10 Years Later: 'The Dark Knight'

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When "The Dark Knight" blasted into theaters almost 10 years ago, the big story was Christopher Nolan's seamless, atmospheric direction, which was and still is a landmark of the superhero genre. No, the late Heath Ledger's Joker stole Nolan's thunder. In fact, Ledger's Joker stole the movie from everyone involved, so much so that he won a well-deserved posthumous Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. Of course, Ledger's sudden death, just a few months before the film's release, only brought forth more attention towards his role. Some people thought, and still do, that the actor died because the method acting went a little too far and he, quite literally, became The Joker. Of course, that is pure folktale, on-set photos have shown Ledger in a rather happy mood, chuckling with the cast and crew, but it is no secret that he took his portrayal of the villainous jester very seriously when the cameras did roll.

How did Nolan make it to Hollywood legend with "The Dark Knight"?

In 2001, Warner Bros. announced that Nolan, hot off directing his debut "Memento," was going to direct "Insomnia," a remake of the critically acclaimed Scandinavian film of the same name. Later accounts would indeed confirm that Warner Bros. had given 'Insomnia" to Nolan as a sort of test. They wanted to know if he was ready to undertake a Hollywood movie and if he had the ability "to shoot coherent action within the mainstream studio-system." Suffice to say, they must have liked what they saw because not too soon after "Insomnia," The WB hired Nolan to helm The Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan was just 33 years old when he signed on to this ambitious undertaking.

Commenting on the notion of tackling Batman, Nolan had this to say back in 2003:

All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character, He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He is not a magical character. I had a fantastic experience with the studio on ‘Insomnia,’ and I’m keen to repeat that experience.

"Batman Begins" kick-started it off in 2005, a grim and highly entertaining blockbuster that announced the arrival of a new kind of action movie. Batman's martial arts background had Jason Bourne's stamp written all over it. The every-man hero. 

In what looked like a tit for tat deal with Warner Bros, Nolan followed "Batman Begins" with his own personal project, 2006's mind-bending "The Prestige," which had the writer-director delivering a more personal brand of filmmaking, at least when compared to the epic and vast nature of 'Batman Begins." 

Then, "The Dark Knight" happened.

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All Marvel and DC movies today are cash cows, muckrakers that put the bottom line way ahead of any kind of artistic statement; They might be entertaining, but there is no discernible, heavy substance to them, they don't necessarily adhere or parallel our current world. "The Dark Knight" did.

Nolan, along with an extraordinarily effective cast headed by Christian Bale as Batman and, more importantly, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker to haunt your dreams, perfected the genre.

Many have evoked "The Dark Knight" as a post 9/11 depiction of the new world order having gone astray.

In the film, the leader of the free world (Batman) has to make immoral concessions to battle terrorism (The Joker): To defeat his arch-nemesis, Batman has to do unheroic acts of violence, and even starts a spying program on the citizens of Gotham. This all leads to the moral question Nolan is asking us: how much evil must one commit to defeat evil? 

The joker, much like Al Qaeda or ISIS, had as a goal to bring Batman down to his law-breaking level; he wanted Batman to violate his own code. Hate to mention it again, but how much evil can a good person do to beat evil?

The Joker, like most terrorists, was an agent of chaos. That was his goal, to watch the world burn and laugh about it. How can you defeat a threat when they possess no moral compass whatsoever?

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This battle between Batman and The Joker had some of the most notorious thinkers trying to nitpick the existential dilemmas in Nolan's film. Conservatives championed the film as their own; "This is about George W. Bush's fight against Al Qaeda!" Whereas, in the other end of the spectrum, liberals were saying, "No, this is our film! It is about standing up for what is morally right in the world.

In the film, Batman’s moral ground is shot to the ground when he decides to bring himself down to the Joker's level and creates a secret, mass surveillance technology to find the terrorist at large. The spying works, but Gotham's entire population, unbeknownst to them, have their phones hacked by a man they thought to be their "hero."  

“Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous. Spying on 30 million people wasn’t in my job description.” is how Lucius Fox, Batman's old friend and tech guru, described the system. Moreover, there lies the beauty of Nolan's vision; "The Dark Knight," in its purest essence, was about the paranoia and fear of government vis-a-vis the citizen.

The New York Times' Ross Douthat signified: "It's all about the belief that a compromised order can still be worth defending, and that darker things than corruption and inequality will follow from putting that order to the torch."

It is interesting how the perspective has changed 10 years later. Rewatching "The Dark Knight" feels like a different, altogether spookier, experience. Why? Because we have changed considerably since 2008. We know a lot more than we used to, due to the abundance of information available at our disposal, and, yet, we are much more hopeless and frustrated as a populace. Why? Because of the lack of transparency from our leaders, the endless barrage of lies coming from their mouths. Politicians are being called out for their hypocrisies and crimes, but no justice is being done. The questions “The Dark Knight” asked still remain highly pertinent and relevant.

Nolan's main stylistic influence was none other than Michael Mann's "Heat," "Collateral" and "The Insider."

In order for Christopher Nolan to up the ante with his sequel to Batman Begins, he decided to shift "The Dark Knight" into a crime epic [Via Collider interview]:

I always felt ‘Heat’ to be a remarkable demonstration of how you can create a vast universe within one city and balance a very large number of characters and their emotional journeys in an effective manner
With The Dark Knight, in order to change the scale of the film, we went to a city story—we went to a crime epic. That allows you to look at all these different aspects of Gotham society. There’s a city-based socioeconomic idea behind the film that demands a different visual approach.
…so what we chose to do is to tell a very immediate, very linear story, but based on a slight genre shift, going a little more into the crime story, a little more into the kind of epic city stories of films like Michael Mann’s Heat, things like that, which I think achieve great scale, even though they’re confined within one city.
The trilogy would go on to re-invent blockbuster action movie as well, so much so that Nolan's hand prints and style are still seen in Marvel, DC, Star Trek and Star Wars movies. Of course, with none of the gritty realism involved. No, if you want a better example of "The Dark Knight" influence in today's Hollywood look no further than Denis Villeneuve, a director that has turned out to be the best and most talented at replicating Nolan's sense of space, timing and framing in "The Dark Knight." Villeneuve's "Sicario," "Blade Runner 2049" and "Arrival" all banked on that style and felt like they could very much be a part of a Nolan-created universe. 

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The Dark Knight" not only ended up making close to 600 million dollars at the domestic box office, but it captured the zeitgeist in a way that very few movies ever would again.


Notes:

"The Dark Knight" topped my list of the 10 greatest superhero movies ever made