In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
If Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was a breath of fresh air for comic book films when it debuted in 2005, its 2008 follow-up The Dark Knight blew the doors off the genre. Pushing the realism started in the series reboot, Nolan and writer brother Jonathan Nolan crafted a superhero sequel that used themes of escalation, terrorism, government surveillance, and ethical compromise for a film that is equally about thrills and moral dilemmas. While based in classic comic book characters, The Dark Knight is just as much a crime thriller with clear inspiration from Michael Mann’s Heat as it is a superhero blockbuster.
The Dark Knight’s story focuses on an alliance between Batman (Christian Bale), Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to crush Gotham City’s mob rule, only for the rise of the anarchist known only as The Joker (Heath Ledger) to present a far greater threat to everyone.
Returning as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Bale creates a tormented hero who is put to his greatest challenge yet, with the threat of The Joker forcing him to consider moral compromises in order to stop his foe. While he may not have as much to sink his teeth into here as in Batman Begins, Bale continues to breathe life into Batman as a rounded and relatable hero whose flawed humanity makes him far more compelling than the unflinching Batmen of old. His one (and far too often discussed) weakness here is the Bat-Voice – a vicious growl meant to intimidate when behind the cowl, but overblown to the point of cartoonish unintelligibleness. Otherwise, Bale provides the true stakes of the film, with his sacrifices and torment showcasing what must be done to preserve Gotham.
But The Dark Knight simply cannot be discussed without a massive focus on Heath Ledger’s portrayal as The Joker – an iconic performance that redefined the character, which, coupled with the actor’s untimely passing prior to the film’s premiere, turned Nolan’s sequel into a worldwide phenomenon. While The Joker had long captivated comic book readers during his decades of madness on the page, the villain was frequently associated with his most widely-known interpretation by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman. For many, that was a performance that Ledger could not beat. Clearly, that was not true.
Ledger is an electrifying presence during every moment of screentime throughout The Dark Knight, a symbol of pure anarchy and apocalyptic vision running rampant through the streets of Gotham City. However, this is a madman who is realistic and believable despite a heightened presence, making his desire to see the world burn all the more terrifying and immediate. The Gotham at stake is more real than the version seen in Batman Begins, here brought to life by the city of Chicago. And it is by having that realism as the backdrop to the war between Batman and Joker that makes the stakes all the higher here. Ledger is incendiary here, arriving onscreen as a fully formed vision of death and destruction and never relenting in his quest for destruction.
Yes, The Joker has little story arc beyond doing everything in his power to bring down Gotham, but that is not to say the character is without nuance. Rather, Ledger’s Joker is filled with all manner of ticks, intricate mannerisms, and off-kilter vocalizations. There’s a fire beneath the filthy, makeup-caked surface of decay, a tormented glee that bursts forth in unexpected, yet always violent, means. A performance this electrifying is rare in any genre of film, not just comic book adaptations, and the power of Ledger’s acting makes Joker into a character that both delights and terrifies moviegoers. As the living and breathing embodiment of chaos, The Joker stands opposed to Batman’s embodiment of order at all costs, which is faithful to the essence of their comic book counterparts, even when adapted to Nolan’s stylish, post-9/11 terrorism parable.
That chaos must have a palpable effect in order to have real meaning and it is most felt in Eckhart’s Dent. Whereas The Joker is a single-minded monster and Batman is the man who must change in order to stay steadfast in his commitment to justice, Dent is the human hero whose torment leads to a great fall from grace. While anyone familiar with the character will foresee Dent’s physical and mental scarring, which turns him into the broken villain known as Two-Face, his tragedy is the largest arc of any character within the film. Fans looking for a completely faithful interpretation of Two-Face will not find it here, Eckhart plays him more as a broken and obsessed vigilante rather than a classically psychotic and duality-focused supervillain. However, Eckhart’s very human portrayal of Dent’s many sides balances out certain insufficiencies with his role in The Dark Knight’s third act. There’s simply not enough time spent with him after his fall from grace and the shortcuts used to maneuver him into the film’s final confrontation feel somewhat sloppy, even when they thrust the film’s message to its conclusion.
One of The Dark Knight’s most brilliant choices is that its theme of moral choice is present in every character. Eventually, each person is forced to make an ethical decision and each can be placed somewhere on the scale between order and chaos, as well as truth and deception. Those choices are shown to have a ripple effect on the course of the narrative and the wellbeing of others, giving gravitas to the ideas at play. Just as crucially, not every choice is spelled out as either right or wrong, and the moral ambiguity at play means that The Dark Knight can be chewed over and reinterpreted to as great of a degree as any superhero film possibly can.
The more grounded tone of The Dark Knight makes those moral choices all the more immediate and thought-provoking, as their application to the real world is fewer steps away than they would be in a more classic comic book adaptation. Wisely, Nolan’s opening scene is not just a spellbinding setpiece that sets up The Joker in style, but also starts the film in a more heightened tone (pay attention to the cartoonier voices behind those colorful clown masks) before bringing realistic fear and stark violence into play by the scene’s end, which informs the rest of the movie.
On the side of the beleaguered angels is Oldman’s Gordon, who faces as many ethical dilemmas as Batman himself. Truly, Oldman is the secret weapon of The Dark Knight Trilogy, giving complexity to a character who could have just been a disposable supporting player and turning him into a man as fascinating as the star hero. Then again, Michael Caine’s Alfred is equally irreplaceable. Providing both levity emotional depth, Caine’s work with Bale is what digs down deep into Batman’s humanity. Taking over as love interest Rachel Dawes is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes, who declined to return. While Gyllenhaal makes Rachel into stronger character, her version is fairly different from the first iteration, leading to a lack of connection with the character, and therefore making some developments with her less effective than they would be otherwise. With every character spouting lessons on morality to some degree or another, it’s a testament to the acting on display that these conversations play well as both characters expressing themselves and the film stating its messages to the audience.
Once again lensed by Wally Pfister and scored by the duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight is one of the best looking and sounding comic book films ever made. Creating a cleaner look that evokes modern crime thrillers, the bright days, deep blue evenings, and pitch black nights bring Gotham to life as a living and breathing real world environment. However, most fights here are frustratingly shot upclose and edited frantically like a vast portion of action films post-2005, which takes away from action that does not involve vehicle chases or shootouts. Sonically, Zimmer and Howard bring back the brooding Batman themes introduced in Batman Begins while crafting a greater breadth in its musical atmosphere. Most notable, The Joker’s theme is a whining and off-putting piece of electric instrumentation that unsettles and sets the film on edge as it creeps in from the edges. The rest of The Dark Knight’s score is suitably menacing, even if it lacks the emotional layering present within the first film.
While Nolan’s singular vision for Batman may exclude crucial elements of the character that prevent the film from being a comprehensive interpretation of the hero, it’s in service of a powerful vision that informs The Dark Knight most crucial elements. The heady mixture of political and social issues within the frame of a costumed crime fighter narrative was revolutionary at its debut, and the resonance of Nolan’s grim vision of Batman will be felt throughout the genre for years to come, for better or worse.
Best Batman Moment: Batman’s thrilling chase to catch The Joker and save Harvey Dent isn’t just an incredible action sequence; it’s a compelling testament to Bruce Wayne’s wits and willingness to sacrifice. The sacrifice of The Tumbler and his mad dash on the Batpod, which ends in his surprise takedown of a tractor trailer show just how prepared Batman is and what he’ll do to save a life and stop a rampaging madman.
When They Got Batman Wrong: Throughout The Dark Knight, Wayne is continually multiple steps behind The Joker’s psychotic plans. While having the protagonist struggle to overcome his villain makes for a compelling narrative, Wayne is often so far behind that he’s close to being vastly unprepared, which is a far cry from the genius detective of the comic books.
Comic Book Inspirations: The partnership of Batman, Dent, and Gordon in order to clean up Gotham’s mob problem is pulled directly from Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween. While the comic may take a different route than the movie, both see the partnership fall apart when things go horribly wrong and Dent is turned into Two-Face, whose burning hatred of both men leads to tragedy.
Fun Fact: During the initial writing phase, Nolan had planned to have The Joker attack and scar Dent in the third film instead of The Dark Knight, which would lead to a focus on Two-Face within part three. But the idea was changed during scripting, leading to Two-Face’s complete story arc being contained within The Dark Knight.