This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.
Background & History
Prior to the release of Batman Begins, screenwriter David S. Goyer had written two potential sequels that would introduce the Joker and provide the origin story for Two-Face. Much like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel Batman: Year One served as the inspiration for Batman Begins, another graphic novel called The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale served as the inspiration for The Dark Knight, though the second film deviates more from its source material than the first film did.
Of particular note was the filmmakers’ approach to the Joker. Director Christopher Nolan said that he wanted the Joker to appear fully formed, thus circumventing any origin story for the character as had previously been done by Tim Burton and his team for 1989’s Batman, where we see how the Joker came to be. Instead, we come across a Joker in his rise to power. Nolan said that he made this decision in order to preserve the threatening and menacing persona surrounding the character. “To me, the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He’s unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics.”
The Dark Knight began filming in April 2007 and was the first major studio release to use IMAX cameras in production. Nolan said that he had always wanted to shoot something in IMAX, and with the slated IMAX release of the film, this was an ideal opportunity. Four sequences were filmed in IMAX, including the opening bank robbery and the car chase scene toward the middle of the film.
Prior to the film’s release, the studio pioneered a form of marketing called “viral marketing,” which created an audience-participatory journey in which anyone who stumbled on different websites would be given clues regarding tasks they were asked to perform. These scavenger hunts would lead to undisclosed locations where teasers, posters, and other bits of the movie and its storyline were released, immersing fans into the film’s universe long before its release date.
Following the passing of Heath Ledger, the studio shifted the focus of marketing onto the Joker, posting a tribute to the actor on the film’s official website.
The film’s world premiere took place at an IMAX theater in New York City, where composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer conducted an orchestra that performed portions of the soundtrack live for those in attendance.
The film opens with an elaborate bank robbery perpetrated by a team of robbers wearing clown masks. As the robbery is taking place, the clowns kill each other off one by one, presumably to increase the size of each share, under the instruction of the individual who ordered the heist.
After the robbers succeed (and are killed off by each other), the final clown removes his mask in response to the bank manager, who had asked him, “What do you believe in?” The robber replied, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” revealing the face underneath the mask to be covered in sloppily applied white makeup and a Glasgow smile painted with red lipstick.
The Batman, Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent form an alliance in order to target organized crime in Gotham City. As they work together, Batman/Bruce Wayne becomes increasingly impressed with the DA’s idealism and commitment to the improvement of Gotham City. Wayne begins to consider Dent a worthy successor to the Batman as the type of man who can lead the city into an era free of organized crime.
Wayne Enterprises moves forward with a business deal with Lau Security Investments Holdings, but after Wayne CEO Lucius Fox shares his misgivings with Bruce Wayne, they decide to call the deal off.
Lau’s CEO turns out to be an accountant for the three main crime rings in Gotham City who all hold a videoconference with him in order to discuss the movement of their money given some of the recent success the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit has been having at closing in on them. The man from the bank robbery—known as the Joker—shows up at the meeting to discuss his willingness to rid them of their real problem: the Batman.
Batman travels to Hong Kong to retrieve Lau and places him in GPD custody. Harvey Dent and his girlfriend/Assistant DA Rachel Dawes convince Lau to testify against the Gotham City crime lords, and Dent arrests all of them.
The heads of the crime rings make bail, and in response to the DA, Gordon’s MCU, and Batman’s quick arrest, they turn to the Joker to rid them of their problem.
The Joker kills a Batman copycat vigilante and broadcasts a message across Gotham City informing them that if Batman didn’t reveal his secret identity, he would continue murdering unless Batman were to come forward. He successfully murders Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and Judge Janet Surillo, who had presided over the case involving the Gotham City crime bosses. He attempts to murder Mayor Anthony Garcia, but Lieutenant Gordon jumps in front of the bullet, sacrificing his life to save the mayor’s.
To put a stop to the killings, Bruce Wayne decides to reveal that he’s Batman, but before he does, Dent steps forward and claims to be Batman, knowing that his actions will draw the Joker out, giving the real Batman an opportunity to take him down.
Lieutenant Gordon reveals that he faked his own death in an attempt to help capture the Joker and takes the criminal into custody at his precinct. However, the Joker has already set in motion a plan to blow up a hospital and uses that leverage to get two of Gordon’s officers to kidnap Dent and Rachel separately.
While being interrogated by Gordon and Batman, the Joker reveals the locations of both Rachel and Dent, but lies about which hostage is at which location, which sends Batman to the location housing Dent. He rescues Dent, but not before half of his face catches fire from an explosion igniting the half of his body that had been covered in oil. Rachel dies in the blast at her location.
An accountant at Wayne Enterprises reveals that he knows who the real Batman is and attempts to disclose the information publicly in the hopes that it will put a stop to the Joker’s murders, but the Joker interrupts him to say that he doesn’t want Batman’s identity revealed. Instead, he announces that he’ll blow up a hospital if the accountant isn’t killed within the hour.
The Dark Knight is much more visually grounded in reality than the previous film, spending much of the production on location in Chicago. It feels like it takes place in the real world, which is a mood that the filmmaker’s were going for. Where Batman Begins was clearly a reality-based “fantasy” film (and I use the term “fantasy” loosely, since the comic-book supernatural doesn’t exist in Nolan’s world), The Dark Knight is a crime drama set in as realistic an urban world as can be portrayed on-screen.
The film pulls away from the sepias and browns of the previous film and steers towards a more natural color palette for the city. The final scene hearkens back to the first film a bit, but maintains the more realistic edge when compared to the majority of scenes from the previous film.
Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale.
Some have accused this film of making Batman a passive character, but I think that accusation misses what’s going on in the film. The character is Bruce Wayne, and we certainly see a fully fleshed out character arc for him. He’s anything but a passive character.
There were several moments in this movie where Bale truly shines in his portrayal of the character, but the one that stands out to me is the moment where he’s sitting in his penthouse—in agony over having just lost his best friend and the woman he loved, confounded by his inability to effectively eliminate the threat that the Joker poses to the city, and inching closer to the realization that he is utterly failing in his mission to make Gotham City a better place.
Bale makes Bruce so thoroughly relatable in that moment that he brings this untouchable character down to the audience’s level. I could see myself in his shoes, but I’d never want to find myself in his shoes.
The Joker: Heath Ledger.
At the risk of echoing every other blogger’s praise of this performance, I’m going to add my own. We can all agree on just how stunning the late Heath Ledger’s work was in this film. This character is absolutely frightening and mesmerizing at the same time. He is omnipresent in this film; in the scenes where he’s absent, his existence is still significantly felt.
The character as portrayed in The Dark Knight warrants quite a bit of exploration, but I won’t go too far into it. I do, however, want to peek a little bit into the Joker’s psyche just a bit. In the opening scene, upon the character’s unmasking, he utters the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger,” a one-letter deviation from the overly popular Nietzsche quote. Nietzsche and several of his philosophical contemporaries explored what has been popularized as Existentialism, and this character is the very embodiment of Existentialism. That could be what makes the Joker such a popular character these days.
Ledger dove so deeply into this character where others (like Jack Nicholson) had merely scratched the surface. This performance was altogether chilling, enthralling, humorous in a dishearteningly and morbidly unfunny way, and hauntingly enticing. To me, this is the defining interpretation of the Joker and the yardstick by which all others will be measured for many years to come.
Harvey “Two-Face” Dent: Aaron Eckhart.
One of the most fascinating studies of human morality is Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent. He was such a believable character, and the performance was so well executed that I couldn’t help but feel legitimate sorrow over the tragic events of his life.
Prior to The Dark Knight, there hadn’t been any convincing interpretation of this character with the notable exception of the version in Batman: The Animated Series, which played up the heartbreaking narrative behind Harvey Dent.
Where Eckhart truly shines is in the honesty of his portrayal of Dent. He plays the character with such verisimilitude that he’s eminently believable and relatable. It wasn’t difficult to see myself in his shoes, snapping the way he did after such a tragic event. He’s confident, strong, and devoted to his cause, but he (like other characters throughout the film) treads the line of moral ambiguity incredibly well. His good actions prior to his accident are sprinkled with some morally questionable execution. His evil actions following the accident ring true to some degree and while his actions aren’t acceptable, his perspective is morally justifiable.
Nothing embodies the character more than the ominously foreshadowing phrase he utters: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Chilling even in the moment since most audiences already knew what would happen to him down the road.
Rachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Katie Holmes would not return to reprise her role from Batman Begins, and some would argue that was a good thing. I’m not among those, as I think Holmes would’ve been up to the task, but Gyllenhaal certainly played the character well.
However, despite the fact that I found it to be a convincing performance, I did feel that the character changed rather drastically (not just in looks, of course) between the first two films. Holmes’ interpretation of the character was someone who was okay with bending the rules to get what she was after. She was a bit more intimidating and often pushed her boss (then Gotham City District Attorney Carl Finch) to uncomfortable places to get a conviction. Her version of the character was also more confrontational, facing off with Jonathan Crane when she suspected something wasn’t right.
Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, played the role a bit more modestly. That’s not to say she was timid or unassertive, but I didn’t find her to be as strong a character as she was in Batman Begins. She deferred often to Harvey Dent and relied on him to get the job done. She confronted Bruce a few times throughout the movie, but I was never convinced of her ability to truly sway him. Some of that could be the screenwriters’ fault, but I just felt that the chemistry between Bale and Gyllenhaal wasn’t as strong as between Bale and Holmes.
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman.
In his second go-around as the Wayne Enterprises CEO, Morgan Freeman shines even brighter. He’s smart, witty, and provides a moral compass for the characters and a groundedness for the audience.
The character progression for Fox is fun to see. In Batman Begins, he served as a minor protagonist with his own minor antagonist in then Wayne Enterprises CEO Richard Earle. This time around, the stakes are higher, and Fox faces off against Batman’s own moral ambivalence.
Morgan Freeman is an incredible actor, and he gives another outstanding performance in this film. It’s fitting that the “voice of God” provides the voice of reason for the titular character.
Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Caine.
Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate father figure is the reason he doesn’t show up at the hospital with inexplicable cuts and bruises. His calm partnership with Batman provides a foil through which we can see Bruce’s unwillingness to think outside the box created by his preconceived ideas about criminal motivations.
I loved the way Caine brought some criticism of the Batman persona. He understands the need for Batman, but he also knows better than anyone what the Batman can become beyond a simple crimefighter. Caine shows that wisdom in a way few others can. He has excellent chemistry with Bale, and their banter in this film continues to improve over the last one.
Where the primary theme of Batman Begins was obvious to the point of being preachy, The Dark Knight revels in ambiguity. Some have pointed to the theme of chaos, but my response to that assertion is an accusation of reductionism. Additionally, there appears to be a thread in the story that points to the negation of chaos: that ultimately there is always a goal.
The film’s complexity provides a window into the perceived psyche of the primary personal antagonist. He is mysterious, his plans and actions multifarious, and his motivations enigmatic. In fact, he has seemingly no motive other than pure enjoyment. But the character, as the director stated, is absolute. The story arc in this film belongs to Harvey Dent, not to the Joker. This is part of what helps the movie succeed on so many levels. The antagonist follows no arc at all; he merely exists and reveals to us the depth of character in Harvey and Bruce.
Something I enjoyed in this film is the subtle arrogance that Bruce maintains in fighting the Joker. He never appears to heed Alfred’s warning in his story about the bandit from Cambodia. Instead, he relies on his own deductive abilities, his skills as a student of the League of Shadows, and his mythical status as Gotham City’s silent protector. Even by the end of the movie, he fails to fully understand how everything could have fallen apart, and therein lies some of the beauty of this film.
The Batman is not the incorruptible, inerrant hero we imagine him to be. Rather, he is a flawed, single-minded man who doesn’t pay attention to the advice of those who love him most.
A common critique of this film, particularly from the comic-book-fan crowd, is that Batman and Gordon could have easily pinned the blame on the Joker or even told the truth and cleaned up the consequences of letting the truth out. But I think that critique misses the internal path that Bruce Wayne takes in this film: he has journeyed from the city’s mysterious savior to its greatest failure.
Why does Bruce believes he failed? Because he was the inspiration for Harvey Dent’s run at the DA’s office. Because he bears the responsibility for the Joker’s crimes after never revealing his identity. Because he orchestrated and catalyzed the plan to take down all of Gotham’s crime lords in one fell swoop. Because he allowed Harvey to take the fall for him in claiming to be the Batman. Because he removed Carmine Falcone from power which opened the door for the emergence of a man like the Joker. In his attempt to make Gotham City a better place, he turned it into a breeding ground for chaos and destruction.
The first moment that Bruce truly understands what has taken place is the final breath of the film: when he takes the fall for Harvey in what he feels is his last chance at personal redemption for what he has done to Harvey, to Rachel, and to Gotham City.
The first film began a journey toward portraying Gotham City as a character in itself, and the second film continues that trajectory. The city’s response to the Joker’s repeated threats is a fascinating study, and the turn where the people on the ferries decide not to react (which is in stark contrast to their reaction to his threat to blow up a hospital) is a fascinating study in the progression of the city, particularly when coupled with the personality given to the city in the third film.
Reaction & Impact
The Dark Knight continues to blow me away after what’s quite possibly the eleventh or twelfth time I viewed this film. Rarely does a film make such an impression on me that I’m left speechless after watching.
Every aspect of this film was nearly perfect, and even its imperfections (the editing during the truck chase scene, Batman’s voice, etc.) added to the overall beauty and magic of this film. It is still, in my opinion, among the finest films ever created.