The ambiguity of ‘The Dark Knight’ makes it stand apart — Ultimate Movie Year

The Joker (Heath Ledger) wreaks havoc in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” (Warner Bros/MovieStillsDB.com)

For many reasons, “The Dark Knight” became one of the landmark films of the 21st century thus far.

“The Dark Knight”
Released July 18, 2008
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Where to Watch

“The Dark Knight” was released just over a decade ago, but I’m unsure if it could have survived the modern media landscape of culture wars 24/7. In an age where nuance is weaponized against creators and fandom prizes lore over the theme, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie seems like a relic of another time.

Nolan’s followup to the 2005 hit “Batman Begins” saw Christian Bale return to cape and cowl as the titular crimefighter (and his alter ego, playboy Bruce Wayne) continues his mission of returning peace and safety to Gotham City. Batman has gained public allies, including police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), along with Bruce’s lifelong butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the CEO at Wayne Enterprises. Wayne sees Dent as the light at the end of the tunnel that could remove the need for Batman, but it’s complicated. Harvey is now in a relationship with Bruce’s childhood crush, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But just as momentum seems to be swinging in favor of these do-gooders, lurking in the background is a new menace, the Joker (Heath Ledger), who aims to move the city (and everybody in it) into a pool of chaos.

The themes of “The Dark Knight” feel very much of its day, considering the mood of the United States at the time. This was the last full year of the George W. Bush presidency that saw the nation aggressively pursue military action and intelligence gathering following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Meanwhile, Barack Obama was on route to accepting the Democratic nomination for president, an election race he would win after promoting the return of hope on the campaign trail.

The Joker’s wave of violence in “The Dark Knight” stood in for the attacks against the United States. Still, by 2008, enough about the Bush administration’s tactics in their “War on Terror” had been revealed to the public that many people questioned the moral certitude of their own country. Torture was on the table, as was using unverified and falsified evidence to justify military rationale and foreign policy. And in the end, the United States escalated conflicts that produced no national benefit more than a decade later.

These ideas of cost and consequence also challenge Batman, as he grapples with an uncontrollable, unrelenting, and unreasonable villain menacing Gotham City. Taking place shortly after “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” shows how Batman has already made an impact in Gotham City by not only applying pressure to the institutional crime families that had previously had the run of the city but also inspiring citizens and officials to do their parts in clearing up the community. The Joker begins as a street-level bank robber, completely unknown outside of his trademark face paint, and Batman sees fit to ignore him. It’s only when the crime bosses solicit the aid of the Joker that Batman is forced to pay attention to the escalating attacks in the city, and eventually, question the merits of his own moral code to end the chaos. As Harvey notes early in the movie, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The ideological conflicts of “The Dark Knight” (as well as the concluding film in the trilogy, 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises”) have seemingly manifested in reality. Since the film’s release, the rise of social media has transformed our societies for good and ill, multiple United States presidencies further divide the populace, and oh yeah, a global pandemic that’s about to go into its third year has put everybody on the edge of the edge. Is this what it feels like to be a resident of Gotham City, knowing that at any moment, you can go to the grocery store while worrying about random lunatics gassing you over a gallon of milk? We’re pretty close to that point.

As the anxiety of modern living has only increased since 2008, superhero movies have become more generic. “The Dark Knight” was released during the same summer as “Iron Man,” the first film in what we would come to know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This Disney-powered juggernaut has released dozens of tie-in films and television series to become the most prominent Hollywood franchise of all time. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, the creative leader of the MCU, has put more of a focus on character and casting than vision and tone. The result is that most of the MCU movies are entertaining but formulaic, rarely allowing an individual voice like Nolan to have the creative freedom they might enjoy elsewhere.

They’ve also steered away from political themes (overt or otherwise) and even a hint of sexual desire. They’re the cinematic equivalent of cheeseburgers, sure to satisfy but rarely challenge, and play as well in China as middle America, with audiences from ages 8 to 88. The focus on fun adventures with your buddies has kept the Avengers and friends flying under the culture war radar. Even the comics that inspired these movies are more courageous in tackling culture, society, and politics, from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” to the debut of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler on the front cover of his book in 1941. The difference is now there is a pundit outrage culture that makes hay out of these stories for clicks and ratings. According to some folks, Captain America fighting the Nazis in World War II was just and patriotic, but Steve Rogers battling white supremacists in 2021 is too political.

Given how much superhero media has dominated our entertainment, along with the relentless stream of bad takes coming after them, I have to wonder if a modern-day release of “The Dark Knight” would inspire some dipshit commentator to speculate, “You know, maybe we should want to watch the world burn.” In the 2021 Disney+ series, “Hawkeye,” there are several references to Thanos, the snap-half-the-universe-into-oblivion madman, and if he was right to do it. The motivation of an antagonist is supposed to make them feel compelling, not relatable or an excuse for their actions. When it comes to literal comic book villains and their bad faith supporters, you do not, at any time, have to hand it to them.

It’s because of Nolan’s commitment to thematic commentary that “The Dark Knight” maintains its place along with the best of its genre because it’s one of the few to challenge our conceptions of heroism and the kind of people we may turn into during a crisis. It’s the basis of the Joker’s ideology. “When the chips are down, these people will eat each other,” he tells Batman during their first conversation. Later on, the Joker fails in his plans to get Gotham citizens to turn on one another, but he reveals another play to Batman.

Outside of the Joker, Thanos, and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) from 2018’s “Black Panther,” the villains rarely make a compelling case for their actions. If anything, it’s gotten to the point where the heroes themselves prove to be better antagonists than the bad guys, whether it’s Steve Rogers debating Tony Stark or Batman dueling Superman. But in the end, it’s just another avenue for plot conflicts as all the heroes end up teaming up in the end.

With its focus on the escalation of violence and environmental realism, “The Dark Knight” saw many comparisons to Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic, “Heat.” However, after more than a decade of MCU dominance, the moral ambiguity of “The Dark Knight” shares a heightened DNA with the cinema of the 70s, creating possibly the only example of neo-noir trappings in the superhero genre. Even Nolan’s other Batman movies offer more straightforward conclusions than its battered hero limping off into the darkness, hunted by the people he swore to protect. “The Dark Knight” remains a high point for the genre because it forces audiences to grapple with its themes beyond expanding mythology.

“I knew what I wanted to do with the end of the film before we even knew the whole story and without giving too much away about the ending, I wanted it to actually have a feeling of — I wanted the film to feel very complete,” Nolan told /Film. “It’s not the same as having a feeling of finality in the ending. There’s a particular emotion to the end of the film and a particular thing that we were after in terms of expressing something about Batman and bringing the entire story back to him, so that it becomes once again, you know, Batman’s film at the very end having dealt with a very wide number of characters interacting in all kinds of extraordinary ways, at the end of the day we wanted to just nail the relevance of that to our hero, our core character.”

For many reasons, “The Dark Knight” became one of the landmark films of the 21st century thus far. You’re likely familiar with most of them:

  • Ledger passed away suddenly in January 2008, six months before the film’s release, giving audiences further incentive to watch the last astonishing performance from one of the great actors of his generation. The Academy Awards delivered a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in honor of his role as the Joker.
  • However, the Academy did not recognize “The Dark Knight” as one of the Best Picture nominees. This controversial call allegedly inspired the organization to expand the number of movies on the final list from five up to 10.
  • But don’t cry for Warner Bros. and the producers of “The Dark Knight.” The sequel earned more than $1 billion worldwide ($534.8 million domestically). Batman and company reigned on top of the box office charts for a month, didn’t fall out of the top five until well into September, and remained in theaters until early 2009.
  • “The Dark Knight” remains one of the most financially successful and popular films of all time, earning Rotten Tomatoes ratings from critics and audiences in the mid-90s. Unlike their Marvel counterparts, DC superheroes would not come close to matching 2008’s level of commercial and critical success until 2017’s “Wonder Woman.”

“Nolan lets the film’s spectacular action scenes seem like the natural consequences of the conflicts between characters, conflicts that build until Gotham becomes less a setting than a stage for an operatic conflict between tortured good and contented chaos,” wrote Keith Phillps for The AV Club. “As strong as ‘The Dark Knight’s’ setpieces are-and they’re all pulsing showstoppers of a kind not seen in ‘Batman Begins’ — the real tension comes from Nolan’s willingness to let that battle’s ultimate outcome remain in doubt even as the credits roll. The film’s capes and cowls suggest one genre, but it’s a metropolis-sized tragedy at heart.”

More than a decade after its release, “The Dark Knight” stands apart in its genre by asking its characters (and audiences) to honestly grapple with the consequences of two-fisted solutions to problems. As today’s conversation leaders wave off any responsibility in their reactionary actions, it’s weirdly nostalgic to watch a hero even consider the idea they might be part of the problem.

Next Week: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 22, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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