The Dark Knight came at an interesting cultural cross-section. It came as the Superhero film genre was trying to be taken more seriously. It came after Batman Begins, so viewers expected something amazing. But it came ten years after Batman & Robin, so nobody expected anything too great. And this film was bolstered by an all-star cast, but none of the actors were quite as all-star as the late, great, Heath Leger, who passed away six months before this film’s release. This film came at an important moment, and had a thorough influence on what came after it. This is widely agreed to be one of the greatest films of the 2000s, and the greatest superhero movie ever made. Let’s take a look at a few things that make it a personal favorite.
Action with a purpose
The action in this movie is nothing short of spectacular. Right from the opening sequence, the thrills never stop. The very first scene, a Joker-planned bank robbery, is among my favorites. It’s a thrilling heist. All the robbers are wearing clown masks, and midway through, they’re attacked by a shotgun-wielding bank executive.
What I love about this sequence is how it’s propelled by the dialogue. We see the robbers talk about the man behind the job – some shadowy figure who calls himself the Joker who wears war paint as a means of scaring people – and then we see as they axe each other off as a means of having more money for fewer people. This continues until there’s only one person left. When the injured bank executive calls out to the criminal, the robber removes his mask – showing the Joker. “All the criminals in this town used to believe in something. Honor, respect. What do you believe in?” The Joker removes his mask, giving the audience the first look at the film’s antagonist. “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.”
There’s a definitive point to the action in this scene. Each kill shows the criminals turning on each other and results a rise in tension. The entire sequence begs the question, who’s going to be the mastermind behind this robbery? If you know Batman and know that this is a Batman movie, it won’t surprise you when the Joker is behind it all, but when the Joker steps forward, the audience is introduced to a villain of violent vigor and strategic genius. It’s a powerful introduction to a powerful character.
When I first watched this scene in the theater, I was entranced from this moment on. I thought I’d have more to say about this sequence, but I really don’t. It just blows me away. Everything about this scene is superb. It’s moment when Nolan comes across as an action maestro.
There are a handful of other action sequences which would be worth noting – when Batman extradites Lau in Hong Kong, or when he fights his way through Joker goons near the end of the film. But the best action sequence is easily the chase scene in the middle of the movie.
There’s so many little things about this sequence that are great. There’s the Joker’s truck which has “Laughter is the best medicine” written on the side, graffitied to say “Slaughter is the best medicine.” I enjoy the little dialogue where a Swat officer assures Harvey that the truck can withstand the Joker’s firepower, only to have the Joker pull out a bazooka. Watching the Batpod launch from the Batmobile is like watching a bird spread its wings. All this little moments make this chase scene pretty good. But the conclusion of the chase makes this sequence an absolute classic.
Literally, the only gripe I have with this movie is the fact that this scene is facilitated by a Swat officer cimplaining because the Joker is trying to kill him. I have no idea why a Swat officer (who faces death on a regular basis) would complain about dying. In a near-perfect film, this is the only thing which irks me. That being said, there are so many things which makes this scene which makes it perfect.
It’s the famous moment when Batman is about to ride into the Joker, and the Joker goes from whispering to shouting about how he wants Batman to hit him and kill him. Some of you, while reading this, will have already began to hear Heath Ledger’s voice saying “Come on I want you to do it I want you to do it. Come on. Hit me. Hit me!”
The most impressive action beat from the scene comes as Batman drives the Batpod underneath the Joker’s truck, successfully tangling it up and flipping it over. It’s absolutely worth noting that this wasn’t CGI or anything – they really flipped over a big rig. Read about it here.
Again, the action has a point, it has a meaning. It brings up the distinction between Batman’s good and the Joker’s evil. The Joker is so evil he encourages evil in others, by begging that Batman runs him down. It really brings us to the crux of the entire film. Batman can kill the Joker, and Gotham would no doubt be better for it, but Batman can’t sink to that level. Throughout the Dark Knight trilogy, this is mentioned constantly, and with good reason. It shows that although Gotham is a place of great evil, Batman will not give into it. I’ll come back to this later.
The Boats – Good and Evil
Goddamn, there is so much going on in this scene. I remember seeing it for the first time in theaters, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. For those unfamiliar – I don’t know who hasn’t seen this movie or why they’d be this far in this post but still – the scenario with the boats involves two boats, one full of civilians and families, the other full of criminals. Each boat is rigged with explosives, and each boat has the detonator for the other. The Joker tells the passengers that whichever boat blows the other up will be spared, but if neither boats have been blown up by midnight, he’ll detonate both.
The thing which I love about the boats is what it indicates about good and evil. There’s a boatload of kindly families and a boatload of criminals. In theory, this should be pretty black-and-white, wouldn’t you say? But in a delightfully ironic twist, it’s the families who argue for blowing up the other boat, whereas one of the criminals is the one bold enough to throw away the detonator.
But the question for Batman is – does the fact that the boats didn’t blow each other up make up for the fact that he lost Harvey Dent? The conflict regarding Harvey is referred to as “the battle for Gotham’s soul.” At the start of the film, Harvey is a noble attorney, and by the end, he is a vengeful murderer who only puts his faith in chaos and luck. Batman stops the Joker from doing evil things and he stops Harvey from killing Gordon’s family, but he doesn’t save Harvey. Since Harvey gets corrupted, Batman loses. Batman saves Gotham, but this is far from a happy ending.
The Performance of a Lifetime
Heath Ledger’s sinister performance as the Joker is one of the most acclaimed in many years, and deservedly so. There’s no denying that part of that acclaim comes from the fact that before this film debuted, Ledger passed away. The urban legends paint Heath Ledger as a tortured artist, who isolated himself in a motel room and wrote journals full of insane ramblings just trying to get into character. And these same urban legends would have a person believe that Ledger got so into his character that it became difficult for him to sleep, thus leading to his death by sleeping pill overdose. There is no evidence that Ledger’s inability to sleep started with his role as the Joker, but it would not shock me if it aided his performance.
Giving all the credit to Ledger undersells just how much great of a job the film’s screenwriters – director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan – in constructing the character. Every maniacal thing that comes out of the Joker’s mouth came first from the Nolan Brothers. That being said, the Nolans’ screenplay provided us with what the character would do – Heath Ledger brought flesh and blood to these scenes.
In order to fully grasp just how shocking Ledger’s performance was, one must remember what came before it. There was outcry when Ledger was cast because of his previous acting credits. The star of Brokeback Mountain and 10 Things I Hate About You was cast to play the most menacing villain in the most evil Rogues Gallery in comics? People were understandably doubtful. How could someone like that follow in the footsteps of Batman 89’s Jack Nicholson? How could someone like that follow in the footsteps of Mark Hamill in the DC Animated Universe? Simply put, people assumed he couldn’t.
So what began then was the process of getting into character. Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger didn’t just read Joker-specific comics (such as The Killing Joke and Long Halloween) but also the novel and film A Clockwork Orange and paintings by Francis Bacon and bounced back and forth various philosophies of chaos and anarchy. Then began the process of selecting the Joker’s costume. Most film productions would have a staff specifically in charge of costuming the characters, but Nolan said that having a costume for Ledger to put on and then suddenly he is the Joker would feel “artificial,” and so Ledger was allowed to, bit by bit, pick out his own outfit. This is why his Joker’s suit is chaotic and messy-looking. Similarly, the two decided that the Joker was the kind of character who would put his own make-up on, and thus, Heath put on his own makeup. This lead to the uneven, messy look of the Joker’s facepaint.
There’s an often-quoted behind the scene story about the scene in which the Joker crashes Bruce Wayne’s party. The Joker strides right past Alfred and begins his intimidating speech to the party guests. Michael Caine was supposed to have a line here, but he was so taken aback by seeing Heath Ledger in costume that he simply forgot his lines.
But that’s just the preparation work going into the design of a character. The next step is performance.
Again, to compare with Ledger to his predecessors, voice was going to be a tough thing. There was the cartoon-insanity of Mark Hamill’s voice, or Jack Nicholson’s straight-laced-yet-terrifying voice. Ledger found a balance of these two, while still cultivating his own speaking cadence. If I had to use one word to describe Heath Ledger’s voice in this film, it would be “Unhinged.” His unsteady and uneven delivery really hammers home just how unbalanced and insane his character is.
Here’s a compilation of all the times Heath Ledger laughed in this movie, in case you had forgotten about how creepy it was. The thing that I like about these laughs is that there are noticeably different laughs for different situations. His laugh when he walks into the mob meeting is meant to intimidate, whereas his laugh during the interrogation scene conveys his genuine mirth.
Aside from the voice, the next biggest thing would be the physical element. Heath Ledger hit just as much of a home-run on this as he did on vocals. Every tiny thing that he does indicates the madness inside the character. The first and foremost creepy idiosyncrasy he brings to the character is the iconic flick of the tongue. This isn’t just weird and scary to see, but it also helps add a creepy aesthetic to the stories that the Joker shares about his scars. And while I could go frame-by-frame and point out every great thing that Heath Ledger does from a physical standpoint, I’d like to point out just one more: watch the way he claps.
Just something about the way he claps with his whole hands rather than putting his palms together conveys the sense of being unhinged and instilling terror that is so iconic about this character.
Favorite Scene: Before I start talking about which scene in the movie is my favorite, let me bring up what philosophy professors like to call “The Trolley Problem.”
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the most ethical choice?
The Trolley Problem helps give some perspective on Batman’s relationship with the Joker. As I’d said above, Batman killing the Joker would likely yield a better result for Gotham. But by getting his hands dirty and actually killing the Joker, Batman would break his one rule. This comes up in the scene mentioned above, where Batman almost runs over the Joker, and of course, throughout many other scenes in the movie. But keeping this in mind during the film, and especially during the Interrogation Scene.
The Interrogation is the scene on which the entire movie pivots. Things seemed good; Harvey was saved, the Joker was in custody. Things were fine. But then, Harvey never made it home. That’s when this movie reaches its turning point. Most movies might end with the bad guy being taken into custody, but this is The Joker. Being taken into custody is only part of the plan.
The brilliance of this scene is how it quintessentially represents the relationship between the Joker and Batman. As the Joker says himself, it’s like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The scene compounds a few things things that are fundamental to this movie; Batman refuses to kill, the Joker always has plan, and the two are not so different.
One thing I just noticed recently about this scene that I absolutely adore: When Batman begins attacking the Joker, the camera cuts to the police, and Gordon says “He’s in control…” It’s rather telling, because he isn’t. Gordon says this, wishing it were true but knowing that it isn’t. The scene’s most harrowing moment comes when Batman has punched the Joker many times, and the Joker laughs, saying “You have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing you can do with all your strength.” Batman is running the interrogation and he’s throwing the punches, but he is not in control. This is where this film’s antagonist is his strongest, and this is where this film is at its best.
Favorite Quote: There’s so many amazing lines from this movie that are just sheer poetry. Some of the things that come out of the Joker’s mouth are just amazing.
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”
“Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.”
How about a simple mantra: “Why so serious?”
How about Gordon’s ending monologue about Batman’s role in the city after the death of Harvey Dent?
How about Alfred’s “Some men just want to watch the world burn” monologue?
But what’s this movie’s finest quote? The one most frequently quoted:
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Favorite Performance: Obviously, Heath ledger had the best performance, as I’ve talked about at length above. That being said, I have to talk about the rest of the cast. The cast is amazing. Fuck what everyone says, Christian Bale does a wonderful job as an understated Bruce Wayne and his (much-criticized) Batman voice fits the tone of the film perfectly. Gary Oldman is great and delivers each of his lines with the hardworking vigor of the Jim Gordon character. Aaron Eckhart wonderfully captures the transition from Harvey Dent to Two-Face, showing both the amicable lawyer and the world-weary psychopath. Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in seamlessly as Rachel Dawes, giving some moments which are heartfelt in a simple way (such as any of her scenes with Bruce), or heart-wrenching (such as when she talks to Harvey over the phone just before her death). I don’t feel the need to sing high praises for Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman, because, well, they’re legends. Everyone knows how great they are. Michale Caine’s iconic accent gives life to Alfred’s “Some men just want to watch the world burn” story in a way that no other actor could have. Morgan Freeman – though great throughout – hits a high point when one Wayne employee tries to blackmail the company, and we get to see Lucius Fox’s cool and confident response of “Good luck.”
That being said, this movie is a showcase for Heath Ledger. This performance is one for the ages.
Academy Awards/Nominations: Unlike a lot of the movies I’ve covered thus far, The Dark Knight‘s success at the Oscars was actually rather significant. The film was nominated for but did not win Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects – but it did win Best Sound Editing as well as a posthumous win for Heath Ledger as Best Supporting Actor. Ledger’s win was the first Oscar win for any movie in the steadily-growing superhero genre, and added more legitimacy to the growing genre.
More significant than all of this was the fact that the film was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination – Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and The Reader were all nominated, none of which are nearly as fondly remembered as The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was widely regarded as the year’s best movie, so the snub was shocking. There was a considerable amount of outcry, and the following year, the Academy changed the number of Best Picture Nominees from 5 to 10. I do think that this movie changed how the Academy regards superhero movies and movies of other genres. I like to think that perhaps at the beginning of next year we’ll see a Best Actor or a Best Picture nomination for Logan, but perhaps let’s not hold our breaths.
Fun Fact: Since I’ve written a lot about the Joker for this, let’s have a fun fact about Batman. This is the first Batman movie in which Batman is seen operating outside of Gotham City – during the Hong Kong excursion.
If you like this, also check out: It’s absolutely stellar predecessor, Batman Begins, or it’s still-enjoyable sequel, The Dark Knight Rises. Also, there’s a lesser-known, non-canon, Batman anime film set between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight called Batman: Gotham Knight. Or, as I mentioned in The Batman Singularity, any of the other films/shows which took on a similar tone, such as Man of Steel, or Arrow, or Daredevil. Watching any of these films helps to give a better idea of the scope of influence The Dark Knight has had.
Just recently, a documentary came out entitled I Am Heath Ledger, discussing the actor’s career before The Dark Knight and his legacy thereafter. I have not had a chance to watch it yet, but the reviews so far are positive. I would certainly like to check it out.
There’s a saying that something might be better than as a whole than the sum of its parts. But what if its parts are all really phenomenal? The Dark Knight has it all. Top-notch performance, well-choreographed action, a powerful score, and the best screenplay this side of the 2000’s. This movie changed Batman, this movie changed the Joker, this movie changed Superhero movies, and this movie changed the Oscars. Not only is it amazing in its own right, but it has left quite a legacy in Hollywood. This film will perpetually be remembered as one of the best, and it will always be remembered as a personal favorite.