Pure panic can’t accompany the predictable. Even the worst plans in scare-tactic politics — continuing war, rising gas prices, dying dollars — are, unfortunately, practices to be foreseen and accounted for. But what of those crawling from an abyss of unanticipated evil —fueled not by gain or revenge, but ideology and a chaotic interest to prove decent men cannot exist in indecent times?

Do not go gently into The Dark Knight, a sequel to Batman Begins, expecting escapism or compromise. Working with his brother, Jonathan, co-writer / director Christopher Nolan have carefully, cleverly conceived this film with the scope, substance and subtext of a graphic novel.

Fun? Not conventionally. But it is electrifying, thought-provoking and satisfying as it continues, from Begins, a meditation on humanity’s raised stakes in the true wages of fear. Crime saga, action film, character study and commentary — it’s a modern, multi-layered masterpiece.

As with Begins, “comic-book film” is a disservice. Batman is a fitting springboard to examine, harshly and thoroughly, a line between heroism and leadership. What a person will sacrifice says much about mettle, and mettle rarely has met as unstoppably anarchic an opponent as the Joker.

Yes, it’s a Batman movie, and Christian Bale again uses his considerable charms and chops to balance Bruce Wayne’s rush of being Batman with its accompanying responsibilities. Aaron Eckhart brilliantly sells the tragic arc of district attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham’s white knight. Pros like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are welcome again as supporting players.

But Heath Ledger’s Joker — the late actor’s last full role — is the driving agent in a disturbing tale of destabilization. This Joker fully exploits the fallible natures of those he happily leads to their own annihilation. Plans mean little to a man obsessed with the extinction potential of chaos. As he says, he’s like a dog chasing a car. He wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one.

In his “social experiment” battle, the Joker operates outside margins of both Gotham City’s cops and criminals. With an army of mentally unstable minions, he’s violently thinning the ranks of both.

Batman’s planned inspiration of an apathetic city has only brought out inept copycat vigilantes. Hotshot Harvey Dent rings up RICO charges on middle-management mobsters, but not top brass.

One of them must be a leader the city needs, but Bruce is unwilling to provide his true identity. In Harvey, Bruce sees hope — a man willing to put a face to his fight for justice and a public servant behind whose doggedness Wayne eventually could hang up his cape and cowl.

Yet Harvey and Bruce’s love triangle with assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, subbing for Katie Holmes) conspires to rip apart that righteous plan. Combined with the Joker’s reign of disorder, Harvey, Bruce and Rachel will have to give of themselves with great consequence. (Those familiar with Batman lore know Dent’s destiny, but the Nolans earn their story’s turn toward despair and devastation, anchored by Eckhart’s persuasively political performance.)

Part and parcel of the Joker’s havoc and destruction is forcing Harvey, Bruce and Rachel into impossible choices between idealism and love. With an unsettling effortlessness, Ledger’s Joker easily establishes himself as the best Batman villain ever. Jack Nicholson as the Joker was the Joker as Jack Nicholson. Ledger isn’t coasting on personality. He’s a sadist from his brain to his bones.

Moving with jittery squiggles, eyes flitting, face sandblasted in greasepaint and a tongue instinctively licking his scarred mouth, Ledger transforms into evil from his memorable entry onward. You haven’t danced with the devil by the pale moonlight until Ledger takes your psyche for a twirl.

Alive, Ledger’s would be an instantly ageless turn. In his early death, it’s an unforgettable sendoff. (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score pays tribute by accentuating Ledger’s work, occasionally devolving into a white-noise drone to suggest what the Joker hears in his head.)

Adhering to blockbuster formula, there are as many physical explosions as internal implosions in The Dark Knight.” The action still requires swift, scanning eyes, but it’s terrifically assured during hand-to-hand combat, an opening bank heist and another centerpiece chase down Wacker. (Filmed in Chicago, the film lovingly references Illinois with familiar-looking Gotham license plates.)

However, its considerable collateral damage hinges on just how much of its fallout the film’s protagonists are willing to absorb. To that end, The Dark Knight’s reach and grasp cancels out a handful of small imperfections (terrible wastes of Nicky Katt and returning Cillian Murphy, Gyllenhaal not being noticeably better than Holmes). Monumental and classically epic, it’s one of 2008’s best.