Six years have passed and The Dark Knight remains my favorite superhero movie.
The bar it set couldn’t be cleared by the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang reunion of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man 3), “the best movie of the year so far” (Captain America: The Winter Soldier; I did not just quote myself, that is an opinion held by people named not me), or even the marvelously cast reboot of my favorite superhero (The Amazing Spider-Man).
Why has The Dark Knight’s title gone uncontested? What makes it a film that could only be bumped from my top five favorites by the likes of last year’s Gravity?
These are the answers I’ve come up with.
Christopher Nolan introduces his second Batman outing, along with his take on the Joker, with an opening sequence that is rivaled only by Nightcrawler’s White House attack in X2. It’s intense, clever, and memorable. Pose the question of which video games should be adapted for the big screen and you’ll often hear people say “remember the bank heist intro of The Dark Knight? Make a Payday movie!”
At the end of 2005’s Batman Begins, Lieutenant Jim Gordon shares a piece of evidence with the caped crusader: the joker from a deck of playing cards. It was a promise that the film’s sequel would deliver the classic villain. And boy, did they ever deliver. Immediately. The Dark Knight’s intro served as an unveiling of a Joker that suited the trilogy’s more grounded, realistic nature. Using a tense score, misdirecting dialogue, and a speechless man in a mask, the ultimate reveal of Heath Ledger’s Joker was a satisfying, well-earned moment.
I have a thing for music in movies. A quality score goes a long way toward qualifying a movie for greatness. It can define the project, somehow becoming the sole reason for revisiting a film (how I feel about Like Crazy and its Dustin O’Halloran score). Alternatively, it can hide in the background and be one less excuse to watch something again (I remember nothing of the music in the Captain America movies).
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are about as reliable as it gets when it comes to composers for Hollywood blockbusters, and the superhero genre has taken notice. Zimmer and/or Howard have been called upon to provide the scores for Man of Steel (and its sequel), The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Unbreakable, and, of course, the Dark Knight trilogy. I feel their work in The Dark Knight stands out as their best of that bunch, offering prime tracks for the film’s every need, from tension-filled interrogations to solemn mourning periods to the most rousing action beats.
Some other comic book films feature pieces that I enjoy revisiting - the Zimmer-composed Man of Steel, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Dark Knight Rises come to mind - but none have struck me the way Batman’s mixtape for the Joker did.
One of the go-to criticisms against some comic book films is “the villain had no motivation.” No one could justifiably accuse Nolan and Goyer’s script of that.
The Joker was an agent of chaos. He aimed to stir the pot, to introduce a little anarchy with no real endgame.
Two-Face, aka the district attorney Harvey Dent and the film’s secondary villain, was explicitly out to do the fair thing and punish those he felt bore responsibility in the event that sent his bride-to-be six feet under. We see him go after the crooked cops who kidnapped him and Rachel, as well as the mobster who loosed the Joker on Gotham’s heroes. In the end, Two-Face even points his gun at Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and himself, the trio who upset the mob in the first place.
If there is something wrong with The Dark Knight’s screenplay and how it handles the motives of its baddies, the problem isn’t a lack of plausible causes - it’s the hefty exposition utilized to reveal those causes. Holy monologues, Batman!
A pet peeve I have with movies - along with things like flashlights being pointed directly into the camera and trained professionals not being able to hit what they’re shooting at - is when a character dies, everyone gets sad, the strings section does its somber thing... and that character is somehow ‘resurrected’ half an hour later.
Okay, yes, I’m cheating a bit in granting this point. Commissioner Gordon apparently takes a bullet for the targeted mayor of Gotham and we’re treated to a couple quiet, brief moments acknowledging his passing. Twenty minutes later, he reappears just in time to pull the Joker and his hundreds of knives away from the beaten body of Batman.
BUT. Rachel Dawes dies. For real. No take-backs.
Temporarily ‘killing’ a character is a lazy trick and should be frowned upon. The emotions stirred up by such cheap drama are unearned. Offing a player for good, especially one in as significant a position as Rachel was, results in proper character development and may even stay with viewers long after the credits roll. It’s a worthwhile storytelling tool that writers need to jump into the deep end with, not merely stand in the knee-deep shallows.
Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, and Cillian Murphy? That’s a whole lot of guys, yeah. We’ll dock that point against the source material though. The fact of the matter is that The Dark Knight featured an ensemble of leads at, or near, the top of their game (Murphy only had a cameo, but I’m putting his name in the conversation thanks to his prominence in Batman Begins).
Oldman, Caine, and Freeman personify the phrase “old reliable.” Bale is a two-time Oscar nominee, and one could argue he’s been snubbed once or twice for further nominations based on his body of work. Ledger’s villainous turn posthumously garnered the critical and commercial praise it deserved; his Joker, thanks to acute attention to the character’s mannerisms, was simultaneously engrossing and terrifying. Eckhart admirably pulled off Dent’s duality of a city’s heroic role model and a tainted, vengeful man broken by loss.
No superhero flick before or since The Dark Knight has boasted such a talented cast of leads, save for maybe The Dark Knight Rises.
What is the most commonly discussed aspect of an enjoyable movie, whether the conversation is had while walking out of the theater or when reminiscing years later? It isn’t always the cast (“had that one guy?”), or the music (“it went ‘dunnn dun dun dun dunnn dun’”), or the motivations (“he was angry because no one remembered his name?” “there was more to it, but who cares???”).
It's the moments.
The magic trick. The semi-truck attempting a front flip. “And here we... go!” The Joker dropping a pair of shanks between three thugs and offering a job to the last man alive. The various stories the Joker has for the origin of his scars.
The intro, again.
The Joker burning only his half of the mob’s millions. Gordon’s reappearance. The lawyer blackmailing Bruce Wayne and Fox calling him out on that silliness. “Will you be wanting the Batpod, sir?” “In the middle of the day, Alfred? Not very subtle.” “The Lamborghini, then. Much more subtle....”
The Joker using his one phone call on detonating a cell phone bomb housed in a fellow detainee. "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." The attempted assassination of Dent and him wanting to carry on as if nothing happened. “Why so serious?” The Joker disguising himself as a female nurse. This.
The interrogation scene.
The Dark Knight remains my favorite superhero movie because it offers more than any of its peers have dared (without suffering the failures of its successor). The matter is subjective, and in my case Nolan’s second Batman effort achieves just the right blend of drama, action, humor, atmosphere, scope, and story. Being backed by such a talented cast and crew is not inconsiderable either.
Having said all that, it isn’t a perfect movie. The Dark Knight seems to wander early on, jumping from scene to scene quickly and without much flow. The portrayal of some of the mob’s secondary guys is laughable. If I was a fan of Two-Face, I’d feel shortchanged by the villain’s screentime. Fox’s sudden “like omg Bruce I’m cool with everything else you do but this machine is wrong I quit now” came off as entirely ridiculous, however legitimate his concerns were.
There is room above the bar set by The Dark Knight, it is possible for a new superhero movie to come in and supplant it.
Will Guardians of the Galaxy be so damn fun that I can’t not call it my favorite? Will The Amazing Spider-Man 3 finally capitalize on all of the potential it possesses, or will it drop the ball as its predecessors did? Can Ant-Man still be fantastic despite Edgar Wright leaving the project? I’m excited to find out.
In the meantime, The Dark Knight reigns supreme.