Eleven Years On, The Dark Knight Is Still A Masterpiece

Analysing the best superhero movie

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Photo by Andrew Rice on Unsplash

I remember the anticipation building up inside of me in the months before the release of The Dark Knight in 2008.

I had thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s first offering in his Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins. It was a world away from the more fantasised offerings of previous Batman films by directors such as Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher.

Nolan’s Batman felt more visceral, more real and more relatable. I could hardly wait for the film to be released.

The hype behind The Dark Knight is unlike anything I ever experienced with a film before. The only comparison I can make is with the recent Star Wars films, but I still don’t feel they compared to the hullabaloo associated with The Dark Knight.

A lot of this was due to the tragic death of Heath Ledger who played Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, in the film. There was constant chatter that Ledger had put in a performance for the ages during filming. When it was reported he had died of an overdose six months prior to the film’s release, this talk went into overdrive.

In some ways, Ledger’s death only added to the hype surrounding the film. The tragic death of the young actor sent the media into a frenzy and interest in the film spiked along with it. In a perverted sort of way, it was the best boost the film could have had. Would the film have been as talked about, as revered as it is now without Ledger’s death?

It’s a question we will never have an answer to, but there’s no doubt his untimely and unfortunate death increased the anticipation surrounding the film.

Once the film was released in July 2008, it was a critical and commercial success. It rewrote the superhero genre and became recognised as one of the greatest films ever made.

But, what made it so great? Why is the film so highly revered? And why, after eleven years, can I still watch it and lose none of the joy I had watching it the first time around?

Here, I take a look at four elements of the film that make it a masterpiece of modern filmmaking.

Opening Scene

The opening scene in The Dark Knight is one of the best I have ever seen. The scene starts with a camera panning ever closer to a high-rise building in Gotham City as we see a window shatter.

It reveals a group of criminals in clown masks performing a heist on a mob bank. As the scene progresses we see that one-by-one, members off the group are murdered for a higher share of the money.

All the time they make reference to the Joker. Some of the gang are annoyed he feels he can take a cut of the loot while remaining in the background. Others debate why he wears ‘makeup,' with one of the gang claiming it’s used as warpaint to intimidate people.

As the heist progresses, the gang is whittled down until there are two left. One of whom has grown wise to the Joker’s plan is prepared to take matters into his own hands by bumping off the other member. This is when we have our first clue the Joker may be involved after all when a distinct and piercing voice states he takes out the bus driver.

A few moments later, a bus careers through the building and takes out the suspicious felon. Once the money is loaded onto the bus, the driver asks what happened to the other guys, and is immediately pelted with bullets.

Before the last remaining member of the gang can make his getaway. He is accosted by the money of the bank, whom he has already wounded. He chastises him for robbing the bank and states that criminals used “to stand for something. Honour, loyalty, respect.” He screams at the man, “What Do You believe in!?”

The man calmly walks over to the manager lying no the floor, removes his mask and reveals himself to be the mastermind behind the plot, the Joker. He answers the manager’s question by stating, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you stranger.” A play on words of the famous quote.

The opening sets the scene for the rest of the film. In your typical movie bank heist, the group escapes with the money together. There is camaraderie about the group, a desire to everyone make it out. Think of similar scenes in the film Point Break.

Here, we have a group that is almost like a band of brothers. When one of the members is shot in a foiled robbery, there is a genuine concern for his wellbeing. In Point Break, the robbery is committed with the interests of the group at heart. This is the same in other films of the same genre such as Heat.

The Dark Knight flips this on its head. From the outset, it becomes clear that once someone has completed their job, they are expendable. Instead of a group ethos, there is one of self-preservation. While the others may think they are getting a bigger slice of the pie, in reality, they have been manipulated by the Joker, who is eliminating them when they are surplus to requirements.

This fits into his broader plan, which is one of chaos. If something isn’t needed anymore it is tossed aside, lest it gets in the way of his grand plan. These opening five minutes immediately tell us who the Joker is. A cold-hearted, ruthless criminal, who will not let anything get in his way.

In the opening five minutes, Nolan has flipped the common narrative of teamwork in heists on its side and presented the audience with a scene it is unfamiliar with. It grabs the audience’s attention, draws them in, and makes them eager to see what will happen next.

We Believe in Harvey Dent

For anyone who is familiar with Batman, you will know that the character Harvey Dent is one who eventually transforms into the villain Two-Face. In the original origin story, Harvey Dent is scarred on his left-side after mob boss Sal Moroni throws acidic chemicals at him during a court trial.

He descends into insanity and adopts the Two-Face identity, a criminal obsessed with duality and the conflict between good and evil. When it was announced Dent would be in the film, there was anticipation we would see his descent into madness.

We were not disappointed.

Throughout the opening of the film, Harvey Dent is held up as the paragon of morality in Gotham. He is referred to as the “White Knight.” An obvious counterpart to the Dark Knight that is Batman.

He is determined to bring down the mobs in Gotham, even going as far as to convict 549 multiple criminals at once! Dent is the acceptable face of the law, even though he does not hide his admiration for Batman. The idea of a single citizen saving the city from itself seems to inspire him.

So much so, that when Bruce Wayne announces a press conference to reveal his secret identity as Batman, Dent falsely announces that he is Batman!

One of the most prescient moments in the film comes when Dent and Wayne are seated at the same table in a restaurant early in the film. The discussion turns to Batman, and whether a vigilante rounding up criminals is ethically correct.

During the discussion, Dent utters the phrase,

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

This is an amazing piece of foreshadowing, not only for Dent but for Batman too. Following Dent’s false declaration that he is Batman, he is transported to jail, but he does not make it there, as the Joker tries to take him hostage. The Joker seemingly fails and is caught by Commissioner Gordon. However, Dent and his girlfriend Rachel are captured and transported to two separate facilities.

In the ensuing chase to save them, Rachel is blown up before she can be saved, while Dent suffers horrendous burns to one side of his body. This starts his downfall into the Two-Face persona.

After a visit from the Joker, while recuperating at the hospital, Dent is persuaded to become an agent of chaos. He sets off a vendetta around Gotham, killing those he deemed to be responsible for Rachel’s death. He attempts to kill Gordon and his son but is thwarted by Batman, but his rampage across the city remains.

It at this point that Batman declares that he be held responsible for Dent’s actions. With Dent being seen as Gotham’s White Knight, it’s necessary to preserve his image, otherwise, the people of Gotham will lose hope and the Joker would win.

Dent’s words from earlier in the film take on more significance. He became a villain despite being held up as all that was good about Gotham. The Joker took Gotham’s White Knight and brought him down to his level. However, Batman too has become the villain but in a different sense.

He makes himself a pariah, an outcast to defeat the Joker. The final scene shows him being chased by Gordon’s men, while he eulogises about the role Batman must now play. It is a far cry from the opening scenes, where Batman is seen working hand in hand with the Police. To save Gotham from itself, Batman must besmirch his own name.

“Why So Serious?”

There is no doubt that the highlight of The Dark Knight is the performance of Heath Ledger. It is one of the greatest performances in cinematic history, and it could be argued that it changed the genre forever.

The previous incarnation of the Joker, although marvellously played by Jack Nicholson, does not have the same presence as Ledger’s. There is a brooding menace about his version of the Joker. He is archetype villain, the antithesis of the hero, and determined to break him in more ways than one.

Compared to villains in previous superhero films, who were too one-dimensional and almost a parody of themselves, Ledger’s Joker is a cunning, deceitful and a genius in psychological warfare.

Ledger plays the role so well, that he has made it almost impossible to follow him as the Joker. Jared Leto, a phenomenal actor, was unable to reach the heights that Ledger did. Leto’s version of the Joker is a throwback to the villains of old and is almost childlike in comparison with the cold-hearted ruthlessness of Ledger’s version.

The opening scene establishes the nature of the Joker. He is a villain with a difference. There is no gang behind him, there is no camaraderie, there is no loyalty, there is only himself and the plan. Anyone that does not fit into the plan is disposed of.

He manipulates the mob bosses of Gotham, who were planning to continue on the same path, despite Batman making their lives hell. Once he has no more use for them, he casts them aside. The scene where he does this gives us a peek into the Joker’s mind.

He has amassed a mountain of cash in a warehouse facility. Greeted by the mobsters, he slides down the mountain of money, like a child enjoying themselves at the local park. The mobsters are delighted to see their money, but they are not delighted by what happens next.

The Joker decries them for only being interested in capital gains, to him this is nothing more than greed. The Joker has no need for money, what he craves is something different entirely, to watch the world burn, as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler states. The Joker declares that Gotham deserves a new kind of criminal. Whether it is meant to be or not, it is a signal the genre has shifted. The villains of the past are no longer enough, they are to be replaced by more complex and layered villains.

The most interesting aspect of the Joker is his relationship with Batman. They represent polar opposites. The Joker standing for chaos, while Batman stands for order. One bound by no rules, the other unable to break his. They are two sides of the same coin and present us with some of the best scenes and dialogue in the film.

The Joker is trying to psychologically break Batman, to depart from his misplaced sense of righteousness as he puts it. His original ploy was to unmask and kill the Batman and show Gotham his true identity. But, playing with this Bat is simply too much fun for the Joker. He cannot help himself, the prize is no longer unmasking Batman’s identity, it is destroying his identity.

The Joker has already done this to Harvey Dent, what if he could do the same to Batman? What if he could get him to deviate from his rules? The Joker would win and Gotham would burn in the wreckage. This is what drives the Joker. He is determined to show that people are more like him than Batman. That when all hell breaks loose, they will forget who they are and choose chaos.

In the movie’s best scene, he will, ultimately, be proved wrong.

A choice

The third act of comic books movies are all too predictable. In the majority of cases, the hero triumphs over the villain in a satisfactory way. Despite the best efforts of the villain, they are thwarted by the hero.

The Dark Knight eschews this cliche and goes for something altogether different.

The Joker announces that Gotham will be under his control by nightfall. Two ferries, one carrying civilians and the other, prisoners are attempting to evacuate the city. However, they are both rigged with explosives. The Joker announces over the intercom that the passengers have been supplied with a trigger to the other boat’s explosives and if one of them has not been destroyed by midnight, he will blow both of them up.

The civilians and the criminals are given a choice to save themselves and blow up the other boat. For the civilians, it appears to be an easy choice. The other boat contains criminals, they had their chance and they blew it. If we blow them up, we live. Simple, right? Well, not exactly.

If they chose to blow the boat up, this would always be on their conscience. They could wake up in the night five years later in cold sweat, pondering whether what they did was morally right or not. However, if they want to live it’s a necessary evil. They could cleanse the city from the mobsters that Dent rounded up and start afresh, but only if they pressed the button.

Likewise, the criminals are presented with a similar dilemma. Save for a handful of law enforcement officers, the boat is full of people who have already committed crimes, To save themselves they would have to commit one more, the mass-murder of innocent civilians on the other boat. They have already committed crimes, so what’s the harm in another one? Maybe they don’t want to kill those innocent civilians, but if it means saving their own skin, is it worth it?

This scene is groundbreaking for the genre. It presents a deep, philosophical question on morality and how far you would be willing to go to save your own life. It bucks the trend in comic book films, where we are presented with an orgy of action as the hero and villain battle it out for supremacy. Here, we see the battle is played out by the inhabitants of Gotham. It is a wider battle between Batman and the Joker and whose viewpoint is correct.

The Joker is convinced that madness is like gravity, all it takes is a little push. Whereas, Batman believes in the integrity of the people of Gotham. In the end, both boats decide against blowing the other up. Integrity reins in Gotham. It is at this point in the film where the Joker’s plan finally begins to unravel.

As an avowed agent of chaos, he has fallen to the very thing he sought to bring to Gotham. He was expecting one boat to be blown up, he didn’t expect the result he was presented with. Again, his cold-hearted nature comes to the fore when midnight strikes. He states

“You can't rely on anyone these days, you’ve got to do everything yourself!”

The Joker’s social experiment had failed. He took those people out of their comfort zones, but their resolve held firm. They did not become susceptible to his desire for them to step off the cliff into madness.

This is the plot of the film in essence. It pits the morality of Batman against the chaotic anarchism of the Joker. It is a battle for the soul of Gotham, and in this aftermath, the film paved the way for a new type of superhero film.

One where the action takes a backseat and the plot itself becomes the driving force of the film.

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I like to write. I like to travel. https://www.thetravellingtom.com Join my email list -> https://tomstevenson.substack.com/

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