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Dissecting the Classics – The Dark Knight

November 18, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Dark Knight The Joker Heath Ledger

Last week, we covered the best movie about Batman. This week, it’s time to take a look at the best movie featuring Batman. It’s one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and considered by many to be the best comic book movies of all time.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Dark Knight

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Produced By: Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan
Cinematography By: Wally Pfister
Edited By: Lee Smith
Music By: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
Production Company: Legendary Pictures and Syncopy
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent
Gary Oldman as Commissioner Jim Gordon
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth
Heath Ledger as The Joker

What Do We All Know?

Batman Begins was a commercial and critical success, but I don’t think anyone looked at that film and saw the sequel being one of the biggest movies in years. But a viral campaign, some truly inspired trailers and the tragic passing of Heath Ledger all created a perfect storm of hype. And then the movie pretty much delivered on every front, smashing its predecessor’s success with critics and at the box office. It became the second highest grossing film in the States (where it still sits at #6, though much lower worldwide). And at the time, it would be hard to argue it wasn’t the best superhero movie ever made.

Of course, that was almost a decade ago. The Dark Knight is not a game changer, at least in a positive way. Marvel Studios has set the standard for comic book movies by embracing the fantastic instead of realism. Trying to recreate this film’s success for other DC movies has led to two of the worst blockbusters in recent history. So perhaps it’s time to look at this film and see how it succeeded where others failed.

What Went Right?

Much of what went right with Batman Begins carries over here. Christian Bale is still a great Bruce Wayne, Caine and Freeman are excellent supporting players. Gary Oldman gets a much more significant role as arguably the film’s fourth most important player. Katie Holmes is swapped for Maggie Gyllenhaal in what I consider an improvement. It’s a good foundation to build on, though the film is also a rare sequel that doesn’t really require the viewer to see the original. Obviously you’ll enjoy it more if you did see it, but a good chunk of the first act is used to re-establish Batman while introducing us to white knight district attorney Harvey Dent and the psychotic killer clown known as The Joker.

This time, Nolan aims for an even more realistic tone. Gotham looks more like Chicago than ever, the villains use guns and knives instead of fear gas, and the most fanciful elements are the Bat-Gadgets. Well, and some creative license for Two-Face. But we are clearly meant to recognize this as the real world, not that far removed from crime movies like Heat or even Goodfellas in presentation. Batman isn’t using batarangs and the Joker isn’t using joy buzzers. This sort of heightened reality doesn’t always work for comic book films, but Batman is well suited to it and no movie pulls it off better than this.

But what really separates The Dark Knight are it’s two new characters. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker may not be a 100% accurate translation from comic panel to screen, but it is absolutely compelling and iconic work. I know he’s overexposed and almost hero worshipped by the socially maladjusted troglodytes who sometimes gravitate to this sort of character, both of which can be aggravating. But every time I rewatch this, I am mesmerized by Ledger and hang on his every word. He steals the movie and is one of the great villains of cinema.

It’s an especially impressive feat because on paper, the heart and soul of the film is Harvey Dent. Batman and Joker are uncompromising opposites, two sides of a coin that Harvey might land on. Using The Long Halloween as an example, the screenwriters produce an epic tragedy as the ultimate symbol of hope and light in Gotham becomes a monster consumed by chaos. All three characters come together to form a strong and easily understood thematic tableau, which is absolutely the film’s strongest achievement.

What Went Wrong?

Christian Bale’s growling Batman voice has been relentlessly mocked and for good reason. Combined with Gary Oldman’s quiet muttering, the film isn’t always easy on the ears. Also, while the script excels in major dramatic scenes, a lot of transitionary dialogue is cliché-ridden and awkward. In terms of consistency, Batman Begins had a better script. I also feel that the film is a bit too long for its own good. It’s admittedly tough to decide where exactly cuts should have been made, but the film is exhausting to sit through and can even be genuinely boring for stretches at a time.

Also, I’ve watched this film many times, and there’s a few things that annoy me. I admit these are nitpicks that just bother me, but I feel they are worth mentioning. The fingerprints off a bullet scene is incoherent and mostly pointless, and the investigation it sends Batman on is tedious. The chase scene is confusing and has awful quips. Gordon faking his death is stupid. Bruce using his Batman voice while talking to Lucius is ridiculous. And you know, Batman’s logic at the end of the movie is… well, illogical. The combat action has gone from being poorly shot and edited to just being poorly choreographed. This isn’t really an action movie, but it’s sad that Batman isn’t more of a badass. Really, most of the fun stuff that makes Batman cool is largely absent from this movie.

And In Summary…

It’s worth mentioning that I wouldn’t have so many nitpicks if the movie didn’t compel me to watch it so many times. I don’t love this movie as much as I did in 2008. I’m less enamored with Nolan as a director and with the idea that comic book films need to conform to Hollywood’s ideas of what high art is to be considered good. But I do love this movie, and I’m still fascinated by how it managed to be a near perfect blend of pop art and sophisticated crime drama. No movie has come close since. The Dark Knight Rises was a clunky film that tried to touch on many things and not really be about anything. Man of Steel tried so hard to be this movie for Superman and failed. Batman v. Superman is like watching a moody teenager write fanfic that aspires to be this and nearly becomes parody.

So, what is it? Why were Nolan and company able to make this work? I think what this movie has that those other films lack is actually pretty simple; a fundamental understanding of the characters and the ideas and themes they represent. It boils them down to their essence. Batman represents order and justice, Joker embodies chaos and pure evil, and Harvey Dent tragic falls from one to the other. I don’t know if another three characters could have been stripped of so much while retaining their core. That is why the film manages to please both hardcore comic book nerds and people who want something a little more sophisticated from the genre than pure popcorn fun.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins

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