Believe the hype.
Christoper Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins really is all that, and Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker isn't being praised to the heavens just because he's up there.
The Dark Knight opens with Batman (Christian Bale) on a roll as Gotham City's criminal syndicates struggle against his attacks and the prosecutions of new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Then a new player appears - The Joker.
Like Batman, The Joker has seen a lot of different incarnations over the years: camp clown in the '60s TV series, Jack Nicholson's wicked, wise-cracking crime lord in Tim Burton's Batman movie and now an unhinged urban terrorist. I'm a big fan of Nicholson's Joker, but Ledger's performance is on another level. With his smeared makeup, scars, toxic green hair, lurching mannerisms and psychotic genius, he is - along with Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men - one of the two scariest villains in recent film. Like Chigurh, Ledger's Joker seems more a force of nature than a person - unknowable, unpredictable, unstoppable. He's less the Clown Prince of Crime than chaos personified.
This darker Joker fits with the gritty, more realistic tone of Nolan's Batman films. The Dark Knight is not a happy movie and it is filled with violence that - while not graphic - is very nasty. It is not one for the kids.
Some critics have complained The Dark Knight lacks the fund a superhero movie should have. I disagree. Comics aren't all about bright colours and heroes who make quips while flinging punches at the villain. This film is true to modern Batman comics, which are packed full of shadows and death. Indeed, the film's title is a nod to The Dark Knight Returns is the title of a seminal story by Frank Miller, a key moment in the change to a bleaker Batman.
While Ledger is the standout actor, as you'd expect from a cast featuring Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, the rest of the performances are also strong. Eckhart is especially good and, as Batman's old flame Rachel, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a major upgrade on Katie Holmes.
The actors are given room to show their talents by a complex, compelling story that touches on big issues like the nature of heroism without being pretentious or forgetting that it is an action movie. And as an action movie it's outstanding - wait for the big chase scene.
So, is it the best superhero movie of all time? Well, it does have flaws - to mention them is to spoil the plot, so I'll include them in a comment. I'd rank The Dark Knight above the excellent X-Men 2, Spiderman 2 and Superman Returns, and level with Batman Returns.