The Dark Knight is a significant movie in a number of ways. It was the first ever $1 billion superhero movie, and at the time of its release, the fourth highest earning movie of all-time. It’s domestic earnings of $158 million was a record for a full three years. It’s the first mainstream feature film to partially use IMAX 70mm cameras, used in 28 minutes of the film. It’s seen as the movie that legitimized the superhero genre in the eyes of film studios. Unfortunately, some of its success could be attributed to actor Heath Ledger’s accidental death via a toxic combination of prescription drugs. Because of that last point, for this particular blog post, I won’t be talking too much about the creation process.
The Dark Knight takes place an unspecified amount of time after the previous entry, Batman Begins. Once again directed by Christopher Nolan, the movie features Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox. Although the original character of Rachel Dawes also returns for this movie, Katie Holmes turned down the role to film Mad Money instead, despite originally planning on returning. Maggie Gyllenhaal soon took her place. Gyllenhaal is actually a better fit for the role anyway, and has better chemistry with Bale, despite not sharing as much screen time together.
Aaron Eckhart also joins the cast as Harvey Dent/Two Face. Other actors considered for the role include Live Schreiber (Sabertooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk in the MCU), and Matt Damon. Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in most of the X-Men movies) was also considered for the part. Eckhart found the idea of “good guys gone wrong”, and played corrupt men in Thank You for Smoking and In the Company of Men. Although he played gangsters in those movies, he liked the idea of a crime fighter on the edge of madness.
And of course, Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker needs no introduction at this point. As far as I can tell, he remains the only person to receive an acting Academy Award for a superhero movie, which was awarded to him posthumously. He lobbied for the role shortly after seeing Batman Begins, and Nolan picked him without hesitation, having wanted to work with Ledger on projects in the past. He even approached him for a role in Batman Begins. Being a method actor, Ledger spent a month isolated in a hotel, working on getting the Joker’s voice and persona just right. He also read through Batman: The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. He came up with a chaotic interpretation of the character, which Nolan agreed to. Ledger even shot and directed the warning videos that his character sent out throughout the movie.
In an interview Ledger took shortly after he finished filming The Dark Knight, he admitted that he often couldn’t sleep while taking on roles, and that his insomnia after The Dark Knight was particularly bad. “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night … I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” While filming his last movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there were reports that he was also suffering some kind of respiratory illness, along with several other cast members. Co-star Christopher Plummer said “we all caught colds because we were shooting outside on horrible, damp nights. But Heath’s went on and I don’t think he dealt with it immediately with the antibiotics … he was saying all the time, ‘I can’t sleep’ … and he was taking all these pills to help him.”
He was found unconscious on January 22, 2008. By the time paramedics arrived, he had stopped breathing, and they couldn’t revive him. In the end, no foul play was found, and it’s considered an accidental overdose. Nolan spoke about how he found it very hard to edit the film in the aftermath of Ledger’s death, seeing his face nearly every day. Also, he didn’t finish his role for “The Imaginarium”.
Reading more information about his death than I previously knew hits especially hard after the last year. With all the lockdowns around the world going on, depression is on the rise. Vancouver, Canada is in the middle of a massive drug overdose crisis, and they were known to be bad for that beforehand. I’m sure there are plenty of areas around the world in similar boats, whether it be drug overdoses or other forms of depression related deaths, intentional or not. Although most of the world is starting to open up again, most of Canada is still under strict rules. I don’t like talking about politics on this blog so I won’t get into too much detail, but pretty much everyone I talk to agrees that it’s been going on for way too long. Especially since most places that are opening up are still seeing their active case counts drop. Not to mention how the United States gained around half a million new jobs last month, while Canada’s lost over 270,000 in the last couple of months. I know all this is off-topic, but it made reading about Ledger’s death feel a bit closer to home. My one aunt from Western Canada also died about a year ago. She never took good care of herself from what I gather, and I only ever met her once, but still.
After the movie was received very well both critically and commercially, cast members, crew and fans alike lobbied hard for Ledger’s Academy Award. In addition to that Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, he also won the Best International Actor at the Australian Film Institute Awards, the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Supporting Actor at the Saturn Awards, Best Fantasy Actor and Best Villain at the Scream Awards, and numerous others for a total of over 20. He won nearly every acting award he was nominated for. At the Academy Awards, The Dark Knight also won Best Sound Editing, along with six other nominations. Although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, it’s often cited as a major reason why they increased the size of that category to 10 nominees the next year.
Nothing else needs to be said about this movie’s critical reception, so let’s get into the movie itself. The Dark Knight is a phenomenal film in a number of ways. It’s not just great because of the Joker, but he’s a major part of it. The conflict between Batman and his arch-rival is often more a battle of wits than a battle of brawn. The Joker is clearly an intelligent villain, but also one who doesn’t plan ahead too far. He wants to cause chaos, and as much as he’s a man of his word, doing his best to fulfill every threat he makes, he frequently changes his mind to keep people guessing. He keeps collecting new henchmen, only to brutally murder them when he’s done using them. His extreme antics force Batman to use extreme measures of his own.
James Gordon and Harvey Dent also have a major focus in the story. Harvey is a very principled, brave District Attorney, hell-bent on taking down all of Gotham’s organized crime. He’s willing to risk his life to throw all of them behind bars, but as the movie goes on, he also reveals his own dark side. There’s a subplot of Bruce’s former love interest, Rachel, falling in love with Harvey without Bruce’s knowledge. There’s the story of all the crime bosses being pressured by Gotham City Police, especially with Batman working closely with James Gordon and his team of trustworthy officers. All of these different plots interweave into each other quite well, especially when the Joker forces them all together into his own grand design of anarchy.
Interweaved with all these interconnected plots are all sorts of questions about human nature, different peoples’ breaking points, and the nature of hope in dark times. It makes for a fairly dark and serious movie overall. Even Batman is pushed close to the breaking point, both with his emotions and the extremes he’s willing to undertake in order to stop his enemy. If it weren’t for Ledger’s very entertaining performance, this would be a fairly joyless movie after the half-way point.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack enhances this movie’s overall dark tone. The Joker’s theme is based around two notes, steadily played slightly off-key of each other to intensify the uneasy feeling any time he’s on-screen. It’s very effective, as are the more elegant themes surrounding Harvey Dent before his descent into madness.
The action in this movie is also a major step up from Batman Begins. I didn’t mention it in my previous post because it was long enough, but Batman Begins suffers from a bit of shaky cam. This movie’s camera is much more steady, showing off the highly kinetic fighting choreography. The cinematography (nominated for an Academy Award) is strong throughout the movie, whether it be dramatic establishing shots, including plenty of small things to notice on repeat viewings, or cleverly hiding who the real Joker is during the opening bank heist until he chooses to reveal himself.
That’s not to say this movie is perfect as a Batman movie. Throughout everything that’s happening, Batman does kind of get lost in the mix at times. He’s still very much involved with the plot, but at some points, he’s spending more time reacting to the movie’s events than he is driving them. Visually, this movie feels like it takes place in a normal city, not Gotham City. It just doesn’t visually feel right for a Batman movie, which isn’t a problem that Batman Begins had. In fact, the city looks almost nothing like it did in its predecessor. That does hurt this trilogy’s continuity from a visual standpoint.
The way I would put it, Batman (1989) is the most overall balanced Batman movie. Despite its silly moments and flaws, it’s still a very good Batman movie. Batman Begins is the best movie about Batman as a character. The Dark Knight is the best movie with Batman in it – I’d go so far as to call it a masterpiece. That said, it doesn’t work quite as well as a Batman movie as the other two I mentioned, because the story’s focus is often on the other characters. It still handles its large cast much better than Batman Returns though.
In short, if you’re a fan of Superhero movies and you somehow haven’t seen The Dark Knight yet, do yourself a favour and watch this movie. Watch Batman Begins first of course, but stop waiting. The Dark Knight is one of those few movies that had an enormous amount of hype, and somehow lived up to it. It at least deserved the nomination for Best Picture, and if you were to argue that it deserved to win, I’m sure you could find plenty of people who’d agree with you.
Next up is The Dark Knight Rises to finish off the Dark Knight trilogy. Afterwards, I’ll finish off this blog series with 2019’s Joker. I’ll watch a couple of movies to catch up with my other blog series from the past, including Pixar’s Soul, New Mutants and Disney’s Reya and the Last Dragon – I haven’t yet decided which order. After that I’ll kick off my classical musical theme month, although there might be one or two random movies in-between so I can start that theme month off at the start of a month.
The Dark Knight is a fantastic Batman movie. The story and performances, especially Heath Ledger’s Joker, are all top notch, and the action sequences are a major step up from Batman Begins. Its not flawless, but as modern superhero movies go, the Dark Knight is a certainly up there with the very best.
I consider The Dark Knight, Winter Soldier, and Logan to be the best superhero “films” of their respective franchises, and each of them masterpieces in their own right. None of them are completely flawless, but they’re such great movies, with deep and relevant themes, that there’s no reason to complain about their minor flaws anyway.
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