lives, including that of a child, are threatened, only to be spared; fisticuffs and brawls; a car bombing and massive explosion that takes down a building; a man is thrown off a building but survives; several long falls but few deaths or serious injuries; a woman slaps a man; a dog attack.