Wednesday, July 18, 2018

After 10 Years, "The Dark Knight" Continues to Be a Milestone in Superhero Cinema

Scene from The Dark Knight

It's sort of a cliche, but it's hard to describe the impact of director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight without stating the obvious: it started with a bang. The camera entered the world of Gotham by zooming in on a window shattering, on the other side is a group of men in clown masks running through the plan, which is essentially a game of last man standing. With each piece of the puzzle unlocked, another person dies. Nobody knows who the mastermind is, nor will they really until it's too late. It's a world that superhero cinema wasn't used to, as even Nolan's previous D.C. movie Batman Begins didn't think to go this dark, finding a world where order was finally meeting chaos, as portrayed by a 28-year-old actor who unfortunately had died earlier in 2008 only to deliver (to date) the only superhero performance that was so revered that it got a posthumous Oscar win. The Dark Knight was a behemoth in 2008 and set the template for a new era of "dark and gritty" cinema that followed. It was unafraid to take risks, and in the process solidified the mythos of Nolan's godlike hold on the blockbuster. It changed cinema, plain and simple.

In 2008, it was deep into the George W. Bush era and No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood were months away from dominating awards season. It was a melancholic point for cinema, and Nolan understood the shift better than anyone in the comic industry, who were still making films that could be called "fun." The Marvel Cinematic Universe had technically begun a few months prior, but it hadn't taken as strong a hold as The Dark Knight did upon its immediate release. It was preceded by months of clever marketing where cryptic messages lead people through mazes on the internet and teasers only raised speculation. The casting of Heath Ledger was controversial in large part because nobody could see him topping The Joker performance done by Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989). It was a hefty goal for a film that revolutionized superhero cinema not by making things more stylized, but instead going against what had come to be expected from Batman during the late 90's Joel Schumacher era. Batman, subjectively, existed in our world and it was scarier to think that these supervillains did, too. 

It's why the long notes of co-composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer became the eerie anthem. It was like ringing ears that disoriented the viewer as they witnessed the opening heist scene, or the many antics of The Joker as he found a way to control the mob and turn beloved politician Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) into the evil Two-Face, who murdered people by chance. The Joker's dastardly scheme lacked an order that made sense to anyone but him. He didn't play chess so much as flip the board over and rob his opponent. He loved the antagonism of holding hostages, creeping people out, and making up elaborate stories for how he got his war-painted face hid garish scars. It's so believable that it's easy to ignore how often his story changes, or how it's all a big joke to him. Gone are the days of Nicholson or even Caesar Romero's Joker. Now he was an anarchist, looking to watch the world burn. He's unnerving because he can't be understood, and Ledger brought a drowsy quality, capturing a weary figure who was tired of dealing with others. It was a performance that took a lot physically out of him, and it unfortunately lead to pain pill addiction that took his life. Still, it only added to the mythos of the great performance displayed on screen, showing an actor who couldn't be interviewed about his craft. He was a mystery in a time where no actor had privacy. Ledger was an anomaly, and whose death unfortunately meant he died at the moment when he was at his career best.

Even more impressive is that Nolan managed to create a world where the value of Batman (Christian Bale) is questioned, but is inevitably secondary to The Joker's compelling dark performance. Batman spends most of his scenes contemplating life, wishing that he could date Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and wanting to be the hero but finding that all he could be is "the hero that Gotham deserves." He doesn't end the film the hero in spite of capturing The Joker. He's a vigilante who took down Harvey Dent before his reputation was totally ruined and the optimism around his legacy could be solidified. Batman's plight was meant to be a hero, but The Joker's destruction meant that he could never do it without disappointing someone, thus having to play favoritism. Gone is the days of Spider-Man where the hero saved two falling parties on a bridge. People are dying, and Bale does an excellent job of capturing the stress and weight of a man who is pushed to his limit and discovering that maybe, just maybe, good cannot always win. 

Nolan knowingly pulled some influence from Michael Mann's Heat, which is present in the tone of many of the action scenes. This is most noteworthy in an extended chase scene where The Joker hijacks a truck - with "Slaughter is the best medicine" cleverly written on the side - and proceeds to shoot at Batman in his Batmobile. The scene works because everything about the scene is organic. There isn't a lot that requires special effects, and the danger makes it feel like Batman could die. In Nolan's world, it's quite possible that it could happen. These are tough men fighting each other not solely with violence, but with their wits and the ability to camouflage among ordinary people. The action in the film is great because it's real. Nolan really did blow up a hospital (albeit an empty one). It's here that the film really does feel like it takes place in our world, and the flying wonder of films like Iron Man are put to shame. Everything has to be real, and it has to say something about society writ large.

By the time that the closing credits blare into Zimmer's first iconic score with Nolan, history has been made. There had been dark films before, but never as a central summer release. There hadn't been a film this dangerous, presenting death as philosophical and selfish matters. This was a moment when Batman couldn't save the day, even if he beat the bad guy. It may have been a shocking twist, but it's in this moment that cinema changed, and that Nolan ascended to a godhood state, with many either comparing him to the next Spielberg or Kubrick (or both). He had ripped a hole in the fabric of what superhero cinema had been going back to Batman serials. For those who thought that the 1989 adaptation was dark, The Dark Knight proved to be even more challenging, taking risks that felt real. In some ways, it's what's kept the Marvel Cinematic Universe from comparing, as death has been a rare commodity. While Nolan doesn't use death for sentimental manipulation, he creates worlds where pain and loss are mixed with dark humor and thrills. This was as adult as superhero cinema got.

There was the immediate impact and what was to come. In the immediate future, it was a film that topped the box office for the remaining summer, which ran until the release of Tropic Thunder. Its slow success lead it to almost a billion dollars internationally at the box office, and the world was quick to embrace it. Ledger's performance lead to countless impersonations, the phrase "Why so serious?" was shared in hallways of schools, and the idea of superhero cinema getting any better was difficult. This was a dark and gritty film that, for better and worse, would come to be the norm. Films had to be darker, more challenging, and reflect the modern era's woes. It wasn't just in the D.C. Extended Universe, whose first film Man of Steel was produced by Nolan, which received flack for being droll and hostile. It was in general blockbusters. Even James Bond got dark in films like Skyfall (whose villain, played by Javier Bardem, feels like he's from the school of The Joker). Nolan had left his mark, and he was now an icon at his peak, at least for the next two films (Inception and The Dark Knight Rises).

It wasn't just that the film was a major hit among movie fans, but it also influenced major change at The Academy Awards, who have been notorious for not recognizing superhero cinema outside of technical fields. When the 2008 nominations were announced that following January, there was backlash surrounding the idea that The Dark Knight - a cultural phenomenon on par with Best Picture winners Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - wasn't nominated (or Nolan for Best Director). The backlash lead to one of the biggest changes to the Best Picture category in decades. The category in the following year would be expanded to 10 nominations, many believe because of The Dark Knight. Sure, the category would come to recognize sci-fi and fantasy, but in the nine years since it has not recognized a traditional superhero film (Birdman, a quasi-commentary on Batman (1989) actor Michael Keaton's career, notwithstanding). Even Ledger's win, as inevitable as it was, marked the rare chance that superhero performances were so much as nominated for acting awards. In the years since, there hasn't been another nomination on par in part because there hasn't been as iconic of a performance, but mostly because The Dark Knight remains an anomaly for prestige and blockbuster crossover.

It's incredible to think that 2008 produced two groundbreaking superhero blockbusters that would shape future cinema. While Iron Man and the subsequent MCU would slowly get darker, the films that imitated The Dark Knight sometimes understood that it was the story that made it compelling first and foremost. Others, such as the D.C.E.U. films like Batman v. Superman would feel like husks due to embracing the violence over story. Even then, these two films have begun to intersect in pop culture, such as in The Avengers: Infinity War where the MCU took its darkest twists yet. But unlike The Dark Knight, Infinity War feels like it's a trick shot that will be undone. The permanence of The Dark Knight's deaths as related to personal motivations is revolutionary still in part because these characters are meant to last. If not, they'll just be rebooted. Considering that Nolan's trilogy was itself a dark and gritty reboot, it made sense that every film like it was an attempt to take the lighthearted past and make it darker. It's a trope at this point, and one that's gotten so exhausting that films like Justice League have been rewritten to be more upbeat. Maybe the impact of The Dark Knight will always be there, but the optimism in the tunnel is starting to shine through, suggesting that whatever is the next major shift in superhero cinema is only a few years away. 

Whatever the case may be, The Dark Knight is one of those films that transcends genre and is one of the 21st century's best films. It not only told a full story that is engrossing and full of thought provoking mystery, but created a sense that superhero cinema could be something more legitimate. While some complain that the film's darkness contradicts what makes Batman appealing, there's no denying that it has become a gold standard for the iconic character, and adaptations since have failed to have as lasting of an impact. It could just be that there hasn't been a hook as powerful as Ledger's death to power the mystery of a performance that is cryptic even from inches away. It's hard to tell if Nolan would've brought The Joker back if Ledger had lived. Nobody will ever know, though it is clear that the lingering impact kept sequel The Dark Knight Rises from feeling as great, even with the charismatic Tom Hardy as Bane. Even in the realm of The Joker performances, many have criticized Jared Leto's (Suicide Squad) performance in the familiar Nicholson/Ledger ways. With Joaquin Phoenix set for another Joker film, he admits to being scared about it. If someone as masterful as Phoenix feels intimidated by a man wearing goofy make-up and colorful suits, then it's safe to say that The Dark Knight has done its job.

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