In 1997, Batman and Robin made its way into cinemas, effectively killing, temporarily thankfully, Batman as a cinematic character. It didn’t feel temporary at the time, however. Joel Schumacher’s film was a commercial and critical failure, failing to match the box office of 1995’s Batman Forever, accompanied with reviews that were downright hostile.
In 2005, though, Batman made a triumphant return to cinemas through the eyes of Christopher Nolan. Nolan may have seemed a strange choice initially, but as is the case with superheroes, sometimes it’s the more outside the box choices that can make wonders work; think Sam Raimi directing Spider-Man or Jon Favreau calling the shots on Iron Man. Nolan came from a background directing intense character-based thrillers such as Memento and Insomnia, but with Batman Begins he showed that he could marry his interest in character with even bigger scaled thrills, the film delivering a wonderful account of Bruce Wayne’s origins, but also amazing comic book action, delivering one of the greatest comic-book inspired movies of all time.
In the lead up to The Dark Knight, there was a feeling from some that the film may fail to recapture the same magic, with many criticising the choice of Heath Ledger as The Joker, a character hinted at in the wonderful final scene of the preceding film. In a typical case indicating that one should not judge a book by its cover, the worry over Ledger’s casting proved to be spectacularly wrong, but it would be one that would carry with it a sense of poignancy.
Heath Ledger would tragically lose his life seven months before the film’s release, but it would prove to be not only his greatest performance, in a career that saw the Australian actor deliver the goods in romantic fluff such as 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale to more intense work in Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain, but one of the greatest in the genre of comic book cinema and probably even beyond.
The film itself would also be a high watermark for what was about to become the most dominant genre in Hollywood as it approached the 2010’s.
While Batman Begins felt very much like the Batman side of the DC Comics universe brought to life, Nolan would spearhead a direction more into Michael Mann crime-thriller territory with The Dark Knight, with a pressure cooker narrative that would take in organised crime, terrorism, politics, and vigilantism. If Batman Begins is a film about a vigilante group of ninjas poisoning the water supply (very comic book, indeed) then The Dark Knight is pretty much a film about terrorism, but one which felt incredibly relevant to where the world had gone and was going post-9/11.
Even the filmmaking style had changed somewhat; where Batman Begins relied on work within a studio backlot, combined with filming in real-world locations, creating parts of Gotham City and The Narrows within the grounds of Shepperton Studios and parts of Chicago, the filmmaking aesthetic of The Dark Knight would pretty much turn Chicago into a real-life Gotham City, making glorious use of its skyline and streets to bring an intense confrontation between the most iconic hero/villain relationship in all of comics to life, relying less on work within a studio backlot to create the streets of the famed fictional city.
The film would be a well-deserved box office and critical success and rightfully be regarded by many as the greatest comic book movie of all time, representing a peak for a time when dark and gritty was a go-to word and style before Marvel Studios (which launched its cinematic universe in the same summer with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk) would come to dominate the box office with a more lighter, jaunty tone, very successfully and wonderfully it must be said.
The Dark Knight, however, feels like a film with deadly, real-world consequences. It asks the question of what the real world would be like if Batman or The Joker were authentic and both the brothers Nolan and David S. Goyer take that question into increasingly dark and brilliantly disturbing territory.
They play certain comic book movie conventions and then subvert them, the biggest one being The Joker giving Batman the choice between saving Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) or Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), with Batman choosing Rachel but having been manipulated into saving Dent and Rachel dying as a result.
Admittedly the subverting of this trope does involve killing the only lead female character of the ensemble, something that does call into question Nolan’s ability to develop a female character. His body of work does involve a lot of male characters (what is The Prestige but an exploration of toxic masculinity), and while later works such as Inception and, in particularly Interstellar (which I will defend to the ends of the earth or any water-based planet you can think of) have done better, it’s easy to see, especially looking at the context of this movie, that some want to criticise his movies over his more male-dominated narratives, something which it shares with other Michael Mann thrillers, in particular, Heat.
This criticism aside, the film itself is truly wonderful, and it’s hard not to get sucked into once that discordant Joker theme composed by Hans Zimmer starts playing over the Warner Bros. logo. Some have called it the greatest blockbuster of the 21st Century, a tag it may deserve. The filmmaking craft is wonderful, it relies on special effects and stunt work which has predominantly been done in-camera, the editing style on the fight sequences are a lot clearer than on Batman Begins and the Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard score is superb, a driving force throughout the entire film. Amazingly the only time the film doesn’t fall back on music is during the one sequence that you would expect it to; the grandiose chase sequence in the middle of the film.
Like The Empire Strikes Back, the biggest set piece of the film doesn’t come in the climax, it comes in the middle, a brilliantly staged car chase involving a SWAT van, the Tumbler and the Joker in a truck marked “Slaughter is the best Medicine”. It’s thrilling, amazing and could almost have represented the peak of the movie, but Nolan takes the film ever further into increasingly dark and desperate directions, giving audiences a definitive take on the Harvey Dent/Two-Face story which really ought to feel rushed, but which compliments and enhances the film’s themes and story even more.
The casting is exemplary; Ledger’s Joker is truly one of modern cinema’s greatest villains, and Eckhart brings as much heart, soul and, eventually, morally corrupted darkness to Dent and his descent into Two-Face, and while Ledger’s Joker is the main draw for obvious reasons, unlike the works of Burton and Schumacher, Nolan never forgets about Bruce Wayne or Batman. This may not be as focused on Bruce as much as Batman Begins was, that was an origin tale after all, here Bruce Wayne is part of a larger ensemble, Nolan’s trilogy now becoming as much a story on the city of Gotham itself as it is a story about Batman, but thankfully he never forgets who the story is filtered through and we get wonderful scenes between Bale and Caine as Alfred that are warm, witty and filled with beautifully crafted philosophical conversations of the film’s themes on escalation and, most famously, “watching the world burn”.
On a surface level, it’s as brilliant a comic book movie as one could hope for. On a deeper level, it’s a complex and ferocious piece of work that has not aged a day and has gotten better and better over the last ten years. Yes, Marvel may dominate the superhero field in the silver screen and Warner Bros. may be scrambling to replicate the success of this trilogy and the MCU with an increasingly desperate universe of their own which has went from trying to replicate the tone of this film to something more approaching the Marvel formula, but nothing will change how great The Dark Knight is.
It brings thematic intelligence to a genre that would become increasingly reliant on a never-ending cascade of falling buildings and CGI (something that would also befall the Nolan-produced, Goyer-scripted Man of Steel), but The Dark Knight feels uncomfortably real and raw, even as it delivers great actions sequences and stunts that take the breath away, all filmed in gorgeous scope and IMAX photography by Wally Pfister.
In the middle of it all is Ledger’s Joker. Without a doubt one of the greatest movie villains of all time, it was a big ask to try to step into Jack Nicholson’s shoes, but Ledger succeeded. It’s an incredible piece of acting that cannot help but dominate the film, with a performance that has a ferocious level of menace, dollops of dark humour and one that draws the audience in even with the level of disturbed lunacy and psychotic behaviour.
Thankfully it never dominates the film in such a way that it destabilised everything around it. It adds the icing to a truly wonderful cake, but the added effect is that of sadness. It may be ten years of The Dark Knight, but with it comes ten years since we lost Ledger. What wonderful performances and talent we must have lost out on.