The Dark Knight

  • Year:  2008
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Series Rank:  #1
  • Year Rank:  #2
  • Oscar Nominations:  Supporting Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Batman Villains:  Heath Ledger (The Joker), Aaron Eckhart (Two-Face)
  • Love Interest:  Maggie Gyllenhaal  (Rachel Dawes)
  • Batman Allies:  Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox)

“I don’t need help,” Batman growls at a group of copycats.  “Not my diagnosis,” replies Jonathan Crane, still moonlighting as the Scarecrow, though this time what he’s doing is a bit different.  It shows that even in the darkness that Christopher Nolan has descended into with this, the best Batman film (by far), there can still be a bit of sly humor.  Like the moment when Bruce is considering giving up being Batman for the sake of the populace of Gotham and Alfred says “They’ll probably lock me up as an accomplice.”  Bruce replies “Accomplice? I’m going to tell them the whole thing was your idea.”  It’s nice to have a little levity in the midst of all the darkness.

This film is not only a serious super-hero film dealing with the questions that any such vigilante would have to deal with, in terms of jurisdiction, brutality, protecting the innocent, but also a serious film about the world that we currently live in.  Batman goes to China and kidnaps a gangster to get him to face justice.  He beats a prisoner with utter brutality to find out where his captives are.  He is willing to listen in on everyone in the city so that he can keep more innocent lives from being destroyed.  As he says, he only has one rule.  But the problem is that he’s facing someone that doesn’t have any rules at all.

Anticipation for this film went through the roof on December 14, 2007 with the release of what I still think is the best teaser ever released.  It gave us everything we needed without giving us anything at all.  Most importantly, it gave us that brilliant line that would sum up why this Joker would be such a problem for Batman: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical.  They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.  Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  Then, once Heath Ledger died in January, the notch was turned up yet again.  What kind of performance would he bring to the table?  He had that maniacal laughter that had been both intriguing and terrifying in that teaser.  Would he be able to match what Jack Nicholson had done?

Well, of course, in the aftermath we all know what he did.  One of my early movie posts was about his performance being the greatest comic book movie villain in history (with ease) and how I was hoping he would win the Oscar (which he did).  In fact, if there is a flaw in Ledger’s performance is that he’s so amazing, so unpredictable, as likely to explain things with a knowing look (“In a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards?”), plan things out with exquisite detail (the way he removes everyone else involved in the opening robbery) or just explode into brutal violence (the pencil, good lord, the pencil) that he actually overshadows the other supporting performances in this film.  There are a number of fantastic performances in this film, even from small cameos like Cillian Murphy to the performance of Gary Oldman, which looms over the whole film.  On my point scale, only six films have earned as many or more Supporting Actor points as this film (both Godfathers, Princess Bride, the first and third Lord of the Rings and The Departed).

And yet, the never-ending battle between Batman and the Joker (this film seems to negate the notion presented in The Killing Joke that eventually one must kill the other, because, as Joker tells Batman, Batman won’t cross that line and Joker won’t kill Batman because he’s “too much fun”) is only part of this film.  It’s not just the back and forth with the Joker that makes this film so great, or the exquisite lines of dialogue that Ledger keeps giving us.  Because this story isn’t, in one sense, even about the Joker.  It’s about what happens when you don’t die a hero.  Or maybe when you do.

One of the sources that Christopher Nolan turned to in making this film was The Long Halloween.  I wrote about that series once, years ago, and there will be more about in the upcoming Reading Guide.  But it’s a year long tale of Batman facing off against his foes and it is also the tale of the fall of Harvey Dent.  From a man who is determined to uphold the law until he is absolutely broken, both in spirit, and in body, his face scarred beyond repair, he suddenly finds himself turning against those who had waded into battle at his side: Jim Gordon and Batman.  Harvey Dent is a man so good, so determined to do what is right for Gotham City, no matter the cost, that Bruce is determined to make him the shining face of the city.  To be everything that Batman is not, can not be.  When The Joker is able to break him down, to destroy him and his goodness, that is the real tragedy of the film.

That’s what helps to contribute to these three films from Nolan as one story.  Because it’s not just three stories of the dark knight.  It’s the beginning of his life as Batman, the dark turn that forces him to hide away and the final act that brings about his “end”.  It’s not the battle against the Joker that does that.  It’s the battle for the soul of Harvey Dent, encapsulated in that amazing career best performance from Aaron Eckhart, a battle that Batman loses and then loses again so that Harvey and the hopes of Gotham can win.