2008 was a year that, in retrospect, really was a truly different time that seems more defined by hindsight than maybe any other year. In the political sphere, a seemingly political nobody named Barack Obama was running for President, the final Harry Potter book was released only the year before and the sixth film wouldn't be released for another year, and the US economy was slowly approaching a recession as the War on Terror continued to spiral out of control.
In this environment,Marvel and Warner Bros. both released two films that would have a profound impact on the superhero genre, though both in very different ways. Marvel took a tremendous risk by releasing a superhero film based on a hero that almost nobody had heard of named Iron Man, to fairly good reviews; though their idea of creating a massive "cinematic universe" was almost certain to be failure as how on Earth could a single "Avengers" film be filled with so many strong personalities and not be overwhelming right? By contrast, Warner Bros. released a sequel to their moderately successful Batman Begins known as The Dark Knight, a Christopher Nolan take on an already tried-and-true superhero brand, as Batman had starred in several prominent films throughout the 1990s.
With the benefit of hindsight, its rather amazing that two influential films for a single genre would be released within weeks of each other. Iron Man and the setup for The Avengers completely revolutionized how audiences and studios saw superheroes and how their stories could be told through interconnected narratives. By contrast, The Dark Knight though lauded as one of the greatest superhero films in isolation, has arguably done more damage to the superhero genre then any other film through many film studios' efforts to maintain the same "gritty realism" of the Nolan classic. As much as Iron Man relished in the silly and fun, The Dark Knight treaded through pathos and tragedy and the DC Cinematic Universe, in my not so humble opinion, suffered as a result.
The impact of The Dark Knight is without question, but does the film actually deserve its reputation as the greatest of superhero films. Or has Warner Bros. been seeking to emulate a film that was far too overrated?
- Directed by Christopher Nolan
- Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures
- Runtime: 152 Minutes
- Rating: PG-13
Set sometime after Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, under his vigilante persona, is making significant progress in taking out organized crime in the city of Gotham, through a powerful alliance with Captain James Gordon and the newly elected District Attorney, Harvey Dent. With Dent and Gordon taking on the public roles and Batman working from the shadows, things in Gotham look like they may finally look up.
Desperate to halt the Batman's efforts, the mob places their trust in a dangerously psychotic criminal known only as The Joker. A self-proclaimed agent of chaos, the clown prince of crime declares war on Batman, with the soul of Gotham as the prize for victory.
Can Batman and Dent overcome the Joker's evil schemes, or will they lose not only everything they love but the very things that make them who they are?
I'm just going to get this out of the way. The Dark Knight was a spectacular film in 2008 and it is still amazing over a decade later. I am under the firm belief that no Batman film has ever gotten as close to capturing the tone and feel of the Batman comics than this film, even if I do wish that Batman as a franchise wasn't quite so grim and gritty in the modern interpretations, as I've stated in a few editorials in the past. Stunning visuals and aesthetic mixed with iconic music to weave an emotional story with legendary performances that in some cases have yet to be topped or even be put up for competition.
Christopher Nolan crafted an absolutely beautiful looking film, filled with magnificent set pieces and a visual aesthetic that is so iconic that many directors have tried to emulate the style to create "gritty" superhero films and consistently struggled, which tells me that Nolan had to be very careful and deliberate to make his world "realistic" while still maintaining every element that is essential to the Batman mythos.
The Dark Knight understands the philosophical and thematic underpinning of its source material and utilizes the fantastic set and audio design to enhance what really draws people into the universe, the characters. The soundtrack was designed by the legendary composer Hans Zimmer and it remains a tense and action packed score. I listened to "Why So Serious" earlier today and was visibly struck by how tense and anxiety-inducing the track actually was, with its discordant violin and consistently pounding rhythm. And the entire soundtrack maintains this same level of pathos and emotional connectivity. A lot of film soundtracks sort of fade into the background and serve a purely complimentary role to the action on screen without standing on their own merits, but not The Dark Knight. Listening to this soundtrack, I was immediately drawn into all of my favorite scenes and completely understood what they were going for with their characters.
And what amazing characters they are. I know a limitless amount of jokes have been made regarding how silly Batman's voice is in this franchise, but Christian Bale really did nail the personality and foibles in this film. The character of Bruce Wayne is a deeply complex character and one wearing multiple overlaying masks and the film really does dive into the tragedy and trauma underlying such a mental health issue. Couple this with stellar performances by Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, who really delivers an understated performance that shows he can stand with the costumed crime-fighters; and Aaron Eckhart whose performance as Gotham's District Attorney Harvey Dent promises and delivers so much heartbreak and the film really does hinge upon how Harvey's contrast with Bruce Wayne (manifested in their mutual relationship with Rachel Dawes), and you are left with a film that just "gets" its universe and immediately immerses you in the struggles of your protagonists.
But a superhero film is really only as good as its antagonist and let's be honest, all of you were waiting for me to talk about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. In the last decade, we have several other interpretations, some good, most bad, but Ledger really was iconic and revolutionary. One would think that with the benefit of over a decade of excellent superhero movies that The Dark Knight's Joker might have become stale and bland now that there are so many other villains in the annals of cinematic history but nope. Ledger is as relevant now as he was back then.
The power of Ledger's performance is equally fascinating in hindsight because Ledger probably faced more criticism than any other actor to portray the role. I remember how worried or ambivalent people were of his interpretation based on set photos and trailers. They had the stellar work of Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill to turn to and Ledger's "hobo drunken college party girl makeup" seemed completely out of left field. And yet, literally from his first moment on screen, before you even realize who it is that you are watching, Ledger has you pulled in to a monstrous magnetism that draws in everyone around him into a maelstrom of chaos. You will spend the entire film stunned at the sheer enormity of Joker's plan.
Which does admittedly put one aspect of this film into question. It is inordinately convoluted at points. As an adult and a much more experienced filmgoer, I was able to follow most of what occurred; though even I am stunned how the "man without a plan" that Joker describes himself is able to plan out chess moves with greater accuracy than fucking Skynet. When I was younger though, some of the stuff around the mob that takes up the first third of this film did kind of fly past me. And there are a few moments where I was stunned by the decision they made, especially the final scene.
Why blame Batman or Two-Face, when you have had the fucking Joker literally killing everybody all goddamn movie for no good reason? It seems like it was a decision to bring a point across and set the scene for The Dark Knight Rises, though now having watched that film any kind of buildup from this one is sort of destroyed to make way for a rehash of the first Nolan Batman film, then something that would come from a genuine consideration by everyone in question. Though some of this change might have also been the result of Ledger's tragic death forcing some changes in the overall direction of the franchise.
All in all, what issues I have with the story pale in comparison to the magnificence that The Dark Knight delivers over a decade later. This film was great when it came out, in an era where superhero movies were good but never transformative, and its even better nowadays, when we can fully appreciate this film's place in the cinematic pantheon.
Because it fucking deserves to be up there.
FINAL SCORE - 9.25/10
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