First: On the level of a big-budget summer event movie, it's good. In fact, it's very, very good. It's quick and inventive and stylish (without being the fakey goth stylish of Burton's movies), filled with powerful emotional moments and just plain fun.
Second: On the level of a movie that asks and engages with difficult questions (which it clearly wants to be), it doesn't really come together.
The central question in this film, based only on one viewing, I admit, is who will be the Big Man in Gotham City. Who will set the tone for the city? Who will lead the populace? What sort of leader to they need?
The Joker obviously sees himself as a role model. He builds a following among the criminal element, slowly taking over the mobs. First, he tries to make the population rise up and kill a Wayne Foundation accountant. After that he forces the ferry passengers on two ferries to play prisoner's dilemma with bomb detonators.
He fails of course, mainly because this is a big summer movie, and one of the things you don't say to audiences of a mass market movie is "Average people--just like you!--readily become evil tools of the Joker!" The audiences expect to be flattered for the price of their ticket.
Now, Tiny Lister throwing the detonator out the window was a fantastic moment. A startling and perfect moment (and I've given a lot of thought to how the man who gave him the detonator would sleep that night), in fact. But the average citizen who couldn't bring himself to push that button? I didn't believe in him.
And that man is a big reason the movie didn't work.
Wayne, Gordon and the mayor (the city elites, iow) all blah blah blah about Harvey Dent as the city's White Knight. Batman was meant to inspire the people of Gotham, supposedly, but Wayne has apparently only inspired fat guys with guns to play vigilante.
That's not exactly what he had in mind, so Wayne immediately begins to look for someone to be a better role model. He fixes on Dent, glossing over his flaws because he thinks he needs perfection.
But that guy on the ferry didn't need Harvey Dent. He didn't need *any* role model to do what was right. Tiny Lister didn't throw the detonator out the window because that's what The Batman would do.
The ferry sequence proves that Wayne and Gordon are utterly, completely wrong about the people of their own city. The elites should be less concerned with leading them and more concerned with serving them. Not that they don't work their asses off, risking everything, for the regular folks in town, but their willingness to lie to the population was completely misplaced.
And that doesn't have to be a problem if it's addressed by the narrative. If the filmmakers seemed to understand the contradictions and explored them, I would have been cheering. That doesn't happen. Instead, the people are given a fake hero and Batman is treated like a criminal and it's done for the supposed good of the people they're lying to--how else to explain Alfred burning Rachel's card, shown as an act of love?
Not that tarnishing Batman's image hurts Batman all that much. Consider this: The movie also asks "How far would you go?" Batman is willing to go pretty far, including surveilling everyone in Gotham City, sans-FISA, which he justifies because it'll just be this one time. The Joker is a special case. Extraordinary measures have to be taken.
But the one line Batman will not cross is common knowledge: he won't kill. He can't even squeeze information out of Eric Roberts, because "everyone knows" he refuses to commit murder.
All that has changed at the end of the movie, of course. Batman now has a murderer's rep without having to actually commit murder. He can dangle gangsters off fire escapes for months before they catch on to the truth, and he's too smart not to have calculated this advantage into his decision-making. Yeah, Gordon won't be coordinating any more sting operations with him, but the movie demonstrates how effective that strategy was. Big loss.
Maybe they'll fix all this in a third movie. Maybe Batman will realize the people don't have to be lied to, and don't need leaders who hide all their flaws. Maybe they'll even put in a woman who can decide for herself what she needs, so the male characters don't order her around the whole time.
I'm not holding my breath.
The best part of the movie, though? It wasn't the big action scenes (although the Hong Kong sequence was a standout) it was the in-between stuff, where everyone tries to come to grips with the threat to the city.
I have more to say, but I'm getting a little ragged and dinner needs to be finished. I'll see it again, but not in the theater.