Christopher Nolan’s 2008 stunner is still the high water mark when it comes to summer movies.
It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
It was a cool summer night in Los Angeles. My roommate and I were heading home from a showing of The Dark Knight. It was my second time seeing the film, but my first time watching it on a gigantic IMAX screen. I felt strange; experiencing director Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel in such an immersive format had placed some kind of spell on me. As my roommate drove, I stared out the window, convinced if I looked hard enough I could see Batman hiding in the shadows of the city, watching… waiting… dark-knighting. I realized then that Nolan had pulled off one of the greatest cinematic magic tricks of all time, his own personal prestige: He’d made me believe that Batman actually existed in the real world. I’d consider The Dark Knight to be the best summer movie ever based on that alone, but it was also a unique phenomenon upon release and enjoys a lasting cinematic legacy today.
In 2008, The Dark Knight was, for reasons both tragic and exciting, the most anticipated movie of the year. While I was super stoked about it myself, I never really thought the flick would be anything more than a fun summer blockbuster. Perhaps if it was good enough, it could sit in the pantheon of my favorite summer movies, most of which came out in the nineties: Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Speed, among others. I never thought for a moment that The Dark Knight would transcend those movies. As terrified as my ten-year-old self was watching velociraptors hunt down little Joseph Mazzello in Jurassic Park when the credits rolled I left that terror behind me in my popcorn crumb-filled theater seat. But as The Dark Knight unspooled before me for the first time, I realized things were going to be different.
The Dark Knight is a gritty crime saga, filtered through 69 years of Batman mythos. It picks up some time after the events of Batman Begins with the titular hero’s crime-fighting crusade now in full swing. Batman (Christian Bale) joins forces with Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and hotshot District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take down the mob once and for all. They would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Joker (Heath Ledger). As a result of the Joker’s machinations, Dent is horribly disfigured and goes on a vigilante killing spree, and Batman ends up killing Dent and taking the fall for his crimes. Meanwhile, Gordon is racked with guilt, blaming himself for everything that’s gone wrong. Things end tragically for pretty much everyone except the Joker, who’s last seen laughing maniacally on his way to a padded cell in Arkham, content with the anarchy he’s caused. Yet despite its bleakness, The Dark Knight was such a hit with both audiences and critics, it made an immediate blast crater in popular culture.
At the time of its release, The Dark Knight became the fourth highest-grossing film of all time and landed on 287 critics’ top ten lists. Suffice it to say, the movie struck one helluva chord with the public. But why? Part of it had to do with the untimely death of Heath Ledger. The anticipation surrounding his portrayal of the Joker was already high, but when he passed away six months before The Dark Knight’s release, that anticipation hit the stratosphere. After people finally got eyes on his performance, it was clear Ledger had exceeded all expectations. His clown prince of crime is a gangly creature of chaos, a physical manifestation of the fall of Western civilization. Ledger’s performance would be one for the ages even if he hadn’t died tragically, but it’s rendered all the more powerful when viewed as one of the last artistic statements from a creative genius. However, Ledger is only one half of the equation resulting in The Dark Knight’s success. The other half belongs to Christopher Nolan who, with a screenwriting assist from his brother Jonathan Nolan, helmed one of the most well-crafted genre films in modern history.
The Dark Knight is basically a tragedy about a guy who dresses up as a flying rodent. But instead of coming off ridiculous, its serious tone resonates because Nolan plays things as realistically as possible. You get the sense that if Batman, Harvey Dent, and the Joker existed in real life, this is most likely how shit would really go down. The Dark Knight is the most realistic a superhero movie can be without losing its sense of fun. The characters are cool, the story is engaging, and the movie is a blast to watch. Nolan wasn’t the first director to realize how entertaining or thematically weighty superhero movies could be. He was, however, the first one to turn those notions into a great and enduring cinematic experience.
In the ten years since The Dark Knight’s release, we have been flooded with superhero movies. A lot of them are fantastic; I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe with every fiber of my being. But I didn’t leave Guardians of the Galaxy believing that Rocket and Groot were really zipping across the cosmos. Yet when I watch The Dark Knight, I believe Gotham City is a real city, its citizens real people, and the events that nearly brought Gotham to its knees really happened — and not in some alternate dimension filled with iron men and gods, but in the actual world I live in. Most superhero movies, not to mention summer blockbusters, are pure escapism, designed to make audiences forget their problems. It’s the rare work of art that actually changes how you look at the world. The Dark Knight is that work of art.
When all is said and done, this is the movie that, after failing to net an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, caused such an outcry it forced the Academy to increase the number of nominees from five movies to ten. That’s right — The Dark Knight was so awesome it made the hoity-toity Academy realize summer blockbusters were an artistically viable form of cinema. With a legacy like that, how could The Dark Knight not be the best summer movie ever?