THE DARK KNIGHT: A Ten-Year Retrospective

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LONDON - JULY 21: Actors Michael Caine,producer Emma Thomas, actors Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, director Christopher Nolan and actor Aaron Eckhart arrives at the UK film premiere of 'The Dark Knight' at Odeon, Leicester Square on July 21, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Jon Furniss/WireImage)

Let’s wind the clocks back a decade.

George W. Bush was nearing the final months of his presidency, Beijing was preparing to host the Summer Olympics, the Great Recession had been taking a toll on the world’s economy, and Britney Spears was making her comeback.

On the big screen, films like Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and WALL-E were not only dominating the box office but standing out as delightful surprises in filmmaking for audiences and critics alike. But nothing could prepare them for what is still considered to be a modern classic, akin to The Godfather, The Empire Strikes Backand Pulp Fiction.

Enter The Dark Knight, released by Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Entertainment, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Everybody’s seen it, and it’s time to talk about it again. The monumental follow-up to Nolan’s 2005 hit Batman Begins proved to the world that superhero films, as well as all comic book adaptations, could be taken to new heights. Being distinct in style and tone and taken more seriously, many aspects of cinema and pop culture today can be traced back to The Dark Knight.

Revisiting THE DARK KNIGHT Ten Years Later

And Here We…GO!

In case you’ve avoided the seeing film this whole time for some strange reason, here’s a recap: billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) must suit up as the Batman to stop a new threat called the Joker (the late Heath Ledger) from creating a world of chaos in Gotham City, along with his allies; his butler and confidant Alfred (Michael Caine), Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). However, Wayne ponders what it means to be a hero, a vigilante, and how long he can keep this up. This brings us to District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a new face of hope for the citizens of Gotham who would later become the villainous Two-Face. And he’s also dating Bruce Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The basic talking points about what makes The Dark Knight (TDK) fantastic have mainly centered around Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime, joining the likes of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and the late Cesar Romero as some of the great Jokers. But much like when Michael Keaton was chosen to portray the titular character in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, the casting announcement of Ledger was met with severe backlash from fans, many petitioning to have him recast. But he exceeded expectations with a memorable performance that you could argue encompassed every variation of the Joker over the 70+ year history of Batman.

A Little Anarchy

The themes of escalation and chaos often lead to many considering TDK to be a post 9/11-allegory. Sure, Batman is the hero we root for, but the Joker is the one we find ourselves constantly quoting and even analyzing and understanding why he does what he does. By describing himself as an “agent of chaos”, throughout the film the Joker devises carefully-laid plans to challenge the morals and beliefs of Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, and the citizens of Gotham. From separating Dent and Dawes, then to the hospital, and finally testing innocent lives to determine which ferry to blow up, the writing does take the time to let characters ponder what their actions could lead to and how their views are being questioned.

Batman himself ends up having to take extreme measures by conducting illegal surveillance on Gotham to find the Joker. He knows it’s wrong, but has no choice. Just as what former President Bush and our nation faced during the War on Terror, it was all about pushing the boundaries of right and wrong when dealing with a madman who just wanted to “watch the world burn”. And as the world burns, suddenly evil triumphs over good, in the form of the Joker corrupting Dent. His justification is that being “decent men in an indecent time” is not fair or appropriate, which mirrored the sentiments of many Americans towards the War on Terror; it wasn’t about if it was a smart choice, but the right choice. So yes, a story about a man who dresses like a bat and fights crime can invoke some powerful social commentary.

The Dawn Is Coming

With all the praise and notoriety TDK gained, it was no surprise at the time that Oscar consideration was abuzz. Most of the push was towards Ledger getting a posthumous nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He not only won said award, but also a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a SAG Award, amongst many others. But the likelihood of Best Picture was up in the air back then. Despite appearing on many critics’ Top Ten Lists of 2008, people still questioned if it was even time for a superhero movie to be nominated for such an award. With the eight nominations the film received at the 81st Academy Awards in February 2009, none of them were for Best Picture.

However, the snub was a contributing factor to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a major change that year: allowing up to ten films to be nominated for Best Picture. Since this ruling, a wider variety of films like Up, Toy Story 3, Hugo, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Get Out have been given fair chances to stand out at the most prestigious awards ceremony in Hollywood. You know, films that you would have said “should be nominated for Best Picture”. But even then, a superhero film still has never been nominated for Best Picture. Can’t be an impossible feat, though.

Why so Serious?

With the word “reboot”, what comes to mind? “Dark”? “Gritty”? “Origin story”? “Serious”? These words have become buzz-worthy juggernauts of what could make or break a film in the last ten years. Filmmakers have felt that the concept of the reboot seemed not only more commercially viable than remakes, but also allowed for more creative possibilities. The idea of starting a franchise all over again, going back to the origin story with a more serious tone, catered more to the cynical audiences of today than the light-hearted nature of films like Richard Donner’s Superman or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Batman Begins was the starting point, to show that it could be done well.

Nolan’s interpretation of the Caped Crusader gave the confidence to studios and storytellers that this formula for success could be applied elsewhere. Directors like Sam Mendes, J.J. Abrams, and Rupert Wyatt have credited TDK with influencing their respective films Skyfall, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Audiences became more invested in “smart blockbusters”, where it was about characters facing moral dilemmas while fighting villains who may or may not be right about what they’re doing.

A Dog Chasing Cars

While those films, among others, were dark in style and tone, they managed to strike a balance between action-packed and thought-provoking. In a way, Nolan and TDK helped reinvent the modern blockbuster. But sometimes, these tactics can backfire. When the Superman reboot Man of Steel was released in 2013, many considered it to be a colossal disappointment. All of the sudden, the “dark and gritty reboot” became a poisonous term. Superman, a hero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way, suddenly turned into a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight. Director Zack Snyder, along with Nolan executive producing, faced harsh retraction from fans and critics for “Nolanizing” the iconic superhero.

But it didn’t stop there. In the years following, the rebooted Spider-Man series The Amazing Spider-Man, the 2015 Fantastic Four flop, and last year’s Saban’s Power Rangers all became victims of dark-and-gritty fatigue. These stories became less about its characters and more about hammering in ideas, grounding themselves too much in reality, and sounding grander than they should be. It not enough for something to be dark just for the sake of being dark. Because then it becomes boring, which is the worst crime a movie can commit.

Last Word on The Dark Knight

Despite the supposedly complicated legacy of The Dark Knight, the film is anything but boring. It showed audiences and critics that not only superheroes could be taken more seriously, but more comic book stories and properties are feasible to adapt. You could even say that today’s Marvel films owe a little something to Nolan’s Batman. Not necessarily with style and aesthetic, but with bankability and possibility. Imagine if the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t the monstrous hit series it is today or if Logan had never received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. These filmmakers achieved their own successes not by copying exactly what Nolan did, but by crafting their own stories, the way they felt they deserved to be told.

So as you can see, there are many reasons why The Dark Knight is often considered to be the best comic book film ever made. It’s often discussed and analyzed in the same way Greek mythology or the works of Shakespeare are talked about. The lessons and morals are more adult-themed and aren’t here to just sell Batman action figures at your local toy store. This film was made not because Warner Bros. wanted to fill a quota, but because Nolan had a story worth telling. It was a lucrative success that took risks and allowed for new opportunities in storytelling and filmmaking for generations to come.

Superhero films had been slowly making their way into the pop culture zeitgeist for years, but 2008 is when the genre changed for the better. If Iron Man is rock and roll, then The Dark Knight is opera.

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