#628) The Dark Knight (2008)
OR “Thank You for Joking”
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer. Based on the character “Batman” by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Class of 2020
The Plot: Gotham City’s resident billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is secretly Batman, a crimefighting vigilante superhero. As seen in a previous film, Wayne becomes Batman to end Gotham’s crime wave and mobster influence, and “The Dark Knight” finds him continuing that fight, this time against new criminal the Joker (Heath Ledger). As the Joker goes on a killing spree in an effort to coax Batman to reveal his true identity, Batman enlists the help of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) Gotham’s new District Attorney and “White Knight” who happens to be dating Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Joker’s reign of terror not only threatens to unbalance the law and order of Gotham City, but simultaneously pushes Batman’s morals to their breaking point. Holy dilemma, Batman!
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a visual feast of memorable set pieces, screenwriting flair, and characters and situations imbued with a soul and a conscience.” Bale and Ledger’s “now legendary” performances are hailed, and the write-up also unnecessarily reminds us that the film’s themes of “fear and dystopian chaos resonates eerily well in the pandemic havoc of 2020.” You’re not helping, NFR!
But Does It Really?: Despite the relatively short timespan of the superhero movie era we’re living in, “The Dark Knight” has already proven itself to be one of the highlights. The Nolan Batman films successfully distanced themselves from previous Batman adaptations with its darker, grittier take, and “The Dark Knight” in particular showed that the genre could successfully focus on larger, more realistic themes rather than simply non-stop action and over-the-top aesthetics. Aided by top-notch performances and fresh storytelling, “The Dark Knight” has already solidified its place in pop-culture history, becoming one of the rare sequels to join the NFR.
Shout Outs: Three of the Joker’s goons in the opening bank robbery share their code names with Snow White’s dwarfs: Happy, Grumpy, and Dopey.
Everybody Gets One: As with many a recent NFR entry, a majority of this film’s cast are making their NFR debut. Among the noteworthy: returning cast members Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Cillian Murphy, and new cast-members Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the latter replacing Katie Holmes from the first film when she opted to make “Mad Money” instead (and that should be making the NFR any day now. Wait for it…).
Seriously, Oscars?: After its commanding run at the box office, “The Dark Knight” received eight Oscar nominations, winning two: Sound Editing and a posthumous Supporting Actor trophy for the late Heath Ledger. “Dark Knight” failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, and its omission (along with fellow NFR entry “WALL-E“) is speculated to be the reason the Best Picture category expanded the following year from five to ten contenders.
Before we go any further: A Brief History of Batman!
The Batman (as he was originally called) made his debut in Detective Comics on March 30th, 1939. Created by comic book writers Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman was an immediate hit, and within a year had spun-off into his own comic series, which is still printing to this day. Batman made his film debut in a 1943 adventure serial starring Lewis Wilson. Over the years, Batman’s popularity would be revived by the 1960s TV series with Adam West (which, thanks to its plethora of Classic Hollywood guest stars, gets mentioned on this blog with some regularity), and again in 1989 with the big-budget Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton that returned the franchise to its darker roots. While 1989’s “Batman” was a massive success, its sequels quickly regressed into the kind of ’60s campiness the first film intentionally avoided. Following the lackluster performance of 1997’s “Batman and Robin”, Warner Bros. put the franchise on hold, and met with several directors for a potential reboot. Christopher Nolan pitched a more realistic origin story, which became 2005’s “Batman Begins”. The film was a surprise hit, and Warner Bros. commissioned a sequel, with Nolan opting to continue the Joker teaser from his film’s finale and expand upon his more grounded approach to the source material.
And now back to our blog post already in progress.
- Prior to watching “The Dark Knight” for this blog, I re-watched “Batman Begins” for the first time in 16 years. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch “Begins” before “The Dark Knight”, I wouldn’t call it required viewing as long as you have a general knowledge of the Batman mythology. By comparison, “Begins” is a lighter fare than “Dark Knight”, with characters still managing to throw in a quip or two. But while “Begins” is mostly set-up to the world and characters, “Dark Knight” has the luxury of being its own adventure, and can hit the ground running with minimal exposition.
- “The Dark Knight” was the first major studio picture to be filmed in part with HD IMAX cameras. Roughly 20% of the film was shot in the IMAX format, and my viewing included shifts in aspect ratios to highlight these shots. IMAX is reserved mostly for the major action set-pieces and big establishing shots, and the change is not too jarring on a regular TV screen.
- Throughout the movie, reference is made to Lt. (later Commissioner) Gordon’s Major Crimes Unit, aka the MCU, which is definitely weird to hear in the middle of a DC film.
- Despite the film’s dark tone, I appreciate the occasional injection of humor. Nothing too distracting, just some gentle ribbing between characters that reads more as camaraderie than clever writing. Additionally, the film wisely avoids the kind of meta-humor most modern superhero films feel obligated to shoehorn in. The one subtle exception is Bruce’s desire to make the Batsuit more flexible, a reference to Christian Bale’s criticism (as well as several previous Batmans) about the trademark cowl’s lack of peripheral vision.
- Heath Ledger’s Joker is a force to be reckoned with. You can’t take your eyes off of Ledger when he’s on-screen, taking the character beyond the unhinged theatricality of a Cesar Romero or a Jack Nicholson and making his Joker pure anarchy incarnate. The extra stroke of genius is that we never learn the Joker’s real identity or his motivations; he’s just a criminal who wants to leave chaos in his wake. And for the record: Rumors that Heath Ledger’s sudden death was fueled by his intense character preparation for this film have been repeatedly debunked by Ledger’s family, as well as several cast and crew-members, who recalled Ledger “having a blast” playing the Joker.
- I do wonder sometimes just how much you have to pay the likes of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to appear in your superhero movie with not a hell of a lot to do. Freeman gets his quick scenes as Batman’s answer to James Bond’s Q, and Caine has a few solid moments as Alfred the butler. Given the amount of lines involving tactical weaponry, I kept expecting Alfred to remind Bruce “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
- In addition to the main cast, there are a ton of notable actors in supporting turns and cameos. Anthony Michael Hall – far removed from his “Breakfast Club” days – shows up as the scariest lowlife imaginable: a cable news host. Eric Roberts appears as mobster Sal Maroni, and his NFR presence currently eludes his younger sister Julia. The most famous bit player in the bunch is Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the partygoer who stands up to the Joker. A lifelong Batman fan, Senator Leahy has made cameos in severals Batman film and TV projects, donating his payment to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, where he read comic books as a child.
- The movie’s other great joke: “How do the defendants plead?”
- I’m digging this movie’s whole vibe, with the Joker forcing Batman (and Harvey Dent) to consider what happens when your strong code of ethics put others in danger. It’s very “We’re not so different, you and I”, and inspired such later movie villains as Killmonger from “Black Panther”.
- The Batmobile chase through the city is a highlight for sure. My one question: with a chase through the streets of Chicago (subbing for Gotham) that takes a detour through a shopping center, when did this movie become “The Blues Brothers”?
- One of my favorite tropes in all media is when non-American actors attempt an American accent. English actors Gary Oldman and Christian Bale have theirs down pat, although Oldman’s tends to disappear when Lt. Gordon is yelling. And while Australian actor Heath Ledger’s accent is a bit out-there, it works for the Joker’s eccentricities.
- [Spoilers] Anyone who knows the history of Batman knows that Harvey Dent is destined to become the villain Two-Face. The only mildly-dated aspect of this film is the CG rendering on the burnt half of Aaron Eckhart’s face. Nolan was adamant about doing as many practical effects as possible in the film, though conceded that attempting Two-Face’s disfigurement with makeup would just add to his face, rather than remove from (Dent is a burn victim, after all). The CG effect isn’t awful by any stretch, but an HD screen reveals some of its rough edges.
- As we ramp up to the finale and the film has more spinning plates, we kind of lose focus of Batman himself. Though this is somewhat befitting of the film’s theme of escalation: there’s a point where Gotham’s corruption and moral quandaries go beyond Batman. “Batman Beyond”, if you will.
- [Spoilers] In true “Empire Strikes Back” fashion, “Dark Knight” takes the world of the first film and plunges it into darkness. This includes the cliffhanger finale, in which despite the capture of the Joker and the death of Harvey Dent, nothing is truly resolved and Batman has become a fugitive from the Gotham police. Hats off to Nolan et al for still making this a satisfying ending, and in the most belated “Title Track/Take a Shot” this blog has ever had, Gordon finally calls Batman “a dark knight” as the movie’s curtain line.
- “The Dark Knight” is dedicated to Heath Ledger (who died six months before the film’s release), as well as Conway Wickliffe, one of the film’s special effects technicians who died in a car accident during production.
- “The Dark Knight” hit theaters in July 2008, and quickly started breaking every box office record in sight. Although it never displaced “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie of all time, it was the highest-grossing film of the year, and surpassed the ’89 “Batman” as the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time (displaced by Marvel’s “The Avengers” four years later). Since then, “The Dark Knight” has routinely been hailed as one of the best superhero movies, best sequels, and best films of the 21st century (so far).
- Although initially hesitant to make another sequel, Christopher Nolan relented with 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, which was a successful film in its own right and largely considered a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. “Rises” continued the proud tradition of English actors doing weird accents, with Tom Hardy’s genuinely off-putting Bane.
- “The Dark Knight” has maintained a spot in pop culture, no doubt in part to Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic take on the Joker (“Why so serious?”). Among the film’s oft-quoted aphorisms are “Some men just want to watch the world burn” and “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Although the internet phrase “We live in a society” is associated with Heath Ledger’s Joker, he never actually says it in the film.
- Following the Nolan trilogy, Batman returned to the big screen in a series of films starring Ben Affleck. The Batman franchise was rebooted yet again in 2022 with “The Batman” starring Robert Pattinson, which was an immediate hit with a sequel on the way.
- Shoutout to the other post-“Dark Knight” Batman films: “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie”, in which Will Arnett shows us the fun side of the Caped Crusader without delving into his tragic backstory.
Further Viewing: One of my favorite YouTube essayists is Patrick H Willems (though I confess to skimming past his videos’ coconut subplot). Willems has several videos chronicling the mythos of Batman on film, but I recommend this one in which he accurately dissects why Batman’s sidekick Robin so rarely shows up in these films.
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