10 years ago today, superhero movies changed forever. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight debuted in US theaters on July 18th, 2008, and began showing in the UK one week later. The film was met with instant critical acclaim; it was compelling, action-packed, and beautifully shot. Each performance is absolutely pitch perfect, but chief among them is the absolutely-beyond-superlative-words performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.
This movie was incredibly revolutionary. It changed the expectations for a Batman movie. It changed the expectations for a superhero movie. Many consider it to be one of the best movies of the 2000s, and IMDb has it ranked as the #4 movie in history behind The Shawshank Redemption and the first two Godfather movies (which I think is a bit overzealous, but does go to show its influence). Similarly, Flickchart has it ranked #15 of all time behind the OG Star Wars Trilogy, The Godfather, Hitchcock, Fincher, Kurosawa, and others.
During my series counting down my personal favorite movies, which I called… um… “Personal Favorites,” I did a long post explaining why The Dark Knight is my absolute favorite movie, ever*. A lot of the stuff that I would talk about in a post looking back at The Dark Knight – Heath Ledger’s performance and the way it was crafted, how amazing the action sequences are, and the movie’s commentary on good and evil – but I’ve already discussed a lot of those in the PF post, which you can read by clicking here.
*(For now, at least. My tastes are always changing and evolving. In 5 years time or 10 years time, I could have a different favorite movie. But the point still stands that The Dark Knight has been incredibly influential on my personal taste, and will always hold a special place in my heart.)
Heath Versus Jared: The Wrong Takeaways
Let’s talk about method acting. Daniel Day-Lewis is highly acclaimed for going to extreme lengths to bring his characters to life. To play a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist, Adrien Brody broke up with his girlfriend, starved himself, gave up all creature comforts, and essentially lived on the streets to get inside of the mind of his character. In a now famous anecdote, Dustin Hoffman’s extreme lengths were seemingly mocked by best-actor-of-all-time (?) Laurence Olivier:
A showbiz story involves his collaboration with Laurence Olivier on the 1976 film Marathon Man. Upon being asked by his co-star how a previous scene had gone, one in which Hoffmann’s character had supposedly stayed up for three days, Hoffmann admitted that he too had not slept for 72 hours to achieve emotional verisimilitude. “My dear boy,” replied Olivier smoothly, “why don’t you just try acting?” (Hoffman subsequently attributed his insomnia to excessive partying rather than artistry).
The infamous live-action follow-up to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was Jared Leto’s role in Suicide Squad. Obviously, I think that there’s no comparison in terms of performance, and I think there are so many differences between Ledger and Leto’s performances that make comparing the two very difficult. But one useful place to start is in the preparation these actors took to get in the headspace of their characters.
First and foremost, Ledger studied important Batman comics with an emphasis on the Joker – The Killing Joke and Long Halloween among them. Then, Ledger analyzed the novel A Clockwork Orange and its film adaptation, and its protagonist Alex DeLarge, one of the most villainous psychopaths in modern fiction and film. Lastly, Ledger and director Christopher Nolan examine the paintings of Francis Bacon, mostly abstract and grotesque portraits. (Bacon’s paintings can be found here – and you might notice that they are difficult to look at perhaps make you feel uncomfortable. That’s the point, and that’s what drew Ledger and Nolan to them.) Looking at Bacon’s paintings not only helped influence the psychology of the character, but also helped influence the Joker’s very distinctive makeup.
So this looks at a film role as something academic, like a test. If you want to properly perform as a character, you have to identify influences and study them. Frankly, I think this seems rather reasonable.
Y’know who seems to think that that’s not a reasonable way to prepare for a role? Jared Leto.
Leto was the first person to play the Joker in a live-action feature film after the passing and performance of Heath Ledger.
At best, what Leto did could be considered a second-rate gimmick. At worst, what Leto did qualifies as sexual harassment. Leto refutes the stories, but denying them are certainly in his best interest. I think that stories of Leto’s behind-the-scenes antics come from too many sources – Will Smith, Viola Davis, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara… there are likely more, but frankly I think I’ve made my point: This is a case of he-said versus she-said-and-she-said-and-he-said-and-he-said.
The Sequel That Never Was
There’s a lot to say about The Dark Knight Rises, and why it wasn’t the sequel that The Dark Knight deserved. It’s got some great things; in my opinion, the Bane-versus-Batman fight and its accompanying monologue is one of the trilogy’s finest moments. And it’s got some awful things; the plot twist regarding Marion Cotillard’s Talia Al’Ghul was unnecessary, and the movie feels like it’s lacking something after that point.
Earlier this year, Heath Ledger’s family confirmed a rumor from a few years ago that Heath Ledger would have been involved in The Dark Knight Rises. I remember hearing a lot of outlandish and interesting things about what the Joker’s role in TDKR would have been, including the suggestion that he would have teamed up with Batman to stop some colossal threat from destroying Gotham. We’ll never know exactly what the Joker would have been doing in The Dark Knight Rises, but for me, I think, this show’s the movie’s lost potential. For many people, (myself included) The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a bad movie. It’s just sad to think of just how amazing this movie could have been if not for Ledger’s tragic passing.
Something that pleases me about The Dark Knight Rises and its relation to The Dark Knight is inspired by Bane’s prison liberation. In the minds of the most imaginative viewers, the Joker might have been in one of those prisons, and, during the course of the movie, he’s out there, bringing terror and chaos to Gotham. I expect we’ll never see that character brought to life again, but it’s fun to speculate.
Best Picture Nominees
The Dark Knight raised the bar for genre films at the Academy Awards. It was such a distinguished and critically acclaimed film that changed the Academy Awards. The film was shockingly not nominated for the Best Picture category, which most people recognize as an oversight on the Academy’s part. The year after that, the Academy expanded the number of possible Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10.
And this didn’t just allow more movies to be nominated for Best Picture – it opened the door for genre movies – superhero, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc. – getting nominated for best picture. Avatar, District 9, Inception, Her, The Martian, Arrival, Mad Max: Fury Road, Get Out, and The Shape of Water? It’s very possible that none of these would have been nominated – or in Water‘s case, won – if The Dark Knight hadn’t paved the way. (And sure, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was a genre film that won Best Picture and just about every other award, but that didn’t cause change in the same way that The Dark Knight did.)
Is it the best superhero movie of all time?
I’m genuinely asking – what’s better? Spider-man 2? Logan? The Avengers, Avengers: Infinity War? The Incredibles? I think that those are the closest we’ve got – but I don’t think that they’re better. Let me know what you folks think in the comments.
Between this and my Personal Favorites post, I think I’ve probably said enough about The Dark Knight. It’s a supremely wonderful movie that should and will be considered a modern classic. So, here are a few videos that say everything I would want to say about The Dark Knight, but in a more eloquent way.
And here’s a post I uploaded to No Coast Bias today: The Dark Knight: 10 Years of the Hero We Deserve
To those involved with in the making of The Dark Knight, thank you so much. You made a masterpiece.