“Why so Serious?”
Heath Ledger’s Joker, disappearing pencils, Harvey’s lucky coin, love triangles, Batpods and a Caped Crusader having to cross the line. Cinema’s greatest comic book adaptation was released 10 years ago.
It’s a decade since the majestic centre point of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy simultaneously elevated the perception of what comic book films could be on film and set a tone, whether resisted or followed, for a genre making its way to the top of the box office.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the year of The Dark Knight’s release also saw the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, imperceptibly starting on its own journey to redefine Hollywood blockbusters. That behemoth began rather inauspiciously with the double-bill of an unstoppable force of chaos and a super crime fighting multi-millionaire playboy. Although there was little appreciation that the billion dollar box office barrier The Dark Knight smashed through would soon become de rigueur for the flagship films of DC’s great rivals.
Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre.
A decade on, The Dark Knight stands tall as Batman’s finest celluloid hour. That’s saying something for a film that’s part of a rigid, isolationist trilogy and for a character whose live action pedigree stretches across multiple iterations and 70 years. Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre. The trilogy was an impossible springboard for an expanded film universe, but it set the tone under the light guiding hand of Chris Nolan for the difficult DC Extended Universe that followed in the past decade.
The Dark Knight wasn’t the first comic book film that strove for a level of realism or ‘darkness’, but it’s effect was immediate. Given the successful but unfashionable steps to colour that DC’s big hitters Superman and Batman had taken in the 1960s and 1970s, in the 21st century their incarnations would be set by The Dark Knight. The DCEU that duly emerged half a decade later was dark, gloomy, robust, powerful and hard-hitting. This was the universe of gods, eager to set a strong and lofty tone that comic pages could translate to screen. It now seems odd now that this sprang from the grounded and gritty Dark Knight trilogy as much as Nolan’s film’s became a watchword for darkness (read ‘not kids films’) without being mired in it, unlike Batman versus Superman or Man of Steel.
There have been few disasters in the DC films that followed. 2011’s Green Lantern may be the true exception, although that came mid-Dark Knight trilogy. But there have been plenty of disappointments, a far cry from the heights of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The impact of Nolan’s trilogy on the DCEU is still difficult to call. On the anniversary of The Dark Knight’s release this weekend, Warner Brothers premiered trailers at San Diego Comic Con for two new DC films that broke their so-called dark curse: Shazam and Aquaman. Alongside those was an early glimpse at the New Romantic-set sequel to one of last year’s great comic film successes, Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman may have felt like a fresh slice of quality amid other major DC output from the last few years, but it’s storytelling style, reach and multiple levels owed much to Nolan’s trilogy, proving that Batman’s greatest celluloid moment, has a legacy as complex as its narrative.
To celebrate the modern comic classic, Jokerside presents 10 ways The Dark Knight broke the mold and unexpectedly gave us one of the most influential films of all time.
1. It’s extraordinarily faithful
“I think you and I are destined to do this forever”
A struggle with origins have long dragged down the comic book medium, and the rot set into Batman’s modern film existence as soon as Tim Burton’s 1989 classic let a rather homicidal Dark Knight avenge his parents’ death. 2005’s Batman Begins made its more mature intent clear: there were no easy answers, and the crux lay in the battered tussle between Bruce Wayne and Batman.
It was a broad canvas ready to be explored in the sequel, but what was extraordinary was Nolan’s faithfulness to the source material. Joker was no stranger to public consciousness, but his film credentials were tied up in Jack Nicholson’s definitive 1980s take. The rather obvious idea of directly translating many great and classic storylines from the pages of comic books has only settled in over the past decade. After Begins Nolan had his sights set on the very beginning of Batman’s much explored and interpreted nemesis, and adapting an origin lost over decades of character development.
In the run-up to the film, eyebrows raised at Nolan’s assertion that his Joker would follow the character’s original 1940 comic book appearance. But there it is. The chillingly cool opening bank robbery, albeit to a different end, shows the same effective big dollar robber. Working alone for the most part, this Joker is quite at home with physical altercation, even if he doesn’t quite match his early comic book counterpart who could best Batman in a scrap. He comes from nowhere, with no identity but an intelligence to match the otherworldly comic horror of his appearance. And just as in Batman #1 the Joker issues warnings before commiting crimes. Now in a different medium, and not so clearly because he’s obsessed with his own brilliance, he still remains a man of his word.
2. It’s a love letter to film
Nolan’s dedication to film doesn’t abate, as his recent ‘unrestored’ version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey proves. The several sequences of The Dark Knight captured on the giant, film-chomping IMAX cameras are easy to spot. But never gratuitous like the 3D elements that perforated Superman Returns just two years before. Nolan’s films have never been overcome by over flashy visualisations, but in showing the vast expanse of human expansion, from Hong Kong to Gotham, while keeping its focus on the inside of the protagonists’ minds, the visuals help achieve what’s potentially the director’s greatest balancing act.
3. It kept Two Face interesting
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
1997’s Batman and Robin may have taken the heat, and unfairly dragged down three of the Gotham’s most interesting foes with it, but it also opened up the chance for Christopher Nolan to take the property by the scruff of the cowl. And tellingly, villain rot had actually set in with the preceding Batman Forever. Possibly overawed by the garish production design, Tommy Lee Jones brought all the subtlety of a nippelated Batsuit to his protrayal of binary foe and Batman analogy Two Face. Then again, while involved in many great comic plotlines fallen District Attorney Harvey Dent often works most effectively as a supporting character. The split psychosis, the innate ambivalence and the flashing coin can only go so far. The real value lies in his tragic creation and the man behind the villain. A cipher for, and mirror of, Bruce Wayne.
Pulling out the concept of Dent as Gotham’s White Knight opens up that tragedy while never being overwhelmed by it – there’s time for subtlety, humour and rivalry. It also works as the central failure in the fascinating but doomed attempt by three noble citizens to balance reality and appearance, as they are outplayed again and again. Only Jim Gordon could be said not to influence proceedings with his own failings, but that’s probably not what his wife thinks.
There’s much left unsaid in the Two Face’s third act arrival. The already apparent psychological damage that would have no doubt doomed his and Rachel’s relationship; the facial damage that likely would have finished him off before long. In the final meeting of the triumvirate, it’s Wayne’s attempt to save the last of them who isn’t irreversibly damaged, even as he labels Dent the best of them, that leads him to betray both his cardinal rule and his past. Dent’s murder gives Batman the safety of a road to wanted vigilante, just as Dent’s fall into his new personality was the easiest option. It’s the definitive treatment of a villain who has to be so more than shouting bad guy.
4. It made four-colour Oscars a possibility
Superman’s theme, jaw-dropping special effects, Oscar-winning leads. Comic books were never that far from Oscar glory, but in the wake of horror and fantasy’s inroads to the top prizes since the 1990s, The Dark Knight made the idea of a comic book film winning a leading Oscar a real thing. The comic genre had come of age. It was overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s untimely passing, but few could see his posthumous prize for Supporting Actor as less than a reward for a stunning performance.
5. It’s epic
“Madness is like gravity. I took Gotham’s White Knight and brought him down to our level.”
The tight plotting, logic, scheming and twists that run through the film belie its epic nature. It’s as astonishing what The Dark Knight fits in to its runtime as how deftly it does it. Every action has a consequence, and each scene propels the next. Sequel The Dark Knight Rises was hardly a failure on that score, but it showed just how hard that trick is to pull off.
Bane could never be the Joker, but that’s mainly because no other fictional creation comes close. The scale of the journey is immense, logically picking up the two fascinating questions left by Batman Begins – the consequence of the vacuum left and the theatricality created by Batman’s arrival – and never shirking in its exploration of that. But like every real epic, events play out psychologically as well as in reality.
6. It’s a tragedy that people survive
There’s no doubt The Dark Knight is a tragedy. Naturally, that works on a number of levels, from the doomed lovers through to the heroic sacrifice, via the small personal stories of corruption, fear and failure. And yet, there is survival, the great tenet of comic books.
Flagship adaptations had previously almost universally wiped out the foes they spent two hours developing at the end of three acts, from Jokers to Green Goblins and Doctor Octopuses. The Dark Knight poses a riddle of a villain, or villains, as a counterpoint to an unknowable hero. As the Joker puts it, an unstoppable force and an immovable object. What emerges is a both a scintillating summary and spin on one of comics great struggles: Neither the Clown Prince of Crime nor the Dark Knight can ever kill each other.
Michael Caine’s Alfred sets the stall with his anecdote of a Burma campaign, contributing the famous line, “some men just want to watch the world burn”. Even then, this film won’t let anything escape ambiguity. And as soon as we encounter the damaged Scarecrow at the head of the film we know we’re in a different universe. The Joker duly survives, even as Batman has to break his vow and kill a friend and ally to deal with the consequences of his actions.
7. It’s part of a wider story
Ironically, for the self-contained story The Dark Knight and the other two films in the trilogy lay out, it sets the perfect template for a growing universe. On the DC level, this isn’t one that could reach into space and time to incorporate Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga, but as a journey that sets up and incorporates classic and new characters in its narrative – from Joker to Bane to Catwoman, it’s a masterclass. Come the end of the story and the reveal of a surprising masterplan, The Dark Knight was instigating a plan similar to the one Marvel’s now earning plaudits for: quietly, efficiently, but with huge box office bombast.
As with the great paradigm set out by the original Star Wars trilogy, this middle section elevates the saga to a truly influential level. The Begins out the way, The Dark Knight ran with every dangling strand from the start. There were copycat Batmen, the relocation from Wayne Manor, the gulf left by the removal of the mob, and the conflict of city embracing vigilantism. And when it ends, it leaves things worse than before. Emerging from moral updates of great Batman death traps, everyone knows that The Dark Knight has happened.
8. It reclaimed comic books for adults
This ain’t no kids film. It was a mere 16 years on from the great McDonalds merchandising awkwardness of Batman Returns. Freed from that level of merchandising scrutiny, If anything The Dark Knight’s horror is under-certified (the BBFC awarded it a 12A certificate, along with the other films in the trilogy). It wasn’t the first comic book film appealing to adults of course. For one, Sin City from sometime great Batman creator Frank Miller, surfaced in the same year as Batman Begins. But we were a long way Fox’s current strategy of embracing R-rated adaptations. Instead, Nolan’s Batman films embraced the same route to blockbuster success that only Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series seems willing to exploit now. Intelligent, challenging, with logical spectacle, but not at the expense of script. How the Batman franchise had moved on in 11 years.
9. It’s subversive
For all the delicately played character work , scripting and plotting, The Dark Knight’s real strength comes from being subversive. It arose from Batman Begin’s relatively modest first film (global take $374m) to secure over $1 billion. In doing so, it ripped up the public perception of Batman. Some of that was necessary – Batman and Robin will always be whispered about in hushed tones somewhere – but it’s one thing to label the film The Dark Knight and another to break so many conventions. The Tumbler Batmobile was whittled down to the Batpod. The Batcave was left out of town in favour of a secret base in the heart of Gotham. And come the end, Batman may keep his life but he loses everything; both the love of his life and the success he’d achieved since taking to the streets. Then there are the villains. Keeping everything grounded in realistic mob territory, but introducing an anarchic and implacable foe who’s a far cry from the grinning, joking icons of Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero.
The Dark Knight takes huge risks but it does so with huge confidence.
10. It’s international
Batman Begins had laid the roots of Batman in the snowy mountains of Asia to craft a crimefighter who would defiantly cling to the walls of his hometown. It wasn’t too unfamiliar but it was a step away from the Batman films that had kept the Caped Crusader locked to the streets that had long shaped both his lives.
Even in the early 1940s, before the name Gotham had been brought into the universe, international plots came to Batman’s patch rather than booking him a flight. By 1992, Tim Burton had reduced Gotham to a soundstage, a theatrical and constraining cage for the city’s damaged goods. But The Dark Knight is far more consistent with the character’s comic roots. In the fallout of the 1960s colourful and camp TV series, a series of creator reframed Batman as the world’s greatest detective, with frequent need to travel depart the American East Coast. Most notable was the 1971 storyline Daughter of the Demon that introduced both Ra’s and Talia al Ghul and would have a major influence on the shape of Nolan’s trilogy. He was never more peerless than as the world’s most dangerous mortal, albeit from a moonbase, in Grant Morrison’s late 90s Justice League run (although a step towards the Justice League would be damaging to this universe). Fame and globetrotting aren’t an easy fit with Batman, but then neither is achieving success as myth alone.
It’s the impossible gamut between urban legend and internationally recognised icon that The Dark Knight walks so well, from his nightclub assaults to Alfred devising, with relish, a perfect Bruce Wayne cover story (one that inevitably impacts Wayne’s other relationships back in Gotham). Aside from providing first-rate set-pieces, propelling the plot, and posing a fascinating counterpoint to a Gotham fast-transforming from Chicago to New York, The Dark Knight gets the crucial international aspect of Batman right for the first time.
As the Joker says, “Batman has no jurisdiction”.