Everyone remembers seeing The Dark Knight at the theater. Whether you were eagerly anticipating its release or aren’t the biggest fan of Batman or movies but got dragged to the premier with your friends anyway, you were there. It was one of those event films that transcended the typical movie-going experience. And while Christopher Nolan has made equally engaging films before and since, this is the one that he’s best known for. Fresh off of its 10th Anniversary, how has The Dark Knight continued to stand out in the ever-crowded field of superhero movies?
I think the simple answer is that it doesn’t belong in the same category. Sure, there are comic book characters filling up the screen and delighting fans of the source material, including yours truly, but that’s where the similarities to all those other adaptations end. Nolan always kept his Dark Knight Trilogy teetering on the edge of plausibility and that’s what makes the events that occur truly frightening. With all due respect to Thanos, I don’t think any of us will ever live to see an invader from another planet emerge through a wormhole in search of magic stones.
That’s not a knock on Infinity War or any of the other Marvel movies. They are the very best at thrilling our imaginations and filling the entertainment aspect of our lives with super powered idols. It’s just that here we are faced with people and occurrences that we may never see in our real lives, but we certainly could. Nolan’s Batman used his resources to procure military-grade equipment. His Joker didn’t have his mind and skin warped by a tumble into a vat of chemicals, but is just a naturally born sociopath who wears makeup. And while I have doubts over how long a person could live after having half of their face burned off, Two-Face is merely the disfigured survivor of an explosion. Given current events and today’s political climate, I think we all feel a little uneasy when a hospital is blown up or innocent people get shot down in the street. Heightening the realism is Nolan’s method of ensuring that his film will always resonate with audiences as a crime drama for the ages.
That also means that The Dark Knight isn’t genre restricted, playing out as much like a neo-noir movie as a superhero one. It helps that Nolan’s inspiration for the story can be found in graphic novels like The Long Halloween, which featured Batman, Gordon and Dent’s crusade against organized crime and Dent’s doomed and inevitable transformation into Two-Face (my personal favorite). There’s also a little bit of The Killing Joke in there, where the Joker postulates that anyone can be driven mad by experiencing one truly horrifying day. Is this not the very idea that winds up tipping Harvey Dent over the edge? These are stories that reveal far more about human nature than they do about the struggle between good and evil and they are expertly translated to the big screen, especially in the form of the film’s antagonist.
Ledger’s Joker is infamous for multiple reasons, from the initial fan backlash when his casting was announced, to the toll that the role took on the late actor’s personal life before his tragic death, and of course the posthumous Oscar that he deservedly won, but I think the villain maintains his relevance because of how atypical he is. In short, this Joker is a manifestation of our very worst fears: he’s unpredictable, and even worse is that his attacks are aimed not at our heroes’ health or livelihood, but at their souls. How do you fight someone who has no clear motive and, as Alfred so wisely surmises, “Just wants to watch the world burn?”
That’s the question that Batman and Gordon are left to grapple with, and the only solution they find is to let Batman take the fall for all of Two-Face’s crimes. Fitting that an impossible ethical dilemma can only be resolved by an equally impossible decision. Being the hero that your city deserves but doesn’t need usually means you don’t get a happy ending. It takes a lot of balls to write a finale like that, but more importantly it requires a certain level of freedom that superhero movies are never afforded. Even when the MCU goes against the grain, future sequels guarantee that everything will eventually be righted again. Luckily, Nolan was given that freedom and had the talent both on-screen and behind the camera to pull it off.
And while I could wax poetic about The Dark Knight until the sun goes down, it is by no means a perfect film. Christian Bale’s much maligned Bat-Voice is absurdly over the top, and because Nolan shot certain scenes with IMAX cameras, the aspect ratio is constantly shifting. I did watch parts of the movie on Netflix recently and the picture stayed in widescreen the entire time, so maybe that’s only exclusive to the home release. And while this is really out of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s control, it always bugs me when a character is recast in the sequel. These are minor annoyances for me, large drawbacks for others and flaws that nevertheless prevent The Dark Knight from being a true masterpiece, in this humble writer’s opinion.
Still, it remains one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had at the theater. I vividly recall the audience alternating between laughing and gasping as the Joker outwitted his foes on both sides of the law, then breaking into applause after various set pieces. I also can’t help but revisit the film at least once or twice a year. When you know all the twists and turns but can’t help but get sucked in all over again, I think that’s when you know the filmmakers made something special.
And then there’s the overwhelming sense of remorse that hangs over the whole picture. That our protagonists made the best of a very bad situation, but nothing more. As Batman runs off into the night, Gordon’s son looks on in bewilderment. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
I’m not sure that Batman would agree.