Why The Dark Knight Is Still the Best Superhero Movie

A decade later and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is still the best film superhero cinema has ever produced.

A decade after its release, the most evocative images of The Dark Knight in our cultural memory have little to do with what we anticipate in superhero movies. A lone hero standing in the rubble of a ruined building, mourning the dead while fires still rage behind him; an empty firetruck abandoned on the side of the road and engulfed in the flames it was intended to stop; and a maniac riding in the back of a stolen cop cruiser, relishing the pre-dawn air like a dog scenting blood. That and more will come too in a morning awakening to chaos.

To be sure, The Dark Knight is definitely a superhero film, as two of those three images include a hero in a bat-shaped costume or a villain encrusted in fading pancake makeup. However, it is how co-writer/director Christopher Nolan and his many collaborators put those pieces together that makes The Dark Knight’s mystique, even a full 11 years later, so enigmatic. The summer of 2008 ushered in both the height of superhero cinema’s artistic ambitions with The Dark Knight as well as its then-untapped full commercial potential as gleaned by Marvel Studios’ Iron Man. But even in this new age of gods and monstrous superhero blockbusters, none has come close to matching The Dark Knight’s enduring effect on the culture and on cinema’s better angels. Few have even tried. That is because The Dark Knight’s lightning in a bottle is still a shock to the system 11 years on.

Released as the sequel of Nolan’s reinvention of the Batman legend, Batman Begins (2005), there was no tangible reason to expect The Dark Knight would be the cultural game-changer that it was. Batman Begins was a superb superhero movie that grounded the Batman character in relatively heightened realism (or what another superhero director happily labeled “verisimilitude”). After several years of superheroes becoming a new popular genre in the 21st century, Batman Begins was a more intelligent and adult variation on the familiar formula. Taking a page from Richard Donner, Nolan had assembled an all-star cast of acting heavyweights from large to small roles, including Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson. Yet Batman Begins was still very much the traditional superhero origin movie, even if it is arguably the best rendering of it, following the same narrative beats of Superman: The Movie, Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and many of the Marvel Studios movies that came afterward, including Iron Man.

What Begins did bring to the table, however, was the elegant craft of a group of filmmakers aiming to create a superhero movie similar in style to the crime epics of the previous 30 years. Even so, the movie was a minor box office success, opening soft at $48.8 million and then grossing $205 million on sheer word of mouth. These were respectable numbers, but nothing in them could have foretold to Warner Bros. that the next Batman movie, even with its ampler budget, would be the first movie to open at over $150 million in three days, or that it would go on to gross more than a billion dollars back when that was not an annual event, and at a time when the Chinese box office could not be counted on. The Dark Knight did not even play in China after its less than favorable representation of the government’s extradition laws.

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Why The Dark Knight struck such a chord with moviegoers can still be quibbled over (and is by fans). Was it the dynamic viral marketing campaign, the macabre allure of a major star dying far too young, and The Dark Knight capturing his final full performance, or just people loving Batman vs. the Joker? Each of these aspects obviously played a role in the pop culture tidal wave that followed, but what made it more than just a big opening weekend or another superhero movie to fade from memory six months later is that The Dark Knight is a nigh perfect superhero passion play, one aiming to throw its winged crusader into a rarified air that most other action movie franchises simply avoid.

As directed by Christopher Nolan, who worked from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jonathan Nolan (David Goyer co-wrote the story), The Dark Knight is the clearest rendering of the reason superhero movies have exploded in the American imagination with renewed vigor in the 21st century. It is not coincidence that the first major superhero blockbuster of this era was the one about a hometown kid from Queens learning “When you mess with one of us [New Yorkers] you mess with all of us.” Released only eight months after the cataclysmic event that reshaped life in the West, Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first superhero movie and pure summer escapism to follow Sept. 11, 2001. It also was a needed bit of joyous daydream where instead of facing doom and despair, Manhattanites were left in awe of the nerdy, webbed avenger flying through their concrete canyons.

It ushered in the appeal of someone simplifying an issue with his righteousness and saving us all from our world of uncertainty. It is a potent fantasy that continues to be attractive in our never-ending troubled times. Consider how much of Marvel Studios’ now dominant output engages that Raimi sense of gee golly glee, if noticeably less of the wonder that Raimi adored. But between the MCU and Spider-Man, there were plenty of superhero movies of varying levels of quality, with Batman Begins standing on the higher end.

The Dark Knight, however, was the first superhero movie to unequivocally follow up on that social unease that Spider-Man cooed. Only rather than comfort, Nolan found something gruesome and real undergirding the entire power fantasy. While all three of Nolan’s Batman films deal with real fears of social collapse in the West—Batman Begins features a bearded man wanting to destroy an American city through fear and The Dark Knight Rises rather presciently predicts a loudmouthed faux-populist destroying institutions—The Dark Knight is the most sophisticated in its thematic working. Unlike its sister installments, it doesn’t rely on doomsday nuclear weapons or a grand scheme to literally destroy a city. Rather it is about how one lone man with a lot of firearms can terrify a community until its systems begin collapsing all on their own.

Reimagining the Joker as more than a supervillain, the bad guy is now a personification of the very concept of chaos. He also takes The Dark Knight out of the abstract and allegorical and into moviegoers’ daily lives. We’ve seen this Joker’s tactics on the nightly news for years before and since the film, from videotaped executions to the specter of political assassinations that still haunts so many years after the 1960s. The Joker’s modus operandi is not a representation of evil in the real world; it’s a mirror to it.

read more: Christopher Nolan and the Oscars’ Strained Relationship with Popular Directors

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Thus moviegoers are invited to consider how they or their own communities would react to what is essentially a supernaturally gifted terrorist who can strike wherever he wants. Suddenly the notion of a superhero becomes much less reassuring. The Dark Knight Trilogy’s Batman is perhaps the most noble and self-sacrificing in the genre’s entire canon, who over years and films eventually gives his all in the name of his city. But unlike so many other superheroes, this Batman can fail and can be eluded. Simply by placing two victims in different locations, the Joker damns Batman to choose only one. In troubled times, even a superhero cannot save all of us from fiery destruction.

Only seven years after 9/11, and still during the Bush Years which were marred by hysteria and paranoia that led to the U.S. government invading Iraq based on trumped up intelligence and supporting “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture), moviegoers felt their own inarticulate sensation of helpless dread staring back at them as Gothamites bend and break to the Joker’s machinations. One by one, everyone, including the Batman, is tainted by a culture willing to sacrifice its liberties in the name of security. These citizens don’t believe “if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” They believe there is a madman the government is failing to catch, and they react differently.

Both Nolan brothers have remarked in the past how the Joker is almost not a character in the literary sense. He is more a force of nature, comparable to the shark stalking the shores of New England in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. He is a presence with no character arc, he just is—appearing in that moment with his back to the camera and mask in hand as if he had just materialized out of thin air. He’s a Rorschach test for the other characters in the film to project their fears or, in the case of the mob, hope onto.

By putting as much emphasis on the young and dashing district attorney, Harvey Dent, and the budding Police Commissioner James Gordon as Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knights script echoes Jaws’ triumvirate of men in varying degrees of public life trying to do the right thing and slay the beast. But that fight has a price where no one in the post-9/11 War on Terror comes out looking fully heroic. The most vocally righteous of the three, Harvey Dent, carries the film’s emotional arc as he wears the death of his fiancée Rachel Dawes just as heavily as Bruce Wayne, and that combined with being physically scarred by an act of terror breaks him. He gives into despair and cynicism, and to hide that fact—as well as the news that he killed several crooked cops—Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes.

To stop the Joker from “winning,” Batman and Gordon must enter into a political conspiracy that taints both of them. There is much talk about what kind of hero Gotham (and America) deserves in the picture, as well as about white knights and dark knights. But it is the film’s ubiquitous tonal gray that is the most overbearing. The heroes win a pyrrhic victory based on a lie. It also casts Bruce Wayne’s dedication in a more stirring light, as this isn’t about beating poor people up with his bare hands; he’ll sacrifice the nature of his existence, and the solace he finds in being Batman, to protect Gotham. But he does so in a way that morally compromises him, just as much as how he reluctantly pushed Harvey Dent from a great height in order to prevent the disgraced DA from shooting a boy while lost in rage and delirium.

Batman wouldn’t break his “one rule” of no killing to slay the Joker, because that would prove the Joker’s philosophical point that anyone can become as broken and nihilistic as himself, but Bruce will break it to save a child’s life. That irony is not lost on a hero who must compromise even his own ethics to win the day.

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Such a nuanced view of a world gone to hell summarizes why we truly need the fantasy of one good man like Batman, or a handful in the case of Gordon, Rachel, and even the flawed Harvey Dent, making the hard choices we cannot make. And yet, the film is aware of the inherent limitation of such dreams, which other superhero movies blindly embrace. Batman and Gordon lie to defend the state, and Batman used cell phone surveillance to a degree that barely seemed fictional in 2008 after the PATRIOT Act, and not at all after Edward Snowden revealed how deep the NSA’s surveillance program had burrowed by 2013. Abandoning your belief for a hero like Batman can invite in darker forces, which Nolan’s next Batman movie manifests as Tom Hardy’s Bane.

Still, all this thematic density is not the only reason for The Dark Knight’s significance and popularity. Other filmmakers have attempted to emulate Nolan’s aesthetic both in superhero movies and in genres as wide as spy thrillers and space treks into darkness, and most of them have failed. The narrative element in The Dark Knight is only so cutting because all of the other pieces complement each other, like a snazzy purple suit accentuating the emerald in your hair.

The Dark Knight - Joker

Heath Ledger’s death will forever be a stinging blow to his friends and family, and all those who knew his work on the big screen. However, the allure around his performance as the Joker exceeds any lurid implications. His hypnotic delivery of one of the most seductive and appalling visages of malevolence is the real draw. In a performance worthy of being held in the company of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, Ledger’s Joker is a powerful demon that mixes a grungy, punk look totally removed from the normal frills and polish of Hollywood blockbusters.

There’s an appealingly slapdash and amateurish quality to his makeup design—which Ledger insisted he put on himself—causing the villain to resemble the addict on the corner who hasn’t slept in a week or showered in thrice as long, as much as any comic book panel. And there is method to his madness too,  with each little facial spasm or desire to lick his self-inflicted wounds—another Ledger improvisation—building up to be more than just a showcase for a performer to indulge in ham. It is a portrait that gives the Nolans’ personification of terror and random tragedy a human dimension. That is why the insidiousness is so unrelenting. It really is the tour de force it was billed up as 2008. Nonetheless, he rest of the cast—even the admittedly underserved and underused Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel—rarely have gotten enough credit for bringing their A-game and providing the superhero genre with a film that is unapologetically earnest about its genre trappings, as much so as The Godfather seemed in 1972 about gangster pictures.

Oldman’s genuine panic at seeing a gun pointed at his son’s head is unnervingly infectious, Caine’s self-loathing as he burns a letter to protect Bruce is palpable, and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent gives a career best turn as the face of bitterness toward a cruel world. But perhaps most curious of all is how often Christian Bale as the Batman goes overlooked. Playing essentially one of several protagonists in The Dark Knight, and in a film that is overshadowed by one cinema’s greatest villains, Bale received a fair bit of criticism in 2008. Whereas Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises were clearly Bruce Wayne’s story, The Dark Knight was just as much about the people of Gotham. However, in this broader ensemble context, Bale’s performance warrants a greater appreciation, especially in the wake of so many self-effacing and snarky superheroes becoming the standard in recent times.

The first thing anyone notices about Bale’s Batman is his rage and anger (and the goofy voice he puts on to channel it). With the feral intensity of a lion about to strike, his Batman is perpetually pissed off. What is less immediately present is a forlorn altruism. Unlike the wholly glum and resigned Michael Keaton, or Ben Affleck’s sadistic killing machine in the more recent Caped Crusader “adventures,” there is a reservoir of humanity and pain underneath the surface of Bale’s Batman. There is also fear.

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We saw that in a broader, more blockbuster friendly rendering in Batman Begins, but that sense of trauma and anxiety about losing his soul to the Joker’s social experiments, or losing loved ones like Rachel, is much more deftly handled in The Dark Knight. And it is his resolve to power past that dread, like Gary Cooper walking to his destiny in High Noon, which makes his Batman so operatic in his sacrifice, and so much more lasting than what’s usually followed. While other superheroes tend to have a tongue in their cheek, it is Bruce’s keeping his hat in his hand that lingers.

The earnestness with which Nolan and Bale treat their superhero as a man who can and will lose, yet still wearily puts the weight of the world on his shoulders, is a nearly forgotten ingredient in The Dark Knight that matches the Joker’s nasty frivolity. When the two meet, and anger and nihilism come to ineffective blows in an interrogation-turned-torture sequence, the film experiences its true climax of tension that leaves no easy answers. The Joker “gets” to Batman as he ineffectively tortures a prisoner, and winds up with nothing to show for it but a ruined life and an ended one. The fallout that follows leaves Bruce and audiences alike to pick up the pieces.

read more: Batman Returns – The Greatest Anti-Christmas Gift of All

Luckily though, thanks to the craft behind-the-camera, those are some uniformly beautiful pieces. While Wally Pfister would have to wait until Inception to win an Oscar for cinematography, his and the Nolan’s choices in The Dark Knight have been the most important in blockbuster filmmaking. The Dark Knight was the first Hollywood fiction to use IMAX photography, notably for only a handful of sequences including when they flipped a real semi-truck, rear-first, in downtown Chicago. And the way Pfister captured a cool, urbane aesthetic that was counterintuitive to the bleakness leaping outside of the sunny vistas proves far more effective than the glossy CG-sheen of so many tentpoles. Further the vertigo Pfister is able to accomplish in IMAX during the Hong Kong detour has arguably had a more enduring impact on blockbusters than James Cameron’s 3D cameras in Avatar. To this day, blockbusters still can make an event out of sequences shot for IMAX 70mm, whereas 3D has receded back to the margins of gimmicky surcharges.

Similarly, Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight and its propulsive drums of dread became shorthand for many an epic, some scored by Zimmer and others not. In fact, almost every aspect of The Dark Knight was deconstructed and disseminated into the broader culture. And yet, it’s fair to say that the film had less of an impact on its genre than Iron Man did from that same summer. Iron Man heralded shared universes and a happy-go-lucky self-aware, sardonic quality that’s become an expectation within the genre. There were a few attempts to emulate The Dark Knight, including in its sequel and the Zack Snyder directed DCEU movies, plus Marc Webb’s first The Amazing Spider-Man reboot. Perhaps the only one who’s come close though was when Sam Mendes used it as an effective inspiration in 2012’s Skyfall. Overall though, many of the imitators chased The Dark Knight‘s grim vice while missing much or all of its virtue.

Be that as it may, the real reason we haven’t had a superhero movie as good as The Dark Knight, or even many on the same level as The Dark Knight Rises, is because few studios or directors in the current environment are willing to swing for the fences like that. Last year we received a wonderful exception in James Mangold’s elegiac Logan, yet that freedom was achieved due to Hugh Jackman successfully playing a beloved alter-ego for close to 20 years. For a new property? Most prefer landing a sure-thing single than striking out in the hopes of a risky homerun.

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For that reason, The Dark Knight continues to not only be the very best movie of its kind, but to go practically  unchallenged. It is the superhero movie whose snubbing caused the Academy Awards to go from five nominating categories for Best Picture to 10; the film that championed IMAX blockbuster cinema; and that offered the definitive rendering of a superhero and his arch-nemesis fighting for not only the soul of Gotham, but also the ones in its audience. That soulfulness is also what will likely always leave it peerless.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.