On June 20, 1997, Batman & Robin opened in theaters, and like all of the other Batman films that came before, it was expected to be another successful and beloved box-office hit. (Batman Returns was successful, but it was also a Batman movie in which The Penguin bites someone’s nose off and says to Catwoman when meeting her for the first time, “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for,” so it was a little too freaky and a lot less family-friendly for most audiences) Instead, it was a box-office disappointment that was reviled by both critics and audiences, and George Clooney has been apologizing for it ever since.
After Christopher Nolan grabbed Hollywood’s attention with Memento and impressed Warner Bros. with Insomnia, the studio approached him with the possibility of rebooting the Batman franchise with a darker and more realistic approach that would be the complete opposite of everything done by Joel Schumacher. The result (which opened to critical acclaim and box-office success while also inspiring Hollywood to reboot nearly everything from James Bond to Robin Hood to Planet Of The Apes) was Batman Begins.
It was only natural that people would both expect and demand a sequel to Batman Begins, especially considering that the film ended with Jim Gordon informing Batman that there was a criminal running around Gotham City suspected of armed robbery and double homicide, and with a taste for the theatrical as evidenced by the calling card he would leave behind in the form of a Joker playing card. And as anticipation grew for what Christopher Nolan had in mind for his next Batman film, people made their own suggestions and did their own fan-casting for who should play The Joker: Crispin Glover, Adrien Brody, Lachy Hulme, and Paul Bettany.
But Nolan chose none of these actors.
Instead, he chose Heath Ledger.
Or as many fans on many an Internet message board called him: that gay dude from Brokeback Mountain. Who didn’t look or sound like someone who should be playing The Joker, and who seemingly didn’t impress these fans with his earlier performances in The Patriot, 10 Things I Hate About You, and A Knight’s Tale. And they were pissed.
Not too long after Ledger was cast, Warner Bros. revealed, via their viral marketing campaign at IBelieveInHarveyDent.com, for the first time how Ledger would actually look as The Joker. And instead of getting a traditional Joker with his traditional look (short green hair, chalk-white skin, immaculate ruby-red lips), we got this.
It was a look that many fans said looked way too much like the late Brandon Lee in The Crow.
And once again, fans were pissed.
It wasn’t until December of 2007 when fans were given a reason to retract their complaints, and everyone else had their curiosity piqued, when the first trailer (with actual footage from the film, as opposed to this teaser trailer) was released with screenings of I Am Legend. And when they saw the trailer and the six-minute-long prologue attached only to IMAX screenings of I Am Legend, as well as how Ledger looked and sounded as The Joker, they weren’t nearly as pissed as they were before.
Thanks to the trailers as well as the viral marketing, anticipation for The Dark Knight only grew and became even more intense as its release date approached. And on July 18, 2008, audiences everywhere finally got to see for themselves whether or not it was worth the wait.
One year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) continues to declare war on the criminal underworld, while also dealing with gun-toting amateurs in fake Batsuits who are following in his footsteps, but practically tripping over their own feet while doing so. With the help of Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), newly appointed District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Batman makes it clear to the crime families of Gotham City that not even their millions of dollars of illegally acquired profits are safe from him after he travels to Hong Kong to capture their accountant, a corrupt investment banker named Lau (Chin Han), and place him in police custody so that he can testify against them all. Which then forces all of the crime families to accept an offer they can’t refuse from someone whose methods they can’t even begin to predict: The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious and merciless terrorist-for-hire who is willing to hunt down and kill Batman in exchange for half of all their money. And as Joker sets his sights on Batman and unleashes death and destruction with his every move, Batman finds himself being pushed to the breaking point, and being forced to ask how much he can take and what he is willing to do in order to keep Gotham City, and the lives of those he knows and loves, from being completely torn apart.
There are many scenes in The Dark Knight that highlight Christopher Nolan’s talents as a director and why he is held in such high regard by the people who admire and respect his work. The bank robbery which opens the film and shows that The Joker is just as deadly and manipulative to those he works with as he is to those he goes up against. The Magic Trick, in which Joker uses a pencil to introduce himself to the mobsters of Gotham City in the most gruesome way imaginable. Batman retrieving Lau from his Hong Kong office tower and bringing him back to Gotham. Joker breaking into Harvey’s hospital room and convincing him to become a fellow ‘agent of chaos’ in order to punish everyone responsible for what happened to him and Rachel. The straight-out-of-The Road Warrior chase scene between Harvey being escorted by the police in an armored SWAT van, The Joker in an eighteen-wheeler trying to destroy it with his rocket launcher, and Batman in the Batmobile (followed by the Batpod after the Batmobile is destroyed by The Joker) racing to protect Harvey. And then there is this scene, which is reminiscent of the diner scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat (and that film was the main inspiration for Nolan as to how he approached making The Dark Knight), in which Batman confronts Joker in the Gotham City Police Department’s interrogation room as to the whereabouts of Harvey, only to realize that what Joker has planned is even worse than he thought, and that there is very little he can do to stop it.
From the moment that Joker appears onscreen, accompanied by the music of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in which his appearances are preceded by a creepy, buzzing, droning sound that gets under your skin like something out of a David Cronenberg movie, The Dark Knight is filled with an unshakable sense of dread that permeates every scene. Yes, Batman is terrifying and is capable of having many a person (cop and criminal) looking over his or her shoulder, but he has limits as to what he will do to strike fear in the hearts of others. Joker, on the other hand, has no limits and with every word and deed, we’re left with no idea of what he will do or how he will do it, other than the fact that it will be painful, that it will require difficult choices to be made, and that he will be the only one who sees the humor in it all.
Probably the best word to describe the success and impact that The Dark Knight had on the rest of Hollywood would be ‘monumental.’ It changed the way that people perceived comic-book films. It changed the way that both filmmakers and audiences perceived the PG-13 rating and realize that, much like when Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was released and which was largely responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating in the first place, this rating could be pushed to further limits so that an R rating wouldn’t always be required to tell a story that wasn’t entirely family-friendly. It made directors take comic-book films a little more seriously, and realize that greatness could be achieved even if the main character is wearing a cape. It made people, particularly fans (well, some fans), think twice about making snap judgments when it comes to casting and costuming decisions made for comic-book films and to at least try to be a little more patient in waiting to see how everything comes together in the final product. It popularized the usage of IMAX cameras and inspired more directors to use them for filming action scenes in their films, from Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark Of The Moon) to Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) to The Russo brothers (Avengers: Infinity War) to Nolan himself (every film made after The Dark Knight except Inception), and every studio would release their films to be seen in IMAX, even if they weren’t shot in that format, until a microbudgeted independent film called Avatar dropped in theaters and convinced Hollywood to go from obsessing over IMAX to obsessing over 3D and all of the profits that it could bring in, thanks to increased ticket prices. It even helped to convince the Academy Awards to increase the number of films nominated for Best Picture from five to ten back in 2009, after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received plenty of criticism when The Dark Knight and Wall-E were both snubbed for a Best Picture nomination.
There are other ways that The Dark Knight was considered an influential game-changer, and they weren’t all good. There were some fans who were so pleased and so impressed with how The Dark Knight turned out and how Christopher Nolan brought it all together, that they would become overly aggressive and downright vicious towards anyone who would say something critical about him or his work, and that kind of attitude has long since carried over to many other fans (most of them male) who can and will attack anyone (particularly movie critics giving early reviews of films that these fans haven’t even seen yet) who would dare utter a negative word about the movies and characters that they love.
There are some people who feel that other comic-book films and genre films learned the wrong lessons from The Dark Knight’s success, such as believing that other films needed to replicate that film’s “dark and gritty” and “grimdark” atmosphere even when such a tone wasn’t merited or necessary. The films that were (and still are, to this very day) hit hardest with this criticism were Man Of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which were both accused of portraying Superman/Clark Kent as brooding, unhappy, and downright murderous, and nothing at all like the joyous, kind-hearted, and inspirational portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent played by the late, great Christopher Reeve. (I’ve previously said much kinder and positive things about this most recent portrayal of Superman in the hands of Zack Snyder and I still continue to do so, despite the eyerolls I tend to get in response, and I regret nothing.)
Then there was the growing anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Expectations were sky-high for this film, in which Batman comes out of retirement to battle masked terrorist and League Of Shadows disciple Bane (Tom Hardy), and for many critics and fans, they would be damn near impossible to surpass. (Even Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Alanis Morissette’s follow-up to Jagged Little Pill, didn’t surpass all of the expectations that both critics and her fans had for it, and it ended up being judged a little more harshly than it probably should have been) Those expectations would lead to needlessly harsh criticism, excessive nitpicking, and many a moved goalpost over what would and wouldn’t be accepted in The Dark Knight Rises and many other genre films. All of which would contribute to the popularity of the YouTube “comedy” channel CinemaSins, which focuses on pointing out all of the bad things about a film in the form of “Everything Wrong With ________ In ___ Minutes Or Less” videos, an overabundance of “___ Things That Bothered Us About…” articles by geek websites like Screen Rant and Slashfilm, which in many cases just came off as more complaining and nitpicking about things that didn’t merit complaints or nitpicks, and also came off as judging a film for not being the film that was created in their imaginations instead of simply judging the actual film that exists in reality. (coughs Star Wars: The Last Jedi very loudly)
Despite all of this, the critical and financial success of The Dark Knight, as well as the eight Academy Award nominations it received, resulted in the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros., which permitted Nolan to tell his own original stories with very little studio interference, such as Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk. (Honorable mention to The Prestige, which Nolan adapted from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel of the same name, but made after Batman Begins) It also resulted in plenty of success for Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of The Dark Knight and Christopher’s younger brother, as he would go on to create the CBS action/cyberpunk sci-fi series Person Of Interest, and co-create the HBO sci-fi series Westworld with his wife, writer/producer Lisa Joy, both of which were executive produced by J.J. Abrams through his production company, Bad Robot.
And this discussion about all things The Dark Knight would of course be incomplete without mentioning the outstanding performances that helped make it all worth discussing, starting with Gary Oldman as Lieutenant/Commissioner Jim Gordon.
Gordon continues to be a good cop working hard to protect the citizens of Gotham City from danger, even if he has to continue working with cops whose integrity and judgment may be questionable. As he himself puts it, he would be working alone if he allowed himself to be overly choosy about who he works with. And unfortunately for him (and even more unfortunately for Harvey and Rachel), that approach to his work ends up costing him dearly and putting the lives of his family in jeopardy when his own questionable judgment comes back to haunt him.
Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, and now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is still tough as nails and refuses to back down from anyone threatening her well-being and the well-being of those around her, which isn’t at all surprising, considering that she took down the Scarecrow all by herself with no assistance from Batman. Not only must she deal with finding herself on Joker’s hit list, she must also struggle with her love of the two men fighting to protect Gotham City: Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne. And unfortunately, before we can see her follow through on her choice, her character ends up being ‘fridged’ in order to give Harvey Dent the push into madness he needs in order to become Two-Face. Which I wasn’t entirely fond of then or now, but…(sighs)…you learn to pick your battles.
Instead of going the easy and predictable route of making Harvey Dent smug and unlikable as he stands in opposition of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, Nolan and Aaron Eckhart do the complete opposite and give us plenty of reasons to like and care about Harvey Dent. He is, much like Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, a good man working hard and doing everything possible to make Gotham City a better and safer place, or as Batman describes him, the symbol of hope that he can never be. Which is exactly what makes The Joker go after him and destroy him in both body and spirit, all because in his eyes, “madness…is kinda like gravity, [in that] all it takes is a little push.” And in the heartbreaking scene where Harvey awakens from surgery after being rescued by Batman, and he sees his lucky two-headed coin at his bedside (which he gave to Rachel before he was taken into police custody), we see him sigh with relief at the comforting thought that Rachel is alive and well. It isn’t until he flips the coin over and sees it burned and scarred that he realizes the truth about her fate, and his tears and silent screams of grief and rage are all we need in order to know that The Joker’s push has worked, that Harvey Dent is now gone, and Two-Face has completely taken his place.
As Batman/Bruce Wayne’s voice of reason and silver-haired ride-or-die, Alfred Pennyworth picks up where Jim Gordon left off at the end of Batman Begins, in that he reminds Bruce that Batman’s very existence in Gotham City has only caused things to escalate and and caused the criminals who live there to step their game up when it comes to what they’re willing to do to maintain their supremacy. Even if it involves working alongside someone who doesn’t want the same things that they do, someone who doesn’t care anything at all about money or power, someone who simply wants nothing more than to watch the world burn. And yet, under all of that lies both love and concern for Bruce as he carries out his mission night after night and finding himself overwhelmed by the consequences of his enemies striking back against him, and even though he encourages him to carry on and do what he needs to do for Gotham City’s protection, he also makes sure to let him know that he isn’t alone and that he’s still in his corner.
Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne’s other voice of reason and silver-haired ride-or-die, not only continues to help run Wayne Enterprises and keep it profitable and successful, he also continues helping to create the equipment that Batman uses in his war on crime, including his sleek new Batsuit. When he discovers that Batman has used one of his ideas to violate the privacy of every citizen in Gotham in order to locate The Joker, he makes it clear to him that no matter how much he respects him and his mission, he will tender his resignation and walk if he continues using his surveillance technology to spy on the people he’s supposed to protect. And fortunately for both men, that particular move isn’t necessary, as Lucius is shown that, despite Bruce’s earlier statement to Alfred, Batman does have his limits.
When Heath Ledger died from an accidental prescription-drug overdose in January of 2008, so many people were left heartbroken by the news. Not just because they loved his work and because he was the father of a two-year-old daughter who would never see him again, but also because they were looking forward to seeing his performance as The Joker. And to know that this would be one of his last onscreen roles was difficult for many of his fans and admirers to bear. So when The Dark Knight finally dropped, people were finally able to see for themselves what Ledger was truly capable of as The Clown Prince Of Crime. And when that happened, all doubts were pretty much silenced, with the number of people who admired both the man and his talent only multiplying as a result. (Including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who awarded Ledger a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, which was accepted at the Oscars ceremony by his family and the acceptance speech being given by his father, Kim Ledger)
In one of the few interviews that Ledger gave about his upcoming role, he described the character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” And with every second of screen time he had, that description was proven to be accurate in every way possible. From the numerous stories he tells about how he acquired his Glasgow Smile (as Joker himself puts it in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, if he’s going to have a past, he prefers it to be multiple choice), to the brilliant and sadistic plans he sets in motion to destroy the people around him both physically and psychologically, to the joy he feels at finding a Worthy Opponent in the form of Batman, who can keep up with him every step of the way and who makes his criminal career so much more fun, to just his voice and laugh alone, both of which are distinctive and chilling enough to make his portrayal of The Joker stand above any other portrayal that has come before and throw down the gauntlet to any other actor who would come after. Ledger’s performance as The Joker would go down as one of the greatest villains in motion-picture history, and would raise the bar for many other villains to follow, including Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel and Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther.
There are some Batman fans whose biggest complaint about Christian Bale’s portrayal as Batman/Bruce Wayne (other than the overly gruff Batvoice he uses at times in this film, which isn’t horrible, but does make me wish he’d kept his Batvoice from the previous film) is the fact that this version of Batman is one who is only interested in being the Caped Crusader temporarily and doesn’t treat his war on crime as a lifelong crusade. Which is understandable, but there’s also the fact that the reason why Batman’s crusade is a lifelong one is partly because DC Comics will never, ever, ever let him quit and live a normal life. (Except of course, in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and even that retirement didn’t last very long) Which is what this version of Batman and Bruce Wayne wants more than anything. To inspire the citizens of Gotham to take back their city from the criminals who hold it in their grasp so that there no longer needs to be a Batman, so that someone like Harvey Dent can be the white knight that they can be proud of, and so he can finally be with Rachel. And the fact that every one of those opportunities is horrifically destroyed by The Joker is what makes you feel for this Batman/Bruce Wayne and what he’s going through.
As much as he refuses to quit and as much as he will defend his home until his dying breath, he also has to live with the fact that both Alfred and Gordon were right in that his existence as Batman has caused escalation and made things worse. And in order for him to bring that to an end and keep anyone else from dying…to keep all of Harvey Dent’s hard work from being undone and seeing organized crime return to Gotham with a vengeance…to keep the citizens of Gotham City from losing all hope and annihilating each other like The Joker would expect them to, he’s willing to become the monster that everyone thinks he is. Because you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. And Bale is once again superb at not only holding his own and not allowing himself to be completely overshadowed by his onscreen partners, but also showing all sides of his characters: the idiotic and irresponsible Bruce Wayne that is known by the general public, the sharp-minded and kind-hearted Bruce Wayne who is only known by everyone that he likes/loves/trusts, the Batman who is a skilled detective and strategist determined to stay two steps ahead of his opponents, and the Batman who won’t actually kill you, but is terrifying and intimidating enough that he’ll make you wish he did.
The Dark Knight was dedicated to the memories of both Heath Ledger and special-effects technician Conway Wickliffe, who was killed while working on a stunt during production, and despite the tragedies endured by the cast and crew, despite all of the ways that its influence continues to be felt in ways that are both good and not so good, it truly was the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle experience that other studios are still trying and failing to replicate. Granted, that isn’t stopping Warner Bros. from trying, and from working on another series of Batman films with another version of Batman starring (maybe?!) Ben Affleck to be written and directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, War For The Planet Of The Apes). But no matter how these films turn out, there will always be The Dark Knight. And whether you love it, hate it, or don’t care anything about it (and it’s guaranteed that you can find a message board or Reddit forum somewhere on the Internet that agrees with you on either viewpoint), what it was able to accomplish and inspire will always be remembered.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.