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Release Year: 2008
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Director: Christopher Nolan
After finding his mojo in 2005's Batman Begins, the Caped Crusader now tangles with his greatest adversary: the Joker.
But this is no ordinary comic-book clown. With his greasy hair, hangman's smile and make-up that may or may not contain traces of human organs, Heath Ledger looks less like a comic-book supervillain than a pagan god waiting for his sacrifice. Add that to Christian Bale's already successful Batman and Aaron Eckhart's noble-but-doomed Harvey Dent and you have a blockbuster that helped usher in the current Golden Age of Superhero Movies.
While blockbusters come and go, this one had a little something extra that captured the vibe of the time. Things were dark in 2008 America, with wars and natural disasters on people's minds and a massive economic collapse just a few short months away. And while movies that directly addressed the angst tended to crash and burn at the box office (seriously, who wanted to spend two hours talking about torture?), we still had some serious psychological issues to collectively vent.
And like the hero that he is, Batman stepped up to help.
The Dark Knight let us look the Gorgon in the face—talking about things like terrorism, government corruption, and the fact that even the good guys lose sometimes—without having to deal with the sheer overwhelming awfulness of it all. It stayed in the realm of comic books, set in a city that never existed and featuring characters that five-year-olds dressed up as for Halloween. That let us approach these tough subjects in ways that were safe, and that let our psyches deal with them in ways that didn't make us curl up and whimper under the bed.
It did that while also doing all the good things popcorn movies do: presenting iconic characters locked in a compelling conflict, with a thick helping of razzle-dazzle to keep it all crackling. Nolan insisted on practical effects whenever possible, which gave his set pieces a package of reality unseen in our CGI-cluttered multiplexes. When you tie those things in with that dark current of a subtext, it's not hard to see why the movie grossed over $1 billion in global box office revenue, gathered 8 Oscar nominations (2 wins), and landed on almost every critic's list of best films of 2008.
Since then, DC Comics (who created Batman) have seen themselves getting lapped by their rivals over at Marvel Comics, as the Marvel Universe throws out blockbusters like candy and DC struggles to keep the pace. But back in 2008, things looked a lot different in a number of ways, and The Dark Knight found a way to ride the prevailing wave right past its Marvel rival (the original Iron Man, which didn't exactly bomb) and into the pages of cinematic history.
All that and the Batmobile too? Anything that awesome has to be a crime.
The smart aleck answer goes like this: "because you get to study BATMAN and still wow your sociology teacher."
But a better answer might be: "because it combines pop-culture immortality with some timely political issues."
A character like Batman tends to reflect the mood of the times, which is why he can get rebooted every ten years or so and nobody bats an eye. In the '40s, for instance, Batman fought the Japanese in a series of unspeakably racist movie serials. During the conformist '50s, he lost all that brooding angsty stuff and became a colorful father figure. The '60s were all pop art and bright colors, and Batman moved with the times thanks to the camptastic stylings of Adam West. Denny O'Neil helmed the comics in the '70s, where Vietnam put a serious whammy on the national psyche, and Bats returned to his grim and gritty roots. The '80s were larger than life, with heroes and villains exhibiting rock-star excess (Rambo, anyone?). Enter Tim Burton, whose comic-book sensibilities put the Super in this goth-noir superhero.
Flash-forward to 2008.
The U.S. (we're gonna get America-centric for a bit) was struggling with the trauma of 9/11 and two difficult wars. Osama bin Laden remained at large, Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans underwater, and the economy was getting ready to swan dive into an empty swimming pool. "Bummed" isn't the right word: we were flat-out despairing.
It was then that Christopher Nolan, having delivered what some considered the definitive Batman story with 2005's Batman Begins, found a way to up his game and give us a Caped Crusader that aptly reflected the national mood.
In the first case, it was almost despairingly grim. There was nothing silly here: no Biffs! and Pows! to remind us all to lighten up. The blood is real, the madness is eerily plausible, and when the Joker promises to reduce the entire city to anarchy, we can see exactly, precisely, how it might work. In the wake of 9/11, we all knew what a panicking metropolis looked like, and The Dark Knight wanted us to remember that feeling.
It also did away with anything—anything—you wouldn't find in the real world. The Adam West show featured giant clams and dinosaurs, and even the Tim Burton movie involved things like cathedrals taller than the Sears Tower. Not so here. Everything was grounded and real, even the Joker's make-up (which according to comic-book canon is actually his real face). Here, it's the mundane variety, stressing the fact that this is what Gotham City and its denizens might look like in our world.
Why do all of that? Besides making Batman all brooding and cool, it connected us to the battle between good and evil in a surprisingly intimate way. Director Christopher Nolan forced us to ask what we might do in these circumstances. Would we blow up a ferry full of people to save ourselves? Would we let fear consume us like it consumed Harvey Dent, or would we rise above it and make the right choice the way Batman did?
If his drama takes place in a brightly colored world, it becomes easier to dismiss. But this way, with knowledge of 9/11 and a lot of its uglier questions still shaking out in our minds, we could understand how these characters reflect our own psyche, and why we might ultimately fail the way Two-Face does. Other people have done that, of course, and done it quite well, but no one thought to do it with such beloved and popular figures. The Dark Knight brought Batman into our world and us into his. The only question was whether we'd take his example to heart like we're supposed to.
The jury's still out on that, and probably will be for a while. But individually, we can make the choice between right and wrong every day. This film's grit, its intensity, its almost unbearable ability to show us how nasty our dark sides can be… all of it showed us that Batman has to make a tough call sometimes too, then quietly urged us to follow his example when it was our turn.
We're willing to give up the odd Biff! or Pow! to see a lesson like that written on letters forty feet tall.
Ledger's performance of the Joker was punctuated by his tragic death shortly after shooting ended. It was said that he had trouble sleeping because of the strain of his performance. Climbing into the Joker's head couldn't have been a pleasant experience, which may have contributed to the accidental drug overdose that killed him. (Source.)
The Motion Picture Academy usually turns its nose up at superhero movies—they're kind of snobby snobs—but they couldn't say no to Ledger's performance here. He posthumously won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2009. Check out Kevin Kline gushing all over his performance. (Source.)
At one point, Bruce Wayne goes out in a Lamborghini to stop the Joker's death threats from taking out an innocent man. The model he's driving is called a Murcielago, which happens to be the Spanish word for bat. (Source.)
Christopher Nolan notoriously hates using computer-generated effects. The more real he can get, the better. So at the end of the big chase, when Batman uses his Bat-pod to flip the 18-wheeler? They actually flipped an 18-wheeler. Hydraulic cannons were fired from the bottom of the truck, causing the whole kit and caboodle to do a great big flip. (Source.)
Gordon's young son James Jr. plays a small role in the film, but if you look carefully, you'll see another child among his brood: a little red-headed girl. They don't go into her at all, but if you read the comics, you know who she is: Barbara Gordon, who will one day grow up to be Batgirl. For our money, she should have been the one calling after Batman at the end, but Nolan thought the character was too close to the campy '60s version of Bats, so poor Barbara got left on the sidelines. Big mistake Chris. (Source.)
That old man at the party who tells the Joker that they're not afraid of him? That's Senator Patrick Leahy, from the great state of Vermont. He's a big Batman fan and previously appeared in Batman & Robin (we're guessing he regrets that one) and Batman: The Animated Series. (Source.)
During the interrogation of the Joker, ole Whiteface tells Batman that "you complete me." That's a reference to Tom Cruise's famous line in Jerry Maguire. It's also a likely dig at Cruise, whose romance with Katie Holmes broke while the pair were on tour to promote Batman Begins. Nolan felt that the TomKat show upstaged his movie, and included a little zinger in the sequel to get even. (Source.)
Okay, time to get really deep here. Remember the video of the Joker torturing the Batman wannabe?
If you look close you can see the poor faux bat framed in front of a huge side of meat. Believe it or not, that shot is a very subtle reference to a painting called Figure with Meat by Francis Bacon. In Tim Burton's Batman, the Jack Nicholson version of the Joker spares it in his rampage of the museum.
Oh yeah, and the painting is located at the Art Institute of Chicago… the same city that stands in for Gotham City in The Dark Knight. Minds blown yet? (Source.)
The Dark Knight IMDB Page
Need data on the cast or crew? The Internet Movie Database has the 411.
Batman's DC Comics Page
DC's rather sparse but official home page for the character.
He's on Facebook Too
As befits a figure of his stature, the Big B has his own Facebook page
Bats has a whole wiki set up for him—with more extensive details and entries on his various villains too. Here's the entry for the Christian Bale version, though he's far from the only one on the wiki.
One for the Joker…
Here's the wiki page of Heath Ledger's version of the Joker.
And One More for Poor Harvey
We can't leave Eckhart out either. There's plenty of entries for other Batman characters on the wiki too.
Bob Kane and Bill Finger Create an Icon
Batman himself was the creation of writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, debuting in Detective Comics #27 first published in May, 1939. Readingroom.net has a PDF version.
He Gets His Own Title!
As you may have imagined, Bats became a hit, prompting the creation of his own comic-book title. The first issue also introduced the Joker to the world.
The Man Who Laughs
When creating the Joker, Kane and Finger cited the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs as inspiration.
Wait, There Were Batman Movies in the 40s?
Indeed there were: movie serials, in fact, which were short movies running before the main feature. Each episode of a serial ended on a cliffhanger, with the hero placed in mortal peril. If you wanted to find out what happened, you had to come back next week. The format inspired the Indiana Jones films in the 1980s, and also made a good fit for Batman. Bats appeared in his own serial in 1943, followed by a sequel, Batman and Robin in 1949. Lewis Wilson starred as Batman in the first serial, with Robert Lowry taking over in the second one. If you haven't seen them, don't worry: YouTube has the connected. (And just between us, they're really unspeakably awful.)
Holy Pop-Culture Icon, Batman!
In the 1950s, parents' groups cracked down on comic books, concerned that they were warping the minds of America's youth. In response, comics became more outlandish and kid-friendly, which put a serious crimp in the whole brooding-loner thing that Batman had going for him. Sales tanked and for a while it looked like Batman was going to be shut down.Help arrived in 1966, when Adam West started in a live-action series that sent up those ridiculous excesses and turned it into pure pop magic. The show was a huge hit, and put Batman back on the map for good. It's a lot of fun if you need some relief from the whole dark-and-gritty thing. And we love-love-love that opening title!
The Dark Knight Returns
In the 1980s, a series of graphic works such as Maus and Watchmen convinced the world that comics could be a legitimate art form. Among them was Frank Miller's limited series The Dark Knight Returns which shows an aging, possibly psychotic Bruce Wayne restoring order to a fascistic future Gotham. It set the stage for what was to come.
The Killing Joke
Author Alan Moore played an instrumental role in showing the artistic potential of comic books. Among his works were The Killing Joke created with artist Brian Bolland, first published in 1988. It depicts a possible origin for the Joker, who subsequently kidnaps Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to drive him insane. The creators of The Dark Knight cite it as a huge inspiration for their film.
Tim Burton Creates a Juggernaut
With Batman on the ascent, Hollywood quickly got in on the action. Warners gave former Disney animator Tim Burton the job of bringing the Caped Crusader to life. Initial fears about the film were silenced when it swooped down in the summer of 1989 and took all our money with it. The film has plenty of problems (does Burton even know how to tell a story?), but the look of the film helped cement all that broody Gothic stuff. And we gotta admit that both Michael Keaton (as Batman) and Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) were awesome.
Burton followed that up with a sequel, in which Keaton returns to battle Danny DeVito's Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. The film had a lot of problems. Pfeiffer was not one of them.
The Animated Series
With the Burton films bringing in huge box office returns, Warners commissioned a new animated series for Batman. And seriously, if you haven't seen it, you really need to check it out. Creative gurus Paul Dini and Alan Burnett found what many fans think is the ideal version of the Caped Crusader, while vocal artists Kevin Conroy (as Batman) and Mark Hamill (as the Joker) are considered by some to be the best takes on the character ever.
"Move Along, Nothing to See Here"
And then Joel Schumacher happened...Actually it's not quite fair to blame Schumacher, who followed up Burton's films by directing Batman Forever starring Val Kilmer and Batman and Robin starring George Clooney. The Warner brass were basically calling the shots, and they dictated the garish, bright, obtusely campy tone that pretty much made everyone hate these movies for all time. They came close to sinking the whole franchise for good. Only Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins saved them from their own folly. Schumacher took the brunt of the blame, but it's hard to see what he could have done in the face of a studio more concerned with selling toys than making a film that didn't induce everyone to jab their eyeballs out.
Nolan Saves the Caped Crusader
In swoops Nolan! Yanking Batman away from the clutches of overbearing suits, he restored the Caped Crusader's grim and gritty reputation in Batman Begins, and set the stage for The Dark Knight. In fact, we think it might be a little better than The Dark Knight. If you want to study the 2008 model, it behooves you to give this one a careful look.
The Dark Knight Rises
As you may have noticed, this movie ends on something of a cliffhanger. To find out what happens, take a gander at the conclusion to Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. It's not quite as good as the first two, but still pretty darn good in our opinion.
DC has spun its wheels lately in the live-action movie department, but they thrive in Direct-to-Video Land. In the past eight years, they've released over a dozen animated features set in the DC Universe, including quite a few Batman titles. Pay particular notice to one called Gotham Knight, which is a series of six stories drawn in the manner of Japanese anime. What makes this one special? It's officially set in the same universe as The Dark Knight, and covers the period right before that film, just after Batman Begins.
Tons of fans get to do more than watch Batman. They get to play him in an acclaimed series of video games from Rocksteady games. Four have been released thus far: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight. They're all awesome.
The Lego Movie
Who knew that the Caped Crusader would end up stealing the show in the animated Lego Movie? Not only did he get the biggest laughs of the film, but he got his own song in the middle of it! Also, he only works in black. And sometimes very, very dark grey.
Lego Dark Knight
There's always a Lego version.
The New York Times Gets Dark
A report from the Times on the movie.
The Dark Knight's War on Terrorism
Scholar John Ip digs at some of the deeper meaning of all this funnybook mayhem.
Thumbs Way Up
The late great Roger Ebert revels in the film and its implications for comic book movies in general.
More Reviews from Rotten Tomatoes
Don't take Roger's word for it: critics the world over weigh in on The Dark Knight, helpfully compiled by the good people at Rotten Tomatoes.
An Analysis of The Dark Knight
Todd Alcott breaks down the movie at Comicsbeat.com.
Justice and Terror: The Dark Knight
Christiancinema.com takes a nuanced look at the film's big ideas.
We Can't All Be Perfect
Continuity mistakes and other bloopers from The Dark Knight.
Ledger playing the Joker at the time, but this one gave them a few little morsels of hope.
The teaser begat the trailer, and suddenly Ledger's casting started to look a lot less questionable.
The Other Trailer
The third and final trailer put more of an emphasis on Two-Face than the Joker.
Lower Wacker Drive, Part 1
If that big chase with the 18-wheeler looks familiar, that's because they shot it in Chicago's famous Lower Wacker Drive… which was also the sight of an equally awesome chase scene in Nolan's first Caped Crusader movie, Batman Begins.
Lower Wacker Drive: The Early Years
Nolan took a bit of inspiration from 1980's The Blues Brothers, which also used Lower Wacker Drive in a memorable chase scene.
Inspiration for The Bank Robbery
For that fantastic opening bank robbery, Nolan borrows some cues from Michael Mann's 1995 crime thriller Heat. Notice the high walls and echoing sound here? We've seen them before…
The Viral Campaign
Warners earned bonus points for its innovative viral campaign promoting The Dark Knight, making copious use of that Internet thing you may have heard about. Here's a video covering the specifics.
75 Years of Batman
In 2014, DC authorized this snazzy retrospective, looking at 75 years of the Caped Crusader.
They didn't make any secret out of the fact that the Joker was going to be here. Here's the finale of Batman Begins, with a little teaser of things to come.
Bale Talks Bats
The Dark Knight himself raps with us on all things Batman.
Mr. Ledger Explores the Madness
In one of his last interviews, Ledger spills the beans on the Joker.
Christopher Nolan Speaks
The director sounds off on making the movie.
Michael Caine talks Alfred Pennyworth
Excuse us, that's Sir Michael Caine, playing the most famous butler of all time.
Aaron and Heath
Eckhart chats with Larry King about working with Heath Ledger.
"Hey, Isn't There a Girl in This Thing?"
Maggie Gyllenhaal crashes the boys club with this interview for the film.
Cillian Murphy as Batman?
Murphy's a bit of a forgotten villain in the Nolan Batman saga, having playing the Scarecrow in all three films. But he actually first tried out for Bruce Wayne before Nolan decided he was too terrifying to be a good guy.
In addition to the movie itself, The Dark Knight won accolades for its awesome marketing campaign, starting with posters like this.
The Poster, Part Deux
Something a little more personal, with the three main characters flashing their respective calling cards.
Okay, That's Scary
A promotion preview shows off the villain in a moment of repose…
Just Waiting for his Carpool…
A make-up-free Heath Ledger sets up the introductory shot for his character. He's right: the clown-face makes him much scarier.
Seriously, Upside Down?
Ledger performs while the blood rushes to his head. Trust us, it's pretty awesome in the film.
Nolan Pimps his Ride
Christopher Nolan poses while the Batmobile gazes at him enviously.
"You Got Something on Your Face…"
A little movie magic shows how they made Eckhart look all gross without having to actually burn off his flesh.
Did We Mention the Memes?
Yeah, there have been a few…
Can't Forget the Toys
Toys, statues and figurines… the hallmark for any modern blockbuster.