Ricky Church revisits The Dark Knight on its 10th anniversary…
When you look back to 2008, the change in the superhero film genre is incredibly evident. Not only was Marvel just getting started, but the number of superhero films per year was few and relegated mostly to the summertime. They also weren’t as universally adored and consumed by mainstream audiences as they are now or thought of as ‘serious’ films, but one film in the summer of 2008 changed that.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins which saw Christian Bale don the cape and cowl once again to battle Batman’s archenemy The Joker, played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger. The film was more than just a typical summer blockbuster that featured superhero fisticuffs and grandiose action sequences, but had a range of deep themes and character arcs that not only built off Batman Begins, but would later inform much of Nolan’s curtain call for his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises.
Where The Dark Knight succeeds is treating the characters and the world of Gotham City in a serious manner. Begins ended with Gordon musing to Batman about escalation and Nolan certainly expounds on that theme throughout this film as Bruce Wayne and Batman are put to the ultimate test. Bruce is a fully fleshed out character as Nolan examines the confidence and success he’s had as Batman and deconstructs that against the freight train that is The Joker, showing just how unprepared he is against the new villain.
Bruce’s emotional arc is one of the strongest points of the film as he works to save Gotham City from the mob and Joker in the hope he can hang up the cape and cowl, yet is naively oblivious to how much Batman drives him. Rachel perfectly calls this when she writes to Bruce that the day may never come when Bruce doesn’t need Batman to fulfill his life. A scene that highlights this in such a quick and subtle way is when Bruce, in his civilian guise speaking to Rachel, slips into his Batman voice as Joker crashes his fundraiser for Harvey Dent. Nolan’s examination of Batman succeeds by making Bruce Wayne an actual character, emphasizing him just as much as his dark persona if not outright showing there’s little to distinguish the two.
The emotional depth of this film even extends beyond Batman. A strong argument can be made that it is actually Harvey Dent who is the main character of the film as the entire story revolves around his fall from grace. It doesn’t matter he only becomes Two-Face in the third act as everything was set up for his fall with Joker actively working towards that outcome. You want him to succeed for the good Gotham, Batman and his life with Rachel and desperately hope the events of the comics won’t come to pass. Harvey is the emotional anchor in the film as everything hinges on him.
Of course, though, you have the greatest villain put to screen here too. As many great villains as there have been since The Dark Knight‘s release, very few, if any, have matched The Joker’s villainy. The Joker presented in this film is as close to definitive as you can get: he’s crazy, unpredictable, darkly funny, intelligent, dangerous and – most frighteningly – he makes sense. Joker mixes truth with lies to get people to see things his way as he attempts to with Batman and succeeds with Harvey, so confident in his belief that people will always choose their own self interests and preservation above helping others. While Batman ultimately proves him wrong in his ‘social experiment’, The Joker’s success in corrupting Harvey is the crux of the film and assures his victory over Batman.
This is what makes The Joker such a compelling and sinister villain. He’s not after money, power or is on a well-intentioned but misguided quest to save his species or insure a cosmic balance. He’s not even after the destruction of Gotham City as Ra’s al Ghul and Bane sought. The Joker seeks to corrupt the very soul of Gotham’s citizens, demoralizing their spirits and trying to break them down to their worst possible instincts. Its psychological warfare on a scale that wasn’t seen in a superhero film before with some deep examination on these long-standing characters and the human condition.
The best aspect of the film is perhaps the cast Nolan assembled. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all raise the bar from their performances from Batman Begins while Maggie Gyllenhaal is a perfect replacement for Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. There’s a maturity, wisdom and morality to Gyllenhaal’s take on Rachel that makes her a better and more endearing character that makes it even more heartbreaking when Joker succeeds in killing her. Then there’s a great supporting cast, from Eric Roberts’ Sal Maroni to Joshua Harto’s Mr. Reese. But the real latchkey is, of course, Heath Ledger.
What Heath Ledger did for this film and The Joker is nothing short of amazing. Every scene Ledger was in was captivating and terrifying. All the reasons listed for why Joker is such a standout villain comes down to Ledger’s performance and devotion to the role. The interrogation scene remains the best scene in a superhero film for how it breaks down the Batman/Joker rivalry and Ledger’s performance in the scene. He perfectly sells how Joker has the upper hand and is completely unafraid of Batman; that loud hyena-like cackle as Batman punches him is one of the most chilling moments in the genre as you realize there is not much Batman can do to fight against someone like this. It’s a true shame Ledger passed away as he was a great actor who delivered his best role yet with The Dark Knight and could have gone on to do further great roles. Its a small consolation that Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for The Joker, the only other actor to be nominated for a superhero film and the only actor to win.
The Dark Knight isn’t just a great film because of its characters, though. The story is a finely crafted one with rich themes and subtleties that lets audiences find something new in each viewing. It’s more of a crime drama that happens to feature Batman than a straight-up superhero film. The cinematography should also be praised from the rooftops as it delivers several great shots, whether its Batman simply standing atop a building or rubble or an 18-wheeler doing a full flip in the middle of the street (one of the best sequences that makes full use of an IMAX screen). Its gorgeous and breathtaking visuals help make the film stand out further among the genre and elevates it from a simple comic book movie to a work of art.
Christopher Nolan and his team delivered a masterpiece with The Dark Knight, setting the stage for many films after it as filmmakers realized what superhero films could be. Many have tried to ape this film with varying degrees of success or failure, cementing how Dark Knight changed the genre. It even changed Hollywood as the backlash to the film’s lack of Oscar recognition opened the door for the Best Picture category to include nearly double the usual amount of films. There is no denying the impact this film had or the love letter it is to the character of Batman.
As The Joker states in the film, “let’s put a smile on that face” and celebrate The Dark Knight‘s 10th milestone by popping it in your Blu-ray player and enjoying it.