THE DARK KNIGHT at 15: A Retrospective

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By Ricky Church (TW: @RICHARDCHURCH16)

In this age of the superhero movie genre where audiences are treated to super adventures every other month if not every month, or even every week when you take the various TV shows into account, it’s easy to forget just how barren the superhero landscape used to be even 10 years ago. But 15 years ago when the genre really began to bloom, one film in particular led the way to where it is now — and no, it wasn’t the first MCU film IRON MAN.

That film was, of course, THE DARK KNIGHT, the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s reboot BATMAN BEGINS which saw the famed director returning to the chair alongside Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, and Jim Gordon respectively. The film became a blockbuster hit and is often regarded as the best film in the Batman franchise, leading the way to the superhero boom the genre became with how much more seriously filmmakers and audiences began treating the source material to adapt.

Before diving into the film itself, one of the biggest elements fans remember is the viral marketing campaign that began summer 2007 and lasted all the way up to its release the following year. Filled with scavenger hunts, in-universe newspaper stories, episodes of “Gotham Tonight” and much more, the viral marketing was to such a level that hadn’t been seen at the time and hasn’t been done since. The hype surrounding THE DARK KNIGHT just continuously built, so much so that our very own Jett and other BOFers have said the only time “Batmania” reached such a height was the lead-up to 1989’s iconic BATMAN. In the summer of 2008 Batman was all anyone could talk about, going beyond the usual fan circles to casual moviegoers. I still remember how packed my theatre was on opening night, not just for my screen but for the whole entire building of other screenings. The feeling was electric with excitement and only grew when people left with everyone talking over their favourite scenes. To be perfectly and honestly frank, as hyped as people were for AVENGERS: ENDGAME a few years ago, even that didn’t have anything on what this was.

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THE DARK KNIGHT was, and still is, a masterpiece of filmmaking, superhero or not. Nolan’s decision to make the film more of a crime thriller, using Michael Mann’s HEAT as inspiration, was an inspired choice. The film plays like a crime drama that just happens to have Batman in it, putting just as large a focus on Lieutenant Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent just as much as it does Batman in a clear influence from the equally groundbreaking BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN. In fact, a strong argument can be made that Harvey Dent is the main character of the film instead of Batman as the whole story, from the very beginning, hinges on Harvey’s downfall into Two-Face. As we find out in the climax, he was the lynchpin to The Joker’s plan all along. If the audience doesn’t buy his downfall, the whole story doesn’t work and Nolan made sure to emphasize what Harvey meant to the other characters as well as Gotham City, and kudos to Aaron Eckhart for his brilliant and tragic performance.

As for Batman, Bale knocked it out of the park as he played a fully realized Batman. Bale even has triple duty as he plays Batman, Bruce’s playboy persona, and then the real Bruce Wayne that only Alfred and Rachel see. His take on Batman is layered with complexity as he realizes what his presence has unleashed, what it will take to protect Gotham, and that being Batman may not be the temporary gig he believes it to be. Bale’s Batman is probably the most relatable of all the live-action Batmen thus far as we get a great glimpse into his motivations and emotions, especially when he hits his low points during the film’s second half.

The rest of the cast did just as well, with Caine and Oldman being the MVPs as Alfred and Gordon. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a nice replacement after Katie Holmes had to bow out and Morgan Freeman is as charismatic as he always is. Eric Roberts, Chin Han, and Ritchie Coster are great as Gotham’s criminal element. Even the supporting players, like Anthony Michael Hall as Gotham reporter Mike Engel, Nestor Campbell as the mayor, and Joshua Harto as Mr. Reese are integral and utilized well. The scene of Harto’s Reese silently realizing just how dangerous it would be to blackmail Batman will never not be funny.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT

Of course, however, the real crowning achievement of the film’s casting is Batman’s archnemesis, The Clown Prince of Crime himself, Heath Ledger as The Joker.

Looking back on THE DARK KNIGHT’s well-deserved legacy is still bittersweet due to Ledger’s tragic and untimely passing months before the film’s release before he got to see how much fans and the general audience embraced him in the role, especially after the ridiculous “backlash” (read hissyfit) his casting got as he was mostly known then as a pretty boy in A KNIGHT’S TALE, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, recalling similar experience that fans had toward Michael Keaton prior to BATMAN. Ledger’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal and is arguably the definitive take on The Joker onscreen.

As iconic as Jack Nicholson was there’s something about Ledger’s interpretation that captures all aspects of the villain, from his deadpan and dark sense of humor, cunning intelligence, and outlook on the world. While Nicholson’s Jack Napier became Joker through an accident, one that seemed to just let loose what few inhibitions were left in Napier’s sanity, Ledger’s Joker just is. He’s more akin to Hannibal Lecter, a walking force of evil and chaos who is much saner than anyone would care to admit and plays the long game with plenty of room to improvise at a moment’s notice. It is apt Ledger earned a posthumous Academy Award for his performance as Joker, the first to be given for any comic book role, and set a high bar for Joker actors that only one out of three since Ledger have been able to meet (Joaquin Phoenix also won an Academy Award for JOKER and Barry Keoghan has shown potential in his cameo in THE BATMAN. Less said about the other one the better).

Heath Ledger as The Joker and Christian Bale as Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT

It also helps THE DARK KNIGHT builds on the iconic battle between Batman and The Joker as the two form an actual rivalry, showing how they are opposite sides of the same coin. Even after 15 years, few scenes in a superhero movie — much less any other film — have been as riveting as Batman’s interrogation of The Joker. Never in my life would I have thought we’d be treated to a scene of Batman and The Joker just largely talking across the table from each other that would examine so precisely what makes their connection so special. As The Joker goes onto display, it’s not the number of punches they can throw at each other, but what each represents philosophically that drives their feud.

THE DARK KNIGHT is nothing less than an achievement in filmmaking, pushing the envelope for what could be accomplished in a superhero film. I haven’t even mentioned Wally Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography, the film’s broader themes, or Nolan’s dedication to practical filmmaking with shooting on location or somehow flipping an 18-wheeler over front to back. THE DARK KNIGHT’s legacy is incredible, yet sadly very few films in the superhero genre released since have met its standard.

As we celebrate the 15th anniversary of this beloved film, it is just as important to remember the passion and dedication that went into making THE DARK KNIGHT what it is and why that is vitally important not just to future Batman films, but the superhero genre as a whole. – Rick Church

Ricky Church is a screenwriter and an avid film/television/comic book fan. He’s also a contributing writer for Batman On Film and Flickering Myth.