10 years ago today, the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films debuted in theaters across America. Batman Begins revamped the character after Batman Forever and Batman & Robin made it seem like we’d never get another good Batman movie. But after The Dark Knight, many people seem to think we’ll never get a better one.
The Dark Knight was an immediate critical and commercial success. It made a BILLION dollars at the box office, had the most amazing action sequences, and boasted an all-star cast. But the most unforgettable part was Heath Ledger as the Joker, a complex performance he gave several months before he died that is still remembered and studied to this day.
On this anniversary, let’s look back at The Dark Knight to think about what makes it a classic and the movie’s legacy in the decade that has followed.
An Action Movie Masterclass
Let’s be clear about something; there are so many phenomenal action sequences in this movie; the opening robbery, Batman in Hong Kong, Batman fighting his way to the Joker, and the motorcycle chase sequence which ends with an eighteen-wheeler truck (!!!) getting flipped upside down to the name the best. If these scenes were in just about any other movie, they would almost certainly be the best scene in that movie. Nolan’s four movies since then have all boasted great action sequences, and it’s clear that thrilling the audience is Nolan’s strong suits. But Nolan’s action scenes in The Dark Knight are his very best. And the thing that makes these action sequences perfect is the fact that they’re linked with the themes of the movie and important moments in the plot.
Take for example, the famous chase scene towards the middle of the movie, which results in the famous “Come-on-hit-me-I-want-you-to-do-it-come-on” moment where the Joker tries to goad the Batman into killing him. There’s so much going on in this scene. It’s the first face-to-face meeting of Batman and the Joker. It shows the main tension of the film; Batman struggling with his desire to kill the Joker. And, through his “I want you to [hit me]” mutterings, it shows that the Joker is insane enough to actually get killed by Batman.
One of my other favorite scenes is the first one – the perfectly choreographed bank robbery. It only occurs to me now just how exciting and subversive the first scene in which the Joker’s team robs a bank is. The robbers mention the Joker – who none of them seem to have actually met – in a vague way. Obviously these are just small-time henchmen, and we’re saving the Joker for later, right? In a regular superhero sequel, this opening sequence would end with the robbery being interrupted by Batman, as a way of re-introducing us to the movie’s hero. But as the robbery goes on, and the robbers double cross each other one-by-one, it becomes more and more apparent that Batman’s not going to arrive. We start to see the ins-and-outs of the plan, only to have it revealed that the Joker was one of the robbers. We find out that this isn’t Batman’s scene, but the Joker’s. To end it on his line “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” makes this one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
One thing that makes The Dark Knight such a well-crafted movie is how perfectly Batman and the Joker fit together. The entire film is structured around the relationship between these two. Very simply, Batman represents order and the Joker represents chaos. Batman encourages Gotham to rise above crime, but the Joker believes that anarchy is the natural order.
Very eloquently, YouTuber Michael Tucker points out that the conflict is a local one rather than a global one. As the Joker says, they’re fighting for “the soul of Gotham.” One of the movie’s biggest strengths, relative to something like Man of Steel or Avengers: Age of Ultron, which tries to make it seem like the whole world is going to end in some huge calamity. But in the climax of The Dark Knight, the lives at stake are just those of the few hundred criminals and the civilians on the boats. On the surface, the main conflict is the two of them fighting for those people’s lives.
But on another level, they’re fighting for the soul of the most incorruptible man in Gotham – Harvey Dent. And that’s why the ending is noticeably bittersweet – Batman saves the boats but does not manage to prevent the Joker from corrupting Harvey.
Marvel Studios has had so many movies since The Dark Knight which are both critically and financially successful, but so few of them understand just how important a hero-villain relationship can be. And while it won’t necessarily make or break a film, it certainly seems like in twenty years’ time we’ll more fondly remember something like Black Panther over Iron Man.
Then vs. Now; the Nolanverse and the DCEU
The Dark Knight’s biggest influence on superhero movies today is a tonal influence on the DC Extended Universe. Mostly, it’s uber-serious and gritty. This might go unnoticed if not for the often-humorous tone of their biggest competitors, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because The Dark Knight had a dark and brooding Batman, Man of Steel needed to have a dark and brooding Superman – never mind the fact that Superman isn’t usually like that.
It’s easy to see the newer versions of these characters have been less warmly received. It feels as though the DCEU’s interpretations of Batman and the Joker are just cheap, surface-level imitations of the characters we see in The Dark Knight. The new Batman is just the growling voice and brooding edge. There’s none of the moral struggle and complexity that Nolan and Bale brought to the character – in fact, murder isn’t even an issue for Batman, who uses guns and deliberately kills thugs. And okay, if it was just Gotham City petty criminals that Batman was killing it would be one thing, but Batman v. Superman, the debut of DCEU Batman, was exclusively based around Batman’s willingness to fight and murder Superman.
After the eerie and spine-tickling performance from Heath Ledger, we got the awkward and off-kilter showing from Jared Leto – where he purrs like a cat for some reason? Between the two Jokers, character design is a clear contrast. The design of both characters is supposed to look as though the character is off-balanced and unstable – it’s in going about this that the two characters are different.
Ledger’s Joker looks unbalanced because his makeup is smudged and grotesque looking, and his clothes are weird and look like they’re made of patchwork stitched together. Ledger put on his own makeup, because he decided that’s something that the Joker would do, and again, this adds to the genuine feeling that the character is unbalanced and crazy. Compare this to the character design of Jared Leto’s Joker, whom many people described as looking like he shops at Hot Topic. He’s got grills in his teeth and wears that weird shiny purple coat. Perhaps the worst thing is the face tattoo across his forehead that reads “damaged,” which feels like the most cliched and heavy-handed way to convey that a character is unstable. Leto’s Joker just lacks all the subtlety that made Ledger’s Joker so creepy. It’s like Suicide Squad took the Dark Knight Joker and put him into Google translate, translated him back, and then tried to make it appeal to a very specific crowd.
This is the sad part of The Dark Knight’s legacy; it has forever changed how we see Batman and the Joker. Currently, it is the benchmark for all Batman media. It will be a long time until we see an adaptation of these characters that gets even close to The Dark Knight.
On The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, it’s worth looking back and asking – what’s the best superhero movie ever? Is it The Avengers? Infinity War? Logan? Black Panther? Wonder Woman? I think that there is an interesting debate to be had; but for many, myself included, the debate was settled in 2008.