Christopher Nolan's triumph, Batman Begins, restored the Caped Crusader's film credibility after the damage that Batman & Robin had done in the late 90s. Due to the overwhelming success of Batman Begins, a sequel was already underway from Warner Bros. Screenwriter, David S. Goyer, created screenplays for two sequels before the release of Batman Begins that would introduce the Joker and Harvey Dent. The sequel was officially confirmed to be in development by Warner Bros. in July 2006. The film would be titled The Dark Knight, making it the first live-action Batman film without the word "Batman" in the title. Nolan stated a major theme of The Dark Knight was to be a sense of escalation, and the idea that things have to get worse before they get better. To achieve escalation, the Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger) would be introduced into the film as its primary antagonist. Another major character introduction would be Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) to illustrate the friendly rivalry that exists between district attorney Dent and billionaire Bruce Wayne. The original concept was to have the Joker and Dent appear in two sequels with the character arc of Dent transforming into Two-Face happening in the second sequel. However, Nolan decided to compress that story-line and add it to The Dark Knight to give it an emotional arc that couldn't exist with an unsympathetic Joker.
The Dark Knight opens with an epic robbery by a group of masked men stealing millions of dollars from a mob-owned bank. It is revealed that the mastermind behind the robbery is the Joker, who ends up killing his accomplices and escapes with the money. Meanwhile, Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) include new district attorney, Harvey Dent, on their war against organized crime in Gotham City. After seizing control of Gotham's most notorious crime gangs, the Joker announces that people will die each day until Batman reveals his true identity. After viciously killing police commissioner Loeb, and the judge presiding over the mob trials, the Joker plays a sinister cat-and-mouse game with Batman and the city of Gotham, killing more people in the process, including Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and being responsible for thetransformation of Harvey Dent to the murderous Two-Face.
The escalated nature of The Dark Knight is present in all forms of the film. The citizens of Gotham blame Batman for the criminal activity in the city, as well as the chaos unleashed by the Joker. This pushes Batman and Gotham City to their absolute limits, and results in Bruce Wayne believing that his activity is actually harming the city. Furthermore, the Joker forces not only Batman, but Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent to make near-impossible ethical decisions, leaving the moral foundation of what Batman stands for in question. Even the "white knight" of the film, Harvey Dent, succumbs to the manipulation tactics of the Joker, leaving audiences to believe that no one is incorruptible. Even at the conclusion of the film, Batman convinces Gordon to hide the damaged and murderous side of Harvey's personality and tell the citizens of Gotham that Harvey is truly the white knight that they need. This decision would eventually create repercussions that are addressed in The Dark Knight Rises.
Another theme in The Dark Knight is the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker. Batman stands as a symbol of justice for the citizens of Gotham. He serves as a protector of Gotham City from the criminal underworld that exists. Despite his intent to do good, Gotham's citizens don't fully accept the vigilante nature of Batman. They hold him responsible for the Joker's actions, and all other criminal happenings that occur in Gotham. On the other hand, the Joker is a representation of chaos and anarchy. He is unruly with no true motive. He manages to shake Gotham, Batman and Commissioner Gordon to their core, leaving a bloody path of murder and destruction. As Alfred poignantly described the Joker to Bruce Wayne, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." On the surface, Batman and the Joker seem like polar opposites. However, during the film, the Joker informs Batman they the are very much alike in the fact that they city views them both as monsters and freaks. The Joker believes that while the city may need the Batman at that point, they'll eventually cast him out after the first sign of trouble. Ultimately, the Joker's point proves to be true by the end of the film.
The themes that exist with The Dark Knight play an incredibly vital role in the storytelling mechanics that advance the plot. In addition, The Dark Knight contains some of the most incredible and spectacular practical effects in recent memory. The sheer scope of The Dark Knight is magnificent. Not only is their escalation with the threat of the Joker, but their is escalation in the action beats that far surpass anything achieved in Batman Begins. The opening bank-robbery scene is epic in-scale and ambition. It isn't a pointless action sequence that does nothing for the plot. Instead, it intelligently introduces the film's villain before the hero, a tactic rarely done in Hollywood films. The chase scene that occurs in the second act of the film is marvelous, ending in the single greatest shot that exists within the film when the Joker's truck completely flips on his head. Finally, the suspense that the Joker created by being responsible for the evacuation of every Gotham hospital was heart-pounding and intriguing. Ultimately, it resulted in a grand explosion of Gotham general hospital, which was achieved with practical effects.
Pretty much every aspect of The Dark Knight needs praise. The directing, the writing and the performances all were engrossing and larger-than-life. As the film progresses, it becomes a dark tragedy. The heroes that existed at the beginning of the film had all essentially been defeated by the end. The Dark Knight is one of the rare films where I would argue that the villain actually won. Bringing this psychopathic villain to life is the late Heath Ledger. Ledger as the Joker is one of the greatest cinematic performances ever. He completely threw himself into the role, and immediately, audiences forget that there's an actor behind the anarchy. His performance is nothing short of brilliant, and he was extremely deserving of the posthumous Academy Award he received in 2009. Aaron Eckhart also delivers a stunning performance as the fallen knight, Harvey Dent. The rest of the supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Gary Oldman are all on their A-game as well.
So, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Well, the result of that seismic collision played out in front of our eyes in 2008's The Dark Knight. This is the greatest superhero film ever created. One of the reasons for this is because this film is so much more than a superhero film. It's an examination into the mental psyche, an exploration into the personal demons that exist within us, and the demonstration of the evil that humans are capable of. Christopher Nolan blended elements of crime, drama, thriller and action into this ensemble piece that pits the "Caped Crusader" against the "Clown Prince of Crime." The Dark Knight accomplished something tremendous -- it delivered an academy award-winning performance from the late Heath Ledger and broke barriers of genre films being recognized on the grand stage.
The film is horrifying. It exposes the weakness of our minds, as humans, and shows just how capable we are of inciting chaos. Without this grounded and gritty portrayal of the Batman universe, shows like Daredevil and Arrow don't exist. Furthermore, it was the first ever superhero film to cross the $1 billion mark at the box-office, and deservedly so. The Dark Knight is not only the greatest superhero film ever made -- it is also a perfect film. Period.