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Wayback Wednesday: The Dark Knight (2008)

The King of all Superhero Movies. Fight me.

These days, the opening of a new superhero movie is about as common as the opening of a new McDonalds. They’re everywhere, predictable, and some argue if we’ve had enough of them. However, almost 15 years ago audiences and studio executives alike still weren’t completely sold on the superhero genre. Sure, there had been massive successes like X-Men (2000) and Superman (1978), but there had also been massive failures like Daredevil (2003) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Superhero movies weren’t the guaranteed crowd-pleasers they are today. Then came along somewhat-indie director Christopher Nolan who delivered a stunning adaptation with his Batman origin story, Batman Begins (2005). The movie undoubtedly shook up the superhero genre and a few years later with the release of The Dark Knight (2008), the genre was changed completely. The Dark Knight is a landmark in cinematic history.

Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 8.07.53 PM
Credit: / Warner Bros. Pictures

The second instalment in The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012), The Dark Knight follows Batman as he works to rid Gotham City of organized crime alongside Commissioner Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent. When a maniacal terrorist known as the Joker appears, Batman is faced with his greatest challenge as the crazed mastermind seeks to plunge Gotham into chaos.

This movie was a MOMENT in pop culture. For the entirety of 2008, the sheer brilliance of The Dark Knight was all anybody could talk about. Well, that and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013). Seriously though, Nolan had already accomplished something incredible with Batman Begins and the expectations for his follow-up were exponentially high. Was he going to stick the landing and deliver a sequel as memorable as Batman Returns (1992)? Or take a hard right into WackyVille and pull a Batman & Robin (1997)? Sidenote, I would much rather watch the wildly entertaining campiness of Batman & Robin over most modern superhero movies any day. With The Dark Knight, Nolan did more than live up to his reputation. He cemented himself as a visionary genius with an artistic well brimming with creativity and passion. From acting, to direction, to writing, to score, to tone, to the design of both sets and costumes, this movie is a perfect masterpiece. It’s a winning combination that nails the feel of reading a Batman comic. It’s untouchable. I realize it’s not a very original opinion for me, a self-proclaimed movie critic, to gush over The Dark Knight, but I can’t help it. I know a perfect movie when I see one.

Obviously this is a movie that is beloved and championed by any Batman fan, but it’s also an incredibly breathtaking crime-thriller that even those who aren’t familiar with the Caped Crusader can’t help but be in awe of. Look no further than the opening scene, an exhilarating thrill-ride that masterfully sets up the tone of the movie’s plot as well as it’s wicked antagonist. Believe me, we will TALK about Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The Dark Knight is gritty and grounded which, though inexplicably a no-no for modern superhero movies, works for a protagonist like Batman. As a character, he himself is inherently gritty and grounded. Having the movie planted so firmly in reality adds to the overall sensation of the storytelling, as you get tangled in an intricately woven web of good vs. evil. Every scene is laced with a feeling of suspense that you just don’t get from most superhero movies. The realism of the movie’s mind-blowing practical effects only add to the high-energy action and fun, making me yearn for the days when CGI was used sparingly. It’s easy to forget that 2008 was a simpler time for superhero movies, a transitional time before the onslaught of effects-laden movies that were close on The Dark Knight‘s heels.

The casting in this movie is beyond perfect. As well as being star-studded. First of all, you have returning cast members Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman as Batman / Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and Lucius Fox respectively. Each one feels tailor-made for the role and breathe such life into the character that it’s as if they stepped right out of a comic book and onto the big screen. Michael Caine is an international treasure that brings such heart, humour and edge to Alfred, absolutely nailing the character. As for Oldman and Freeman, their portrayals of these characters are so memorable, that I can’t picture any other actor playing them. This is open to debate, but behind Michael Keaton and voice actor Kevin Conroy, Christian Bale is the perfect Dark Knight. Bale plays the duality of the character phenomenally well, showing off Batman’s strength and intellect while still playing to Bruce Wayne’s more vulnerable human side. It’s a wonderfully written and even better acted duality that helps you relate to the character and cheer him on as he struggles with the responsibility of being Gotham’s protector.

Did you know that Katie Holmes turned down reprising her role as Rachel Dawes so she could film Mad Money (2008)? Missed opportunities Ms. Holmes. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role this time around and she brings such a fresh energy to the one-note character Holmes played. Gyllenhaal’s Rachel is so much more fearless and cutting, a welcome addition to The Dark Knight. Speaking of welcome additions, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent / Two-Face is chilling to watch. Like Bale, Eckhart captures the duality of his character. He plays Dent as the antithesis of the chaotic Joker (we’ll get there!), a shining beacon of order and morality. It’s soon made abundantly clear that there’s a dark side brewing beneath that perfect exterior and Eckhart is frightening to watch as he delves into the Two-Face side of Dent. As the tension of the story mounts, it heightens each character’s desperation but none more so than Dent. He said it best: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” CHILLING!

Okay. We’ve arrived. Let’s talk about Heath Ledger’s Joker. Talk about a transformative performance. From his first scene, Ledger presents Joker as bloodthirsty, ruthless and cunning, a far cry from the charming Patrick Verona of 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Armed with Nolan’s wickedly delicious words, Ledger is as playful and deadly as a cat toying with a mouse. Wildly unpredictable, the Joker is undoubtedly always the most dangerous person in the room as you wait with bated breathe for his next move. The little facial ticks, the way he strings sentences together, the way he’s big in one scene and small in another…this is a masterclass in acting. Ledger’s execution is almost Shakespearean. That scene where he unveils his plan to the mob? A spine-tingling sensation. And that pencil trick? Still grotesque 11 years later. Any one of Joker’s scenes would make an incredible monologue to perform in drama class, but it’s his monologue about how he got his scars that build the most terror and dread. It makes you’re skin crawl and you’re unable to look away even as he recites the now ICONIC line, “why so serious?”

A great villain is able to rattle the cage of the hero and when you’re able to rattle the cage of someone as unflappable as Batman, you’re a pretty great villain. Ledger will forever be remembered for this remarkable, stunning, and iconic piece of work, and I only wish we as fans could thank him for sharing this piece of art with us.

I love this movie. It’s my favourite in a trilogy of movies I’m already an enormous fan of. It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the quality of its predecessor, but The Dark Knight does so in leaps and bounds. As every good sequel should, The Dark Knight expands on the story and characters established in the first movie, and delivers a follow-up that is even bigger,more thought-provoking, and artistically jaw-dropping than original. The Dark Knight inspired a generation of movie-goers fall in love with cinema, superheroes, Batman, Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan, and for that I thank the movie from the bottom of my heart. I’m still not over having to wait FOUR years for the next movie though.

Are you a fan of The Dark Knight? What’s you favourite Batman movie?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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