The Dark Knight is not only regarded as the best superhero film ever made, but many people place this masterpiece as one of their favourite films of all time. This 2008 film, directed by Christopher Nolan, makes you think about humanity and question it. The disturbing questions it poses and the delivery from both the director and actors is given with sharp precision. Nolan creates an engrossing and elaborate film about Batman and the city of Gotham, redefining (and transcending) the superhero genre. The film delivers characters that we judge and care about, causing us to pause and think about our society and behaviours. All elements of this film leave an impression; in the way that the film is shot, the chilling score, the dark philosophies and the performances from the actors are all equally haunting.
Before Nolan, many superhero films were losing their lustre. Batman and Robin was considered one of the worst comic book movies and many superhero films were seen as one dimensional; they all had a similar plotline which led to a predictable final action-packed battle between the hero and the main villain. Few superhero films before had dared to delve deeper into the complex characters’ psyche that the comic books illustrated. They were seen to be meaningless fun films targeted for children. Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed this depiction of superhero films, reinventing them. By getting rid of the colourful and exaggerated conventions, Nolan creates Gotham city and its citizens to feel tangible and real. The film is gritty, portraying itself like a crime thriller. The setting of Gotham, with its vertiginous overhead shots of dark skyscrapers and labyrinth of streets, is similar to the film Heat, and during an interview the director makes reference to the crime thriller. This lifelike portrayal of Gotham makes viewers feel as if they are part of the city. Making The Dark Knight become a crime thriller, with comic book characters, makes the action more graphic and raw. The film is so realistic in fact that many have commented that the film is the first post 9/11 neo noir film, studying the mentality of America on the subject of interrogation tactics and wire-tapping. The way the Joker kidnaps and terrorises his victims is more impactful in this way as it is more terrifying to the audience following the events of 9/11. These realistic elements in the film creates more depth to the story and Nolan directs it with finesse.
Ledger becomes the Joker in such a way that when he is on the screen, you forget he is acting.
Nolan’s films are famous for their cinematography, yet the choices he made for The Dark Knight have changed how blockbusters are filmed. It was the first time IMAX photography was used in Hollywood and the grandiose scenes with the sequences of explosions and the vertigo created when Batman jumps from towering buildings is thrilling. Furthermore, the score for the film (by the notable Hans Zimmer) also adds to the gripping drama, building up the suspense which puts the viewers on edge.
The cast Nolan chooses is remarkable, yet there is one actor always mentioned when referring to some of the greatest performances ever given in cinema, and that is of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger becomes the Joker in such a way that when he is on the screen, you forget he is acting. He, on his own, makes the film immersive. After confining himself with only a diary and a couple of Batman comics to prepare for the role, he comes back as the nihilistic and disturbing villain. Although Joaquin Phoenix in the 2019 Joker did well to present himself as a mentally ill Joker abused by society and forced towards breaking down into madness and evil, Ledger’s enigmatic and psychopathic Joker is unassailable. He is considered to be one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, along the ranks of Darth Vader and the charismatic Hannibal Lector. It is why, sadly after his death, he wins an Oscar for his immaculate performance. His filthy faded out clown makeup and greasy hair is nearly as famous as his scars. But it’s his ideologies that fascinate the watcher and his philosophies are what makes The Dark Knight so thought-provoking.
The Joker’s main goal was neither to get money nor kill anyone (his nihilism presented beautifully when he burns the mountain of cash in one scene, cackling madly). His main objective was to convince the Batman that they were both from the same coin and that humans were not worth saving at all. This is represented when Batman, who although ultimately wants to help people, breaks the law and creates chaos, which is paralleled heavily to the Joker. They are foils to each other yet one has a strict moral code and the other is amoral. The film tackles themes of good and evil, yet the line between them is blurred severely, allowing the viewer to question morality. Nolan masterfully explores this connection and even early in the film, Harvey Dent (or Two-Face for comic fans) states that he believes “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. This thought is interwoven intricately throughout and is reiterated at the denouement of the film by Batman himself to Jim Gordon. The film is presenting a battle of ideologies and a reflection of society. Gotham city becomes a microcosm of humanity where the debate of ideals is held. The Joker believes that order is something humanity creates and therefore is artificial. He wants to create chaos and madness in Gotham’s pseudo-orderly society, and reveal to Batman, through anarchy, that evil is just masked by order. This is proven wrong when, through all the madness, the two ferries do not blow each other up which shows Batman that humanity is worth protecting. Although Batman is faced by such evil and disorder, he still follows his strict morals and does not kill the Joker. Yet Gotham at the end appears broken, losing Harvey Dent to evil and forcing Batman to hide to save the reputation of Dent who did in fact “live long enough to…become the villain”. In this way, Joker both loses and wins, failing to convince that humanity is evil yet imprinting chaos upon Gotham city.
There are standout performances and the Joker’s psychotic and sinister representation by Ledger is one of the greatest to grace film.
Now the Boar readers voted The Dark Knight as their favourite Christopher Nolan film, which I think is a worthy winner, however why did it win? Especially against such hard competitors? Inception, a film overflowing with creativity and authenticity came as the voters’ 3rd favourite after The Dark Knight. With such an interesting plot about a heist where the characters try to steal an idea instead of normal material wealth and with visuals that are beautifully cinematic, this film seems hard to beat. Even Memento, a chilling psychological thriller, where a man tries to search for his wife’s murderers, complicated by his amnesia, is an amazing film to top. So why did The Dark Knight win? In my opinion, and probably those who voted for The Dark Knight, it is probably due to how memorable the scenes and script are. There are standout performances and the Joker’s psychotic and sinister representation by Ledger is one of the greatest to grace film. The moral questions raised also makes this film deeper than any other superhero film before it, leaving a cinematic legacy of villains after who are also morally complex, such as Thanos from The Avengers. Maybe it is how Nolan presented it to be a crime thriller, or maybe it’s just due to the fact that the inner child in all of us loves a Batman story. Whatever it is, The Dark Knight is an evocative superhero film that surpasses its genre, making it endlessly rewatchable.