Ten years ago this week marks the release of not only one of the most influential films in modern cinema, but also one of those films which became a formative experience for the current generation of film-lovers—myself included. I was ten years old when I went to see The Dark Knight (2008) in my local cinema. To recount the sheer number of times I’ve seen it since would be a number too high to fathom. For me personally, it was the first film where I actively took part in the buildup, the first film I ever watched in theatres more than once, and the first film I ever considered my favorite.
Following up his first reimagining of one of comics’ most treasured icons, Batman Begins (2005), Christopher Nolan’s second Batman outing successfully grounded the story of the Caped Crusader in a convincing reality and in doing so defied traditional genre conventions. It’s one of the first real post-9/11 blockbusters that deals with a political landscape where questions of war and security were constantly at the forefront. And it found itself caught somewhere between a superhero movie and a classic American crime drama: an epic five-act morality play that ended up creating waves like only a product of the Hollywood studio system could. More than just offering topical parallels for the prior seven years, within a rippingly intense and entertaining action thriller, the film was an overwhelming condemnation of how America reacted to the 9/11 attacks — a treatise on how America turned on itself in fear, and slowly but surely allowed once ironclad moral concepts to become partisan political positions.
The Dark Knight was the fourth film to ever cross the billion dollar mark worldwide. It’s an occurrence that has since become commonplace, but back in 2008, it was a pretty big deal. Despite being a sequel, its cultural impact was far more sudden than films of its ilk. While its tone became somewhat of a regularity amongst actions movies in the years that followed, Nolan’s Batman sequel was, at the time, one of a kind.
But, The Dark Knight didn’t become a record-breaking smash hit because it was ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’. The idea that Nolan’s Batman was full of somber gravitas and endless brooding is frankly fiction. I’d argue that The Dark Knight is ‘grim’ and ‘dark’ only because of how brutally it undercuts the first film’s somewhat simplistic ideology. But that merely makes it one of several blockbuster sequels that thrive on exposing the dark underbelly of the somewhat simple hero’s journey from its respective predecessor. It’s also incredibly exciting, often funny, and always entertaining—unabashedly alive with wit and energy.
The Dark Knight didn’t become a pop-culture touchstone because it was ‘realistic’ either. These were still films that involved fear-gas, ninjas, crazed clowns whose contingency plans had contingency plans, and doomsday cults who could take over an entire city. It also wasn’t just because it dealt with real-world issues in a comic book drama environment, since any number of big blockbusters have big ideas at their core. Most big films are about something, but that doesn’t give them a pass if they don’t quite work thematically. It’s no secret that I’ll give brownie points to flawed movies with good ideas, but big ideas can’t save a bad film. The Dark Knight just happens to be perfectly constructed on multiple levels (entertainment factor, screenplay fidelity, technical film craft, etc.) while having great ideas to deliver through that cinematic greatness.
But, we’ve had great films that work on all levels like that before. So, what made this different? Why was The Dark Knight such a massive phenomenon? American cinema has always been a massive global export, but The Dark Knight came out at a time when the face of international movie culture was amidst an evolution. Social media platforms had suddenly made the buildup to big movies globally ubiquitous, and The Dark Knight was amongst the first where the experience expanding beyond the walls of the cinema was an international phenomenon. Viral marketing, massive online discussions, and trailers hitting YouTube well before we got to see them on the big screen.
It was a smash hit because of the quality of the marketing and the quality of the final product, plain and simple: the rare case of an incredibly exciting marketing campaign that gave way to a film that actually lived up to (and surpassed) the hype. The Dark Knight was an absolute perfect storm: you had a popular original film that left fans primed for the next installment, and the trump card of being able to market an extremely well-regarded actor playing the most recognizable fictional villain in modern history. The superb trailers promised a sweeping and epic adult crime drama with visual poetry, genuine nuance, and a number of trusted actors supporting Christian Bale. And of course, the movie delivered what it promised. There was no magic formula; it was purely a sequel to a well-liked original that promised and delivered high-quality entertainment and buzz-worthy elements.
The obvious place to start would be Heath Ledger. While his passing certainly drew attention to his last completed role, his performance was already getting the kind of buzz reserved for year-end awards contenders before his death. From the first unsettling image of his Glasgow grin, to the teaser trailer scored by his maniacal laughter, to news of Michael Caine being so terrified of him that he forgot his lines, it was all part of this anomalous anticipation wherein people wanted to watch a massive studio film primarily for a performance. The film was on the radars of a whole lot of people who weren’t accustomed to thinking about a movie before we’d seen any footage; and once we had, “Let’s put a smile on that face” and “Why so serious?” was being repeated everywhere. Oh man, ten-year-old me fell in love with this character.
Ledger’s is the most iconic presentation of the Joker ever. Full-stop. Props to Jack Nicholson, as always, but Ledger’s Joker is incomparable. Eschewing the theatrics of almost every other iteration, Ledger finds terrifying humor in quiet moments. This is a Joker who wouldn’t be interested in squirting flowers or electric hand buzzers. His humor is ironic, subtle, and always cynical and bitter. What Ledger understood is that the Joker isn’t scary when he’s a cackling madman, but rather when his irrationality slowly peeks out from behind what appears to be a veneer of sanity. This isn’t just the best Joker we’ve ever seen, it’s one of the all-time best screen villains, especially considering his significance from a writing perspective. For more on that, see this video on the perfection of the Joker as a pure force of the screenplay.
The mystery of the Joker himself is what initially drew people in, intoxicated with the puzzle of this chaotic character. Such is the case for Christopher Nolan’s filmography in general. A single Nolan film is a puzzle. It’s often the central enigma of the film, rather than its narrative hook, that was the whole point: the restless ambiguity that stays with us after the film is what becomes the central meaning. Nolan’s auteur persona helps to create meaning around the similarities and differences within his films. This differentiates Nolan from other contemporary Hollywood directors, increasing the validity and dissemination of a distinct auteur persona. It’s always stimulating to examine the importance of Nolan’s hands-on technical choices, his insistence on control, and his preference for celluloid over digital; they weigh up the artistic input of Nolan’s cinematographers and composers and accentuate his contagious cinephilia.
Nolan’s resistance to adopting digital filmmaking tools aligns him with a particular brand of cinephilia, one that emphasizes the aesthetic virtues of celluloid as a form of authentic cinema. His films support the audience’s immersion in the narrative, first and foremost. In a period when the global film industry was undergoing major shifts from analogue to digital systems, including camera, post-production, and exhibition technologies, Nolan made a point of extolling the aesthetic virtues of celluloid and participating in a discourse surrounding film formats that posits them as a form of authentic cinema, both by virtue of their photochemical properties and their high-definition mode of realism. His most emphatic endorsement of film-as-film manifests in his shooting significant portions of The Dark Knight in IMAX 70mm. In virtually every interview with Nolan, there is some mention of not only his love of film, but of IMAX as a medium that surpasses digital technologies.
In the case of The Dark Knight, the presence of IMAX footage supports Nolan’s enlistment of cinephilia by rendering these versions of the film emphatically cinematic, aesthetically differentiated from digital productions and employing the rhetoric of enhanced experience and sensory engagement associated with IMAX. For Nolan, IMAX is both artistically and ideologically useful for its technical properties and also for the set of associations that have crystallized around the medium. In The Dark Knight, Nolan uses IMAX cameras in the expected contexts of aerial photography, landscape scenes, and action sequences; but he also employs them in more intimate contexts. He especially uses the shifts in scale between 35mm and IMAX to effectively achieve a variety of expressive ends to denote moments of character revelation or other cognitive shifts; to instill feelings of vertigo by using IMAX in montage sequences with comparatively claustrophobic 35mm; to facilitate moments of contemplation; and to emphasize the photographic ‘realness’ of images that might otherwise be construed as digital effects. While IMAX can generate a variety of sensory and visceral thrills, Nolan will sometimes use it for more calming purposes, to slow the pace of the film, particularly after moments of kineticism and psychological intensity — such as the incredible shot of the Joker hanging out of the window of a police car like a dog, weaving through the streets in a kind of reverie. The engulfing scale of the IMAX image creates a temporal and spatial pause where the viewer might contemplate both the beauty of the medium and also the film’s troubling moral economy.
The brand of cinephilia cultivated in The Dark Knight, as with all Nolan’s stunning spectacles, is a kind in which we value the effort it took to actually film the moments almost as much as we value the spiritual revelation, sheer aesthetic pleasure, or somatic engagement it promised in its presentation. Nolan cultivates a discourse of cinephilia around his work by using film technologies that are necessarily theatrical, and whose visual and geometric distinctions from conventional formats make the apparatus of film a ‘character’ in the drama of film-going. This attention to the apparatus invites the viewer to make interpretive speculations, wondering how and why the movie presents a given object, action, or event using a specific technology. Nolan and cinephile communities alike enlist notions of nostalgia, of technological specificity, and of spectatorship as social and cultural ritual to invest the IMAX versions of the Dark Knight films with special status, both by connecting these films to larger histories of film production and reception, and suggesting novel ways of using IMAX in dramatic narrative.
Another of Christopher Nolan’s lasting impacts on cinema that’s best revealed through The Dark Knight is his ability to inject the ontological significance of why we go to the movies into the thematic layering of his films with each outing of his filmography: like the Joker, he shows us our true colors. It is through The Dark Knight which we find that the ‘undesirability of truth’ and the fragility of control may appear as Nolan’s most dominant theme. Nolan vigorously augmented the vision of a character’s ability to create or fictionalize another cathartic self through his idea about a human Batman film (the ultimate self-fictionalized hero). Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego of Batman serves in this iteration to eschew the ‘white collar,’ and with it its threatening effeminacy, for an obtusely gravelly voice and black suit of armor symbolizing muscularity, physicality, and action. Further, the material effect of Batman’s mask, like the very idea of Batman himself, poses as a kind of freedom. He is a loaded space of masculine potentiality.
As Batman’s arc continues through The Dark Knight, the dichotomous battle is now given over to the face-painted fiend who comes to represent the nihilistic, greedy, and chaotic antithesis to Batman’s stalwart discipline and direction. Though the Joker gives the film a ‘real’ semblance of terror and dread—allowing Batman once again to test his strength of character, masculine virility, autonomy, and physical prowess against a formidable other—the film also induces a more subtle ideological code to the Joker’s sense of aversion. The Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism: pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and the invisible visible. With his larger-than-life appearance, laughter, use and disposal of the ‘working man’, and his cutthroat attitude to ‘business’, the Joker brings to the film the normally repressed and invisible elements of the capitalist system. As the embodiment of the senselessness of the capitalist social system in which death and destruction are tolerated as long as they can feasibly be understood as part of a plan, the Joker asserts: “Nobody panics if it’s all part of the plan … I’m an agent of chaos … and you know the thing about chaos … it’s fair.”
Batman, however, attempts to undermine the Joker and with him this capitalist exposition as the series turns to distance itself even further from the decadent world of Wayne towards a more humanist, ascetic, and ‘hands on’ (dare I even say ‘blue collar’) will-to-act masculine heroism and projection of masculine prowess. We find this accentuated in Harvey Dent’s plotline as well, as he sacrifices morality and choice for the flip of a coin: a plunge into a completely meaningless existence of pure contingency and nihilism. This marks his transition to villainy and leads his alter ego, Two Face, to synthesize the same somewhat symbolically capitalistic chaotic irrationality as the Joker. Batman, however, exudes a redeemed masculinity, and in the climax, overcomes his desire to kill the murderous Joker—his heroism, rationality and masculine resilience all intact. The thematic schema is also expanded to the wider recesses of the film. In the climactic ferry boat scene, the Joker assumes that, like himself, “When the chips are down … civilized people [will]eat each other” and chaos will ensue. However, interplaying with stereotypes, the film reveals that neither party has the capacity to commit such atrocities and, therein, both are marked with a heroic sense of humanity and compassion.
Here lies the same dramatic redemptive clause for Nolan: we can all become better, even if, as Dent suggests, it is increasingly impossible to be “decent men in an indecent time.” But if the Joker is representative of the ‘truth’ of the system in which Gotham’s inhabitants live, he must—like the truth of Harvey Dent—be vanquished before Gotham can find redemption in Nolan’s cinema. The following line from the The Dark Knight perhaps best spells out the underlining dialectic in Nolan’s cinema: “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more.” For Nolan, all truth is just a matter of perspective. He’ll sometimes leave the truth of the events within the diegesis ambiguous so that the spectator cannot know with total certainty what happened. But what he never leaves ambiguous is the truth of the desire for a specific account of these events. This fidelity to his filmmaking amid the ideological demands of Hollywood represents Nolan’s most significant achievement as a filmmaker; challenging an ideology from the inside is always the most effective way of undermining it.
This separates Nolan from other filmmakers who delve into the superhero film and succumb immediately to the lure of the celebration of the superhero’s exceptionality. In fact, Nolan uses the superhero’s exceptionality as a source for criticising the contemporary state of exception in The Dark Knight. As a result, he used this approach to not only revive the Batman franchise, but in doing so, he also transformed the superhero genre. He transformed the genre to such an extent that one might speak with justification of superhero films as ‘before Nolan’ and ‘after Nolan’, announcing a new epoch of the realist superhero film. In the The Dark Knight, we are given the tools to deconstruct the truths of the superhero myth but, in the end, reaffirm the myth: Batman exhibits and perpetrates various falsities, constantly interrogating the contours of the superhero myth, but they culminate in the truth of the necessity of the hero to save the day. In a way, the film is the ultimate condemnation of Batman, but it simultaneously understands the need for him to exist.
Ten years later, The Dark Knight remains as monumental as it was when it first released, surpassing the hype for a new kind of blockbuster. The chasm between fun, goofy entertainment and serious. thought-provoking art had begun to close. It changed the way studios approached action movies for years and helped legitimize the idea of the superhero in the eyes of the mainstream. It’s part of why comic book movies are as big as they are today, and even why we have more than five Best Picture nominees. Most importantly, The Dark Knight was one of the biggest things to happen to global cinema at the time because it helped change the way the world engaged with movies. Its success wasn’t a matter of formulas to be copied, but merely a matter of a great filmmaker implementing a vision that challenged what we knew about movies and genre. The film asks many provocative questions and dares to not provide every answer. But, in the end, it comes out in favor of humanity’s basic compassion and capacity for hope, community, and sacrifice.
Image Credits: IMDb