Casting and Acting
Christian Bale inhabits Bruce Wayne well, evoking Tom Cruise's polish while adding a toughness that none of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney brought to their portrayals. I actually liked Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawson, though I didn't they did enough with her character and dialogue. I slept through most of Cilian Murphy's performance the first time I watched the movie, but he wasn't half bad. Morgan Freeman makes a great foil for Christian Bale, wryer and easier to take seriously than 007's Q (Cleese or Llewellyn). Gary Oldman is a believable and sympathetic younger version of Gotham's Gordon. Liam Neeson owned the role of Ra's al Ghul.
Direction and Screenwriting
I thought the combat and special effects, especially the architecture and the gadgets, were capital. The pacing is tense and believable without slackening. My only slight quibble there is with the "MacGyver effect" of the climactic monorail scene. I enjoyed the no-excuses look at the foibles and dysfunctions of Wayne, the mortal: from the restaurant scene with his bathing fangirls to the evolution of his "Batman voice", this film just makes more sense than the Adam West travesty of a camp flick and the Burton forays into The Nightmare Before Batman (or is that Bruce Utilitybelt?).
More than any other Batman film, including the first Burton film starring Keaton opposite Jack Nicholson's Joker, this one explores the origins of Batman's complexes. Whence comes his ability to channel darkness and rage into finely-honed prowess? gondhir characterizes Ra's al Ghul's teachings as Sith creed of sorts, and Wayne's apostasy against his erstwhile mentor's ultimate ruthlessness as the turning point in his transformation into "the Good Sith". I think this is a fair characterization. The dialogue is a little stark and simplistic on this point, but Wayne's inner struggle is shown effectively, however briefly.
My only main issue with the movie is the problem I have with almost all superhero movie franchises these days: the perceived need to compress the defining conflict of the hero - and its resolution - into one film. In my opinion, a lifelong archnemesis from canon can be introduced or killed off in a franchise film, but not both. Why is this so objectionable? Just let the film show a glimpse into the superhero's existence. Let it be a slice of his legend. A character such as Batman is an iconic hero of American mythology.
The Zorro films were able to do this, bookending the rise of Antonio Banderas's Zorro and his continuation. Alexandre Dumas Sr. did this excellently with The Viscount of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later featuring his Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan, central hero of the Musketeer romances. The Man in the Iron Mask, a film adaptation of this book, does pretty well too.
I'm just not convinced that this compression syndrome isn't just a sign that we're getting intellectually lazier and indulging our shorter attention spans. Shouldn't we be concerned with good storytelling and willing to see a "sequel" without insisting that each film encapsulate one adversary, start to finish? If you look at the conventional wisdom that challenged Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, there's a similar rationale for his expansion of the Battle of Helm's Deep and movement of material from the second half of The Two Towers (Book 5) to the third movie, The Return of the King. I think this was one of the few serious mistakes he made and the direct cause of the problems in The Return of the King.
So there you have it: a strong movie, worth the hype, well worthy of making your definitive Batman to date, and better than all the Marvel (Stan Lee) and other DC Comics-based stuff out there. We can still do better, though, in terms of creating, and becoming, a new generation of fans.