“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.
The story centers on Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, as he’s doing a pretty good job cleaning up Gotham City. A new figure in local law enforcement, Harvey Dent, seems poised to take over the clean-up in the city, which would make things much easier for Batman. Then, a new villain arrives on the scene: the Joker. The Joker doesn’t operate like the ordinary thugs, who want to set up systems to bring them cash—he just wants to create chaos and bring out the worst in people. He teams up with the thugs to take down Batman and central figures in Gotham City’s law enforcement. The Joker is a brilliant and devious strategist, which means big trouble for both Batman and Harvey Dent.
I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
This is a Nolan film, so expect a brilliant and intricate plot. The degree to which the Joker plans things out, predicting his opponents and preparing for the future, is astounding. This is first made apparent in the brilliant opening scene, which is one of the best in cinema history, but many scenes in this film carry that same brilliance and complexity. Batman initially wants to use intimidation and strength to subdue the Joker, but these have almost no effect on him. The Joker wants to engage in a battle of wits, and he’s very effective at playing that game. Nolan does an excellent job of showing how capable Batman is at dealing with common criminals, then showing how he struggles to deal with the Joker, and the game of cat and mouse the plays out between the Joker, Batman, and local law enforcement is thrilling and ingenious.
And we can’t talk about this film without talking about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. The Joker may be Batman’s most iconic villain, but portrayals of him before this film were somewhat comical, mostly clown-like (which is, admittedly, true to the comic). Couple that with Ledger’s reputation as a pretty boy of Hollywood and you can see why many people didn’t think this film would be as good as Nolan’s original 2005 film Batman Begins. Ledger hid away in a motel room for about six weeks to develop his character for the Joker, delving into the character’s psyche and developing everything from the deranged voice to the little tics to the unsettling laugh. What we got was probably the best supervillain portrayal of all time. Ledger’s Joker was brilliant, sadistic, chaotic, and terrifying, showing his talent and versatility as an actor. Ledger died of a drug overdose after filming his scenes for this movie, but before the film’s release, tragically making this brilliant performance his last.
Between the intricate plot by Nolan and brilliant performances by the entire cast, there’s a lot that went right with this film. It’s thrilling from start to finish, with great tension, some particularly well-done action sequences, and a touch of mystery. Both Batman and the Joker get some iconic lines and scenes among the most memorable in the genre. Even minor subplots, such as Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Rachel and the Chinese businessman Lau’s turbulent relationship with Gotham City’s mob, are well-developed and add a lot of depth to the story. The story is deep where it counts, but also shows a great breadth—a difficult balance to achieve.
Is The Dark Knight the best superhero film of all time? As I said, the rest of the industry stepped up their game after this film, so that’s a hotly debated title right now—but it would be hard to argue that The Dark Knight is not in the top three. There’s a brilliance here that’s hard to replicate, and even Nolan couldn’t top this film with his follow-up, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Whether you’re a lifelong comic book fan or you’ve never opened one, this film is not to be missed. It’s just that good.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Genres: action, crime, superhero