A few months ago, we all got to share in the geek collective high five that was Avengers: Infinity War, a film that represented 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 10 years that began in May of 2008 with the release of Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr in the title role. The movie did well, history was made. But, at the time, a much bigger summer fish was waiting to be released; The Dark Knight, the sequel to Christopher Nolans’ character resurrecting Batman Begins, and a film that, to this date, is the only midnight screening I’ve ever attended. I had a newborn baby in my life, I had work the next day, but this movie needed to be seen.
I loved The Dark Knight then and I love it now. It isn’t just a great Batman movie, its a great movie, period. From the sound design to the story to the performances, The Dark Knight stands up to the test of time. But, where does it stand in the ongoing history of comic to screen adaptations? What is its legacy? And how does this take on the Batman character age next to the many other versions of the caped crusader?
I sat down and rewatched The Dark Knight with these questions and others in mind last week. It took two sessions to complete the film. Two hours plus is a lot of movie to get through on a Wednesday at this point in my life, but it was a real pleasure to be reminded that, yeah, this movie is really awesome.
To discuss it properly, however, I first need to address the elephant in the room: Heath Ledger and his Oscar winning portrayal of the best villain in all of entertainment, The Joker. Ledger died before the release of The Dark Knight, so the mystique of his performance already had something of a life of its own. As fans, we weren’t sure what to make of the first image of his scared and smeared face, such a far cry from the bleached gangster Jack Nicholson portrayed all those years before. But word started to spread that something special had been captured here. As Gary Oldman put it, “He (Ledger) was tapping into a different frequency” during his performance – this take on the clown prince of crime was something new, something modern and something that would set the bar for on screen villainy from then on. Everything from his mannerisms, to his movements, his cadence to that weird lip licking thing he did came together perfectly. Whatever doubts anyone in the audience had that they wouldn’t be able to separate the tragedy of Ledgers passing from his performance on screen were quickly put to rest. The Joker was real, and he was scary as fuck.
I remember sitting through that opening sequence the first time and not breathing, the theater in complete silence, then that sound…. that sound that started at the edge of your hearing and grew and grew. That sound that became a warning, an announcement; The Joker was coming and things were about to get bad.
It still works. On my couch, with my cat and my every present smart phone ready to distract me, that sound brought me right back in. I don’t know what the frequency was that Ledger dialed into, but the sound design for this film certainly helped me get as close as I dared.
I will return to the Joker as this piece moves forward, but for now lets turn to the man in the cowl: Christian Bale and his snarling portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. His Wayne is smooth and aloof in public, while brooding and relentless in private. His Batman is furious, aggressive, dark and capable. Bale moves through fights absorbing hits and smashing foes with elbows and forearms that swirl around him in a blur of motion. His suit is functional and stylish, and his wonderful toys have an edge of realism that makes him seem more bond than bat, but work to create outstanding and unique action sequences.
And, yes, there is the voice.
Bales Batman was something we all needed after the meteoric fall from grace that were Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. The smirking, nipple-suited Batman of those films left a taste so bad it was nearly impossible to wash out. But, through gritted teeth and that gravely growl, Bale did it.
I found Bale especially enjoyable after catching the final act of Justice League on TV the other day. I’m not a Batfleck hater, I think he did well actually, but Bale isn’t burdened with having to act around Superman or Wonder Woman. He doesn’t have to wink-nod at fans as he quips his way through the reshoots. He doesn’t have to deal with parademons or Jesse Eisen-Luthor or freakin’ Aquaman. He just gets to be a guy so sad that his parents were murdered that he grows up and decides to dress as a bat and beat people up all night.
I honestly don’t know if Bale-Batman could exist in the world of the Justice League and since its trilogy is self contained, we’ll never know. Like many great DC comics, The Dark Knight is a stand alone take on the character of the Batman. It isn’t there to universe build or set up future franchises, its just there for Batman. There are no clever name drops or end of credits or any of the other tropes that Marvel has now permanently associated with super hero films, there’s just a really good Batman story.
I have heard different complaints about Christopher Nolan and his movies, but as far as I’m concerned, the guy is a pretty amazing movie maker. As in, a guy that makes movies. Big, amazing, high concept, movies. And three of those movies happen to be about Batman, so you won’t catch me complaining.
Nolan crafts a good story, he sets the scene, he follows his characters through different and visually exciting set pieces while carrying us, the viewers through the world he has imagined for Batman and his cast of characters. He doesn’t try and create the most comic accurate (a phrase that gets really tiresome in my opinion) version of the Batman story, he creates the most compelling version he can for as wide an audience as he can. Which, again, is that much easier for that fact that he isn’t trying to create a piece that fits into a giant ten year cinematic puzzle. He’s telling his story and he’s out.
And therein, I think, lies the strength and legacy of The Dark Knight: It stands alone. As both a Batman movie and just a plain movie, The Dark Knight is a great piece of filmmaking. It raised the bar for the potential of what a comic book movie could be. It can be dark, sophisticated, challenging, it can be an Oscar contender. It can take characters that have lived in popular culture for years and present them in a way that is fresh, mature and lasting. And it can do all that without a ten year plan.
With The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan caught lightening in a bottle. He caught the first wave of the pop culture tsunami that was coming. He caught the energy, brilliance and madness of Heath Ledgers performance as the Joker. He caught an ensemble of talented performers ready to take the script and material seriously. And, he caught all of us along with it.
Is The Dark Knight the greatest superhero film of all time? No, it’s something else. It’s something better: It’s the Batman movie we deserve.