“You’ve changed things. Forever.”
That line is uttered by the insanely villainous Joker, played with unpredictable perfection by the late Heath Ledger, to Christian Bale’s Batman during the celebrated interrogation scene of “The Dark Knight.” And just as Batman had changed things in Gotham, so too had this film changed things and set the bar for comic book movies.
“The Dark Knight,” putting aside some minor head-scratching instances, is a near-perfect film. Christopher Nolan returns to his ultimate Batman saga after “Batman Begins” successfully revitalized a franchise and character tainted on the screen by Joel Schumacher and Bat-nipples. “The Dark Knight,” however, is in a league of its own. Where “Batman Begins” successfully kick-started reboot trend in Hollywood, “The Dark Knight” changed the game in a way that no one could have seen coming. You can likely attribute Hollywood’s interest in making their super hero films more “dark” and “gritty” to this movie (which as we’ve seen doesn’t always work), or even the Academy’s decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, which, coincidentally or not, happened the year after “The Dark Knight” was snubbed.
More so, the film put aside cliche super hero movie gimmicks in order to tell a much more dramatic, themed story that works as both a comic book movie and a serious crime drama. As a middle entry in a planned trilogy, the film doesn’t have the challenge of revamping the origin story that “Begins” had, nor does it face the challenge of ending the beloved trilogy in a satisfying way, as “The Dark Knight Rises” did. “Begins” was already a success. A lot of the pressure was off. All Nolan and Co. had to do was make a movie that didn’t suck. A movie that lived up to the promise that “Begins” made. “The Dark Knight” was all this and more.
Much of the success of the film can be attributed to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker (which was only elevated by his unfortunate and unexpected death in 2008 before the movie released). Sinister, calculative, impressive. Ledger’s performance was nothing short of art. I remember at the time of his death hearing someone say that Ledger “wasn’t a celebrity, he was an actor.” It’s tragic that we weren’t able to witness what would have happened with the rest of his promising career.
It is true that the Joker is a strong pull for the movie. He’s Batman’s most recognizable and most resilient adversary. The film points this out in a great way come the climax, proving that neither of them will ever kill each other and are destined to do this “dance” forever. But the Joker is more like an animal. A “dog chasing cars.” He’s never really given any characterization or progression apart from his commitment to proving that any one can be corrupted with just a “little push.” With Batman’s willpower fully tested, the clown targets Gotham’s “white knight,” the counter hero to Batman, Harvey Dent. Unlike the dark knight, Harvey is respected by Gotham’s citizens, and his transformation into the vengeance-seeking Two-Face is the final act in the Joker’s violent play to destroy what hope Gotham had.
This is what the film does extremely well: centers a carefully orchestrated story around its main themes (vigilantism, anarchy, corruption), leading into a climax that tests every single one of them. The characters are truly pushed to their limits, and the ones that are left standing are the ones that pass the test. The film’s finale sets up a final act in the trilogy perfectly, and people in theaters across the nation could not wait to see what happened next.
The film isn’t so much a super hero story as it is a crime drama, but Batman’s mythology and purprose sets the table. The Joker is the star of the show, but the symbol that is Batman is still the focal point. While the film lacks a bit of characterization for the man behind the mask (apart from his romance with Rachel), no story on the big screen has really focused on Batman as a symbolic figure quite as well as “The Dark Knight” did. Sure, “Begins” introduced this notion and ” Rises” really cemented it, but “TDK” made us believe that Batman is more than just a man. He’s the hero Gotham deserved, but not the one it needed. But this is the film we both needed AND deserved, and we got it.