Seven years ago today, a film was released that many likely agree was a transformative release in the ever-expanding genre of superhero movies. While audiences had just enjoyed the release of Iron Man a couple of months prior — largely oblivious of the universe it would give birth to — and while we had already been exposed to blockbusters like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, it was time for a new effort to come along that could show audiences that a film derived from the medium of comics can be just as hard-hitting, scary, grounded, and gritty as even the most brutal crime dramas. That film was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
With the Batman film franchise only just regaining its footing a few years prior with Nolan’s first effort with the characters in Batman Begins, a sequel allowed for the hero’s first encounter in this new version of the story with his arch-nemesis: perhaps the most popular comic book villain of them all, the Joker. What most didn’t realize was that the vision of the Joker that would be presented in the film would become an iconic movie villain for an entirely new generation, made all the more surprising by the amazing dedication brought to it by the late Heath Ledger. While the internet reacted predictably in 2006 upon news of Ledger’s casting, today you’ll find very few negative critics of the actor’s performance as the DC Comics icon, who brought a brand of immersion, intensity, and idiosyncrasy to a role that he seemed perfectly fit for.
Beyond that, this is our first, live-action look at Batman going to great, global lengths in order to bring justice to Gotham. His enlistment of South Korean smugglers to get him into Hong Kong in order to stealthily extradite the money man for the Gotham mob provides a wonderful showcase for Batman’s various skills, as well as creative, ground-level use of the way he uses technology and the resources available to him. We also get to see Batman doing full-on detective work in order to find the Joker, and his fearlessness and resolve in pursuing one of the city’s mob bosses for answers sees him fight and power his way through an army of henchmen in a crowded nightclub. This all culminates in a pure Batman interrogation: he’s not averse to using fear and pain to get what he wants, especially if the criminal deserves it.
From the perspective of a comic book fan, The Dark Knight is very much the ultimate Batman movie. In addition to displaying one of the most timeless iterations of the immortal Batman vs. Joker conflict, we were also given a tragedy on two fronts. The story of Gotham City’s “white knight,” District Attorney Harvey Dent, was given full service. The triumvirate of Batman, Gordon, and Dent making a vow to clean the city up by any means necessary seemed ripped straight from the pages of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, and as tragedy marred the lives of both Batman and Dent, we see the effects it has on both men, and how it pushes them into two different paths: it forces Batman to become a better hero, and pushes Dent into becoming the vicious and calculating Two-Face.
See, one of the major elements that sets Christopher Nolan’s Batman films apart from those of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher is that they’re about Batman. While Ledger and Eckhart’s performances are both respectively scene-stealing in several places, the narrative focus is always on the resolve and dedication of Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale is, as of now, the single most dedicated actor to have ever put the character’s mask on for a couple of reasons: he was exposed to wonderful works from the source material, and because he knew how to get inside the material he would be portraying. The thing that ultimately separates Batman from going down the same path as Harvey Dent — that the Joker is gleefully attempting to push he and the rest of Gotham into — is his almost superhuman will, as well as his support system, which is personified by his surrogate father: Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine).
The Dark Knight rightfully stands as not just one of the best examples of adapting a beloved comic book character to the medium of film, but it also stands on its own merits as just an excellent film, period. On this seventh anniversary of its release in theaters, it may be the perfect time to enjoy it once again, and descend back into the gritty concrete jungle of Christopher Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley’s Gotham City. After all, he’s the hero we deserve, and The Dark Knight was the comic book movie that we needed.
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