My expectations were too low.
The film was fantastic. So many things I loved about it, with so much comic book schlock mixed with finely played characters are tight (and thouroughly unscientific) script writing. So let's talk turkey.
First off, the design for Gotham is as far from Burton's Gotham as one can imagine. Gotham, the good parts anyway, are glittering towers of glass and steel, and far more belivable as a large city than it usually is portrayed. Beneath all of this, lies the sprawling, virulent slums. The dichotomy is well portrayed, and it gives the city a distinct personality, making it as much a character as any person in the film.
Speaking of the characters, we're looking at stellar performances across the board. Well, Katie Holmes' didn't do anything particularly special, but she certainly didn't detract. Liam Neeson, in his role as the man who trained Bruce Wayne is particularly compelling, displaying a careful menace and a powerful drive that makes his character stand out very well. Gary Oldman, as a young James Gordon, plays a rare thing for Gotham- an honest cop, and the one man on the force that Batman can trust. A small, but well played role that was lacking in the manic energy that Oldman normally puts forth, which really shows how the man has been typecast more than anything. Far from a barely controlled madman, he's an honest, hardworking man, trapped by a system that's gone bad. Ken Wantanabe's portrayal of Ra's Al Gul was a little rough in the early scenes, but the character of Ra's Al Gul comes properly alive for the climax, and is the frighteningly willful man that fans of the animated series or the comics will recall. Micheal Kane, tipping in as the ever loyal Alfred, is charming and endearing, bringing out so terribly well the grandfatherly side of the character.
It's Christian Bale, our title character though, that really makes the piece work. For the first time, we have someone that makes as good at Batman as a Bruce Wayne, and vice versa. In one scene, we're treated to him waltzing around an expensive restaurant, two ditzy bimbos on his arms, and in the next, he's terrifying the crap out of bad guys, taking them out in a style reminiscent of horror films.
The fight coreography was fast, sometimes confusing, and full of the raw energy that so many other action films lack. Lots of good hand-to-hand, without falling into the realm of a martial arts film. All of the fights are tight, fast, and quickly resolved, leaving plenty of extra room left over for plot.
Now, one of the key elements of the plot, a large scale microwave emitter that is capable of vaporizing a water supply makes the mind cringe with the impossibility. Get over it. In the scheme of things, it's a minor detail, and getting caught up in the unreality of a tight-wearing bad ass swinging around and beating bad guys should be enough to drop that.
This film is a twofer on the villain count- not only do we have Ra's Al Gul, but we're also treated to Dr. Crane, the Scarecrow. His character is completely underdeveloped, but what I was impressed by was how they handled the effects of his fear gas. The special effects were particularly impressive for this, letting us see the chilling hallucinations that gripped his victims.
For fans stuck on canon, the only glaring issue you're going to have? Ra's Al Gul plays a role in training Bruce to be Batman. Much like with the microwave emitter, get over it.
Someone else said that, "This was the Batman movie we've been waiting for," and they're absolutely correct. Everything fits together perfectly. The characters are believable, the situations are believable as much as a comic book inspired movie allows. A fantastic film. Go. Go now. Enjoy. Then start saving up your spare change for your trip to Serenity in September.