There’s before The Dark Knight, and there’s after The Dark Knight. Before The Dark Knight, superhero movies were big for Hollywood and Christopher Nolan was a culty stylist and everyone loved Batman. After The Dark Knight, superhero movies were the defining Hollywood product and Christopher Nolan was everyone’s favorite Hollywood director and everyone really loved Batman.
You can try to explain The Dark Knight‘s success by looking at the underlying factors of where we were at at the time — “we” as a nation, “we” as a global moviegoing public, “we” as a geekifying popular culture. A brutal election year faced America. Eight years after X-Men and almost two decades after Tim Burton’s Batman, the superhero film was a genre awaiting a masterpiece. Eight months before the film hit theaters, the first scene played in theaters ahead of I Am Legend, and anyone who saw it knew that Heath Ledger’s Joker was going to be something special. Seven months before the film hit theaters, Ledger died tragically young — a loss that gave only more heft to his uncanny performance in The Dark Knight.
You can try to explain all those factors, but you ultimately arrive back at the movie itself. Unshackled by the need to reboot and restart the Caped Crusader franchise, Christopher Nolan delivered an ambitious new take on the whole superhero idea. High Nerds could play spot-the-reference with the film’s plot and tone — a little bit Frank Miller, a little bit Alan Moore, a little bit Long Halloween — but working with co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, the director delivered an excitingly new take on the character. Ledger’s mile-high performance as Joker got the accolades, but he’s just one piece of Nolan’s sprawling criminal epic. Previously, the director’s filmography favored a chrono-hopping flashback structure, but The Dark Knight might be the filmmaker’s most impressive trick: What begins as an expansive tale (Hong Kong! Mob Bosses! Scarecrow cameo!) gets whittled down into a highly personal tale (Vengeance, Madness, “Will You Press This Button?”)
The Dark Knight is the most recent release in our Blockbuster Top Five, but it already feels like the essential Hollywood document of the ’00s, dripping with paranoia and a tough-monochrome style that has survived all attempts at imitation or parody. It’s number four on our Summer Blockbuster Countdown. Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now? It could be much higher.
Release Date: July 18, 2008
The Competition: 2008 was the first true summer of superheroes. Iron Man opened in May, the opening salvo in the still-building Cold War between the Marvel Studios bright-happy Avengers saga and the burgeoning Warner Bros./DC gritty-dark Nolanverse. June brought The Incredible Hulk; when Dark Knight arrived in theaters, it followed fast on the heels of Will Smith’s Hancock and the absolutely-beloved-by-some-people Hellboy II. Then Batman arrived. The brilliantly counterprogrammed Mamma Mia! opened the same day and became an immediate family-reunion classic; Step Brothers opened one week later and began its long journey to its DVD cult. Pretty much everything else got pushed aside: the second X-Files movie flopped, the third Mummy movie barely coasted by on foreign box office, and Swing Vote was only just barely a thing.
Box Office: $534 million domestic ($158.4 million opening weekend) and $1 billion worldwide
What EW said: “The Dark Knight is jammed with thorny underworld conspiracies, obscenely oversize tank-cars, and action scenes that teeter madly out of control, all blanketed by the psycho-anarchic musings of a villain so warped he turns crime into a contest of Can you top this? At two hours and 32 minutes, this is almost too much movie, but it has a malicious, careening zest all its own. It’s a ride for the gut and the brain.” A- –Owen Gleiberman
Cultural Impact Then: Summer 2008 was a good year for big movies; add in Pixar’s Wall-E, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, and August releases Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder to the list of movies named above. And yet, it is possible to say without much hyperbole that The Dark Knight was summer 2008 and summer 2008 was The Dark Knight. Lines from the movie immediately entered the greater cultural lexicon — dog chasing cars, hero we deserve vs. hero we need, “I’m gonna make this pencil disappear. The media, already in the throes of election-year insanity, chewed over the politics of The Dark Knight. (Neocon fantasy? Liberal deconstruction of neocon fantasy?)
The Dark Knight was the highest-grossing movie of the year, earning $200 million more than its closest competition — which was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a tired sequel that seemed even more long-in-the-tooth by comparison to Nolan’s thrillingly of-the-moment adventure. It earned several Oscar nominations; fans of the movie maintain it was robbed of a Best Picture nomination. On February 24, 2008, Dark Knight won two Oscars, for sound editing and for Ledger’s supporting-actor performance. Possibly greater evidence of the film’s immediate cultural impact came earlier that month, when Warner Bros. purchased an original science-fiction screenplay by Christopher Nolan that was dark, weird, twisted, and confusing. Inception went into production immediately.
Cultural Staying Power: We’re still measuring the effect of The Dark Knight on pop culture and culture in general. The film confirmed Christian Bale’s place as one of the most interesting popular actors and gave Christopher Nolan a creative carte blanche that’s practically unheard of in blockbuster Hollywood. “Dark and gritty” was already becoming a popular blockbuster trope, but The Dark Knight cemented a certain kind of grit-realism into Hollywood’s entertainments. Major franchises began to take their cues from The Dark Knight. Amazing Spider–Man was less a reboot than a Nolanification of the Spider-Man legend. Javier Bardem in Skyfall is the Joker with mommy issues. They literally added the word “dark” into a Star Trek movie. And it’s hard to think of a major blockbuster film that doesn’t feature a scene where the Captured Villain has a long conversation with the Confused Hero right before implementing his ultimate plan (because he wanted to get captured!)
Anything so popular inevitably inspires frequent parody, and so some of the film’s more outré elements became constant targets for comedians. (The upcoming comedy Neighbors has a scene where Zac Efron does the Bale-as-Batman voice.) But the film also inspired a cult of personality — around Batman, who spent the next few years headlining the successful Arkham videogame series, starring in a memorable comic book arc by Grant Morrison, and inspiring Fox’s upcoming prequel series Gotham; but also for Christopher Nolan, whose status as the blockbuster auteur was minted by the success of Inception. Conventional wisdom holds that the Academy’s decision to expand its Best Picture slate mostly hailed from the lack of a nomination for Best Picture, a move that Mark Harris called the Nolan Effect.
Was there a dark side to The Dark Knight‘s success? Of course: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Four years after the film’s dominant run, The Dark Knight Rises arrived in theaters amidst a hailstorm of hype that included comment-board death threats against critics who didn’t give the movie a perfect grade. Rises was a huge success — it earned $80 million less domestically than Dark Knight, but significantly more abroad — but the film’s reception as a whole was much more problematic. (Bane-Voice parodies inevitably feel more disdainful than Batman-Voice parodies.)
And Rises couldn’t rise as high as Marvel’s The Avengers, which established a decidedly safer and possibly more lucrative path towards blockbuster success. (The Dark Knight killed off one character and emotionally brutalized another; The Avengers couldn’t even keep its lone casualty dead.) Nolan and his collaborators always envisioned their Dark Knight saga as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end; The Avengers and its imitators hope to run forever. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming Batman/Superman project fares when it arrives in 2016. When the Ben Affleck announcement led to loud skepticism and hostility, the simple explanation was fanboy rage; but it seems just as likely that the greater culture of moviegoers feels a loyalty to The Dark Knight, a passion that makes rebooting the Caped Crusader a much more difficult prospect than it was post-Schumacher.
You could argue that we’re already past the film’s moment. But if that’s true, it’s only because the movie was so copmletely absorbed into the bloodstream of pop culture, establishing a new benchmark for critical and commercial success while offering hope that the rising tide of uber-decadent Hollywood megaproductions could — in the right hands — produce a work whose artistry could reflect and define its specific time and place. It was the movie we needed. It was The Dark Knight.
29. The Hangover
28. Rambo: First Blood Part II
27. There’s Something About Mary
23. Saving Private Ryan
21. Independence Day
16. The Avengers
14. Superman II
13. The Lion King
12. The Sixth Sense
11. Top Gun
9. Animal House
7. Forrest Gump