‘Game-changer’ is an accolade that’s dished out far too often these days; to the extent it’s become something of a stereotype. There’s one film though, that I would argue has well and truly earned it. Before the Avengers, before the Justice League, before Deadpool and even before the majority of the X-Men movies, there was The Dark Knight.
Ten years since its original release, Christopher Nolan’s superhero movie turned gritty crime thriller is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the capes and tights genre – and for good reason. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
No origin story
When launching a new superhero, filmmakers often fall into the trap of trying to tell the story of their origins and have them square off against their most iconic comic-book nemesis in a single film. In fairness, there are times when the balance is found, such as in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but generally speaking, it often feels like too much is going on and neither side of the story is afforded the depth it deserves.
By taking the time in Batman Begins to fully explore Bruce Wayne assuming the role of the Caped Crusader, the stage is already set and we’re able to enjoy a deeper conflict between Batman and the Joker when he arrives on the scene in The Dark Knight.
Narratively speaking, establishing Bruce as a forced to be reckoned with in Batman Begins also puts him in a more interesting position at the beginning of its sequel. Having operated for a year already, Batman is successfully cleaning up Gotham, he’s earned the trust of the police and has the city’s criminals running scared. In short, he’s on top of his game.
The Joker’s arrival not only knocks Bruce off balance by pitting him for the first time against a foe who can outmanoeuvre him at every turn, but raises the stakes of their conflict by threatening to unravel everything he’s worked for. The film we’re left with is less of a coming of age story and more of a battle for survival; a premise which I find much more engrossing.
Too often, we walk into a superhero movie knowing how it’s going to end. The hero will be at the top of their game, they’ll be challenged by a new nemesis, they might stumble at first but they’ll come back stronger and more determined, and will ultimately win the day. Indeed, this is loosely the case in the third installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.
It’s not so, however, in The Dark Knight.
Bruce’s longing to hang up his cowl and disappear into the sunset with childhood sweetheart, Rachel, while district attorney Harvey Dent continues Batman’s work is made clear early in the film. By the end though, Rachel has been murdered by the Joker, Bruce has been forced to break his moral code by killing Harvey Dent and has even falsely assumed the blame for the victims of the murderous Two-Face. In short, Batman defeats the Joker, but it costs him everything in the process.
It’s incredibly bold storytelling, and the repercussions of The Dark Knight’s ending are so severe, that when we pick up Bruce’s story again in final installment of the trilogy, he’s been living as a recluse in Wayne Manor for eight years.
The stakes are real
As much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a few choice entries of the DC Extended Universe, I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that most of them end in an entirely predictable ten-minute CGI punch-up. We know that the hero is ultimately going to win and the world won’t be destroyed by the villain’s all-powerful death machine.
In The Dark Knight though, the stakes are painfully real. The Joker slaughters five civilians in his crusade to unmask Batman – pointing out in the now famous interrogation scene that Bruce could easily have prevented them by stepping forward – he kills Rachel and drives ‘Gotham’s white knight’, Harvey Dent, to murder and despair. As a result, when the Joker gives two boatloads of civilians the choice to either blow each other up or all be killed during the film’s climax, we feel a very real sense of tension; something that’s sadly quite rare in a superhero film.
We know deep-down that Batman will triumph, but we have no idea how many more innocents will be caught in the crossfire. For what’s beginning to be seen by some as a dry and predictable genre, it’s incredible writing.
Comic book villains are often accused of having too little depth. This one wants world domination; that one’s on a revenge mission… They can sometimes be as two-dimensional as the sketches from which they’re lifted.
Such accusations can never be made of The Dark Knight’s Joker. Brought to life in all of his bat-shit (pun not intended) crazy glory with an Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, he’s such a powerful villain because he takes every one of Batman’s strengths and completely nullifies them.
All the criminals in town are scared of Batman? The Joker’s even more terrifying. As gangster, Sal Maroni, points out, “Nobody’s gonna cross him for you.”
There’s nobody who can beat Batman in a fight? The Joker doesn’t care. He simply laughs while Batman beats him to a pulp.
Batman can supposedly make the decisions that nobody else can? The Joker finds the choices that Bruce can’t make; savagely murdering civilians until he relents and steps forward to reveal his true identity.
The Joker challenges Batman in a way that a superhero has never been tested before on-screen, telling him outright that “you have nothing to threaten me with.” In Alfred’s words, the Joker can’t be bought, bullied or reasoned with. His mission is solely to cause death, chaos and pain, without motive or discrimination.
In many superhero films, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises included, the hero will suffer a defeat at the hands of the villain but simply come back later, re-energised and swinging harder. With his abilities and resources rendered utterly useless, it doesn’t matter how many chances Bruce has to beat the tar out of the Joker. It’s his moral code and the emotional lengths that he has to go to when faced with endless impossible choices that we see tested.
Bruce tells Alfred he’s seen what kind of man he has to become to stop the Joker. It’s the sacrifice that he has to suffer and the lines that he has to cross in order to win that make his conflict with the Joker so unique, and that make The Dark Knight such an inimitable piece of superhero cinema.