Ten years ago, The Dark Knight premiered and became one of the most iconic cinematic tellings of a Batman story. The euphoria of a brilliantly told Batman tale was felt not only in the DC fandom, but with fans of cinema and that feeling hasn’t quite been replicated since. Not even The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy, could live up to it. The Dark Knight will certainly stand the test of time when it comes to its directing, cinematography, editing and performances. However, what makes The Dark Knight a lasting influence in cinema — in a way that other comic book movies cannot claim — is its intricate plot and understanding of these iconic characters. Nolan achieved what few directors have managed to do, which is weave a brilliant story about pathos, humanity and the complex nature of being a hero. The Dark Knight gave superhero movies legitimacy to stand alongside some of cinema’s finest. In this retrospective, we will explore some of the key elements of Nolan’s script and why The Dark Knight stands alone as the most critical cinematic exploration of our favourite caped crusader.
Nolan hits the ground running in the opening act and invests time into establishing Batman’s greatest foe. The Joker and his mania are introduced at the very beginning of the film, and his arc works in tandem with Batman’s arc. We are introduced to a version of the Joker that is serious and grounded in a recognizable Gotham. The bank heist begins and we have the Joker’s goons discussing who their mysterious boss is. Some sound frightened of him and some don’t take him seriously at all. What we learn is the Joker has instructed each goon to kill another when that goon’s job is done. We see his diabolical plan unfolding and ending with the Joker as the last man standing after the massive bank heist. This is an intelligent villain who has planned for every detail. Later on in the film, he mockingly asks Harvey Dent if he looks like a man with a plan, and that is what makes him so dangerous. By wearing his insanity on his sleeve he has allowed others to cast doubt on his abilities and his intelligence. From the bank heist to the final moments of the film, he is a man with a master plan – to always be the one who gets the last laugh. Nolan communicates to us important knowledge of the Joker very early on to make it clear that he is a formidable opponent for the Batman. Nolan provides us with the set up for when the Joker states that Batman completes him. The heist not only establishes who Batman is up against, it is also the starting point in understanding Gotham.
Nolan showcases a Gotham where a caped crusader exists and has fundamentally transformed the city in realistic ways. In the first act, Nolan uses the people of Gotham as exposition. The Joker’s goons speak of the Joker and his supposed lunacy and criminals walk around whispering about Batman. On top of this, the Gotham City Police Department must contend with governmental pressures regarding Batman and the news has wall-to-wall coverage on the Dark Knight and the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Therefore, we gain a vivid picture of what Gotham City has become. We recognize who Batman is fighting against and who he is fighting for; who is afraid of Batman and who is inspired by him (for better or worse). The Joker’s heist bleeds into various scenes of criminal activity that provide us with the answers to some of these questions. We are reintroduced to Scarecrow in the middle of a criminal meeting where he adds to the legend of Batman by being able to identify the fake Batman. When the fake Batman uses a gun, Scarecrow says, “That’s not like him” and when the real Batman shows up in his Batmobile, “That’s more like it.” The first act doesn’t focus on Batman or the Joker exclusively because it is focusing your attention on Gotham – which will soon be Batman and Joker’s playground. Nolan is reminding you that Batman’s presence has not gone unnoticed by his villains and they are adapting. The Joker even remarks on how the mobs have started to carry out their dealings during the day because they are frightened of the night. However, Joker is the exception. Batman’s existence has created a new world order, and the Joker is there to disrupt it.
The Dark Knight is not just a Batman movie and this is what makes it so great. Nolan utilizes the characters in Bruce Wayne’s and Batman’s life to craft an image of what kind of man and hero he is. It is not enough to have focus entirely on the hero and his actions – you need to understand his decisions and the decisions of others that affect the bigger picture; it is vital in depicting a better story. The key dynamic in this film is the one between Batman, Harvey Dent and the Joker. Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart and Heath Ledger play these roles perfectly (and despite discussion about whether Bale was the best choice for Batman, he was the best choice for this story). Nolan’s script hinges upon the theme of identity. Who are we? What are the masks we wear for the world to see? Who are we truly when our spirits are broken? Harvey Dent delivers the most famous line in the movie, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In this statement, he sits across from Bruce who is concealing his secret identity from Harvey. This line foreshadows what’s to come for the pair; the White Knight and the Dark Knight.
Harvey does not wear a mask when fighting for justice, he proudly and boldly confronts the wolves with an idealistic outlook. He is yet to discover that you cannot remain a decent man in an indecent world. However, District Attorney Harvey Dent is also a mask for his own insecurities. The idea of a maskless White knight allows him to maintain his confidence in himself and his own crusade for justice. Bruce is the necessary mask to allow him to be Batman. He must preserve his identity because without his wealth, he loses the safety net of anyone suspecting a billionaire playboy is the famed Batman. His mask is for his protection and the protection of all in Bruce’s life. Bruce and Harvey require their masks. They share the same goals, idealism and qualities, which gives Bruce the false sense of security that Dent is what he needs to leave Batman behind. Bruce upsets the balance by believing that emboldening Harvey and issuing him more power will free him from Batman and save Gotham. He fails to see Harvey’s mask, which hides Dent’s fragile spirit. It is in this dynamic that we grasp why Batman is an exceptional hero.
Of all three characters, the Joker is the most honest about who he is. When we are introduced to the Joker, he is wearing a clown mask, which he removes to reveal clown makeup. This isn’t to show that he is a clown — although he can act like one — but it showcases that he is revealing who he truly is on the inside. He is deranged, he has given into his insanity, and this is what he is allowing the world to see. The intricate story weaving of these characters together is a difficult thing to do, but Nolan was right to give the villains and heroes equal respect and time. To understand the nature of these characters allows the stakes to rise and for the consequences to be truly felt. To flesh out the world around Batman, he inevitably becomes more symbolic and legendary. The Joker’s grand plan was to cause chaos in Gotham, but with Batman’s spirit still intact, Batman was able to carry out the logical decision to take the fall for Dent’s crimes. By destroying the Batman’s reputation and maintaining Harvey Dent’s reputation provides Gotham a chance of finding order and balance – most importantly the spirit of Gotham remains unbroken.
Nolan did a great deal for this story by focusing on characters, their relationships, and understanding the intimate details that affect the larger picture and Batman directly. To know Gotham and its inhabitants helps to understand what Batman is and why he is the hero that Gotham needs. Nolan found all the right avenues to portray a Batman story that would not betray the essence of the comic book character. The Dark Knight still included shadings of previous cinematic tellings, but it dug deeper into what ultimately makes Batman so iconic: his pathos. Every great superhero film may share similar traits but are all ultimately different. The means by which a storyteller tells a tale is dependent on the spirit of the character they are focusing on. Could a Superman or Wonder Woman story be told in the same tone as The Dark Knight? Perhaps, but it is unlikely. Every hero has a unique quality that every storyteller needs to tap into. For Batman, the right way to tell his story is to lean into the genres that fit best with the character – crime and film noir. In terms of story, placing heavy emphasis on a psychology that deconstructs Batman, his enemies and allies, serves a Batman narrative best.
Matt Reeves is expected to take on the directing and writing duties of the next live-action Batman film. What Reeves could learn from The Dark Knight is to strike a balance with what is true about Batman and his world, and identify a method of storytelling that honors that. Nolan changed the game because he proved that superhero stories can be grounded in a familiar reality. However, others who attempted to replicate Nolan’s success failed to realize why the formula worked with Batman. The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel represent just two examples of superhero films that borrowed Nolan’s formula and failed because that formula wasn’t best for those characters. The Dark Knight — which has been accused of being unfaithful to the comics — is a rather honest and true depiction of the essence of who Batman is and what he symbolizes. This is why 10 years later The Dark Knight is still being discussed and why it still remains one of the best comic book based films in the cinema.