The Dark Knight turns 10: EW critics revisit Christopher Nolan's Batman phenomenon
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The wonder of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Next week: At long last, Step Brothers! This week: EW film critic Chris Nashawaty and TV critic Darren Franich talk about that time some clown fought Batman.
DARREN: I like how small Christian Bale looks in The Dark Knight. It’s a plot thing, actually: His first big decision is to trim down. “I’m carrying too much weight,” Bruce Wayne tells Alfred, and his burly Batman Begins outfit gets tossed out in favor of a less armor-ful exo-costume, built bespoke by tech-tailor Lucius Fox. This is, in hindsight, the single most 2000s thing about Dark Knight: Like every other yuppie post-Mad Men, Bruce wanted his suit to look slim-fit.
Not a tiny man, Mr. Bale, but director Christopher Nolan finds unusual ways to bring his protagonist down to size. Alfred and Lucius are played by Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, who are taller than Bale. This works visually — they’re two flavors of father-mentor — but it has the deepening effect of making his Bruce Wayne still look young, a little inexperienced, not quite ready for the dark twists that power the film’s back half. Batman was already an icon in 2008, and this film’s success made him something like a post-theistic god — and a lot of the Bat-pop of this decade has treated him thus. Ben Affleck’s Batman was a bicep skycraper with hands; Fox’s Gotham teases the Caped Crusader’s arrival the way certain Old Testament prophets anticipated a Messiah. But if there’s one shot that really defines, for me, the Nolan-Bale Batman, it’s the one that begins by shrinking Batman to the vanishing point, one man etched against a shot-on-location city (hello, ChicaGotham!)
This might be a weird place to begin with The Dark Knight, Chris. Ten years ago, this film was wild success, probably the most profoundly all-encompassing film phenomenon of my life. Like a lot of people, I saw it multiple times in theaters (twice in Imax!). I experienced it as a film watcher and a comic book reader, thrilling to how Nolan wove together the influence of Michael Mann and Frank Miller. The Dark Knight also cemented a new way of talking about superhero movies. There were a flood of political think pieces about Batman’s neocon-ish Patriot Act-ing. There was the widening of the Best Picture category after Dark Knight didn’t get nominated. There was heavy talk about the artistic possibilities of superhero movies.
When this film came out, I thrilled to the possibility that a lot of things I loved as a kid were ascending to a prominent place in the cultural mainstream. Today, I worry frequently that the stuff I loved as a kid has destroyed the world. But I’m not sure the world needs another self-loathing geek apostate, and in my rewatch of The Dark Knight, I tried hard to ignore the noise. (Who’s Trumpier, Joker or Bruce Wayne? No, Franich, no, focus!)
I developed a new appreciation for the weird, disjointed, fascinating story, a plot that seems to consume itself. I found parts of it brilliant, parts of it boring, at times wondered what on earth I’d been fussing about 10 years ago, at other points wondered if we’ve been paying attention to the wrong things.
What was your experience of Dark Knight on the first go-round, Chris? And did your feelings change about it rewatching it today?
CHRIS: Darren, after kibitzing back and forth about Speed Racer and The Happening, let me just start off by saying how refreshing it is to finally be discussing a movie that’s worthy of nostalgia. Let me also say how relieved I was to sit down and watch The Dark Knight for the first time in 10 years and not feel any disappointment at all. It’s a great friggin’ movie — arguably the only movie to be spun out of a DC comic that deserves to be called art. Well, that and Wonder Woman.
I like how this time around you keyed into the scale of Batman. Nolan is such a smart filmmaker, and that was clearly no idle decision. It reminded me of watching All the President’s Men and seeing how its director, Alan J. Pakula, shot Woodward and Bernstein to make them look ant-like. They were up against the president, the government, and every monolithic institution in America, and you felt just how epically overmatched they were. Against the Joker — specifically Heath Ledger’s Joker — Batman is finally the underdog. And Nolan places him in the frame him accordingly.
I was working at EW back in 2008. Not as a critic, but certainly hip-deep in pop culture and consumed by movie love. I can’t say that watching The Dark Knight back then was the religious, mystical, ineffable experience that it sounds like it was for you. Then again, I wasn’t weaned on comics like you were. Someone gave me a dog-eared copy of Watchmen to read my freshman year in college, and that’s pretty much where my romance began and ended. Not because I didn’t think it was amazing. Just the opposite. I adored it enough to recognize that it was a dangerously addictive rabbit hole I was too scared and busy to go down. It was like crack in graphic novel form — and after the first hit, I just said no. When I first saw The Dark Knight, it brought back some of that feeling. You couldn’t sit there and watch Ledger’s Joker and not be hooked. Ten years and 8,000 superhero movies later, there still hasn’t been a villain that’s half as interesting or perversely entertaining as he was.
Back then I had one small beef with the movie, and it’s one I still have today: the whole Harvey Dent third-act thing. I love the character, and I love Aaron Eckhart’s self-righteous performance. And while I realize that it may smack of looking a gift horse in the mouth, my biggest problem with The Dark Knight is that’s it’s just too much movie. The Dent/Two-Face transformation should have been its own film. It just feels like Nolan is trying to cram too much in to The Dark Knight, at the expense of the Joker. In a way, it comes off like a sequel made by someone who wasn’t sure if he’d be coming back for another, so he just tries to jam everything in. But I realize that’s like complaining that you got too much cake at your birthday party.
I want to talk more about Ledger’s performance, though. I’m curious whether you think it’s too over-the-top or just over-the-top enough? For a long time after the movie came out and Ledger’s death was still fresh, it was impossible to talk about his performance with any real honesty. I happen to love it, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.
DARREN: Ledger makes and breaks the movie for me, and I mean that as a double compliment. I love your description of The Dark Knight as being “too much movie,” Chris, and the Joker practically feels like a whole other movie invading this one. Just look at the other villainous types: Eric Roberts’ mafia-of-mafias is populated by retro hoodlums. (In the first scene, William Fichtner actually says “youse,” like no gangster has since the original Scarface.) And Chin Han’s Lau is a solid, stolid financial criminal, the kind of banality-of-capitalism nefarious suit who James Bond and Ethan Hunt could chase across three continents.
And then in comes Ledger, an agent of chaos destroying everything orderly (and bland) around him. There’s a certain brand of Nolan acting that we’ve become accustomed to: restrained, simmering, dour. Think of everyone but Tom Hardy in Inception, or every British male in Dunkirk. Ledger in this film is, like, a burning molten core of emotion. It doesn’t really seem over-the-top to me, actually. A lot of the Joker’s best moments are droll asides, like Ledger grabbing a champagne glass while he’s terrorizing a party. Every time I watch his performance, I get something new out of it. Back in 2008, Joker seemed like a candy-colored version of a terrorist, so omnipresent that he somehow can grab DNA from a judge and put a bomb in every building’s basement. Today, he strikes me as a megalomaniacal real-life internet troll, with a YouTuber’s knack for snagging publicity.
I think his performance challenged Nolan, actually. He’s a director who rose to prominence as a high practitioner of narrative trickery, timelines juggled, secret identities swapped. But some of his finest filmmaking is the stuff in Dark Knight where he just lets the camera marvel at Ledger. See: Joker in a nurse’s outfit turning a hospital into his own private Michael Bay explosion sandbox! See: Joker sledding down a money pile right before he sets it on fire.
Being cruel to be kind: Ledger’s so goddamn great that I find the parts without him suffer a bit. The too-much-movie stuff turns some characters into collateral damage: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s swagger can’t make Rachel Dawes feel much more than an emotional chesspiece for the two dudes in her life. The final swinging showdown with the Joker is astounding, but then the actually final showdown with Two-Face feels like a letdown, with a plot resolution that’s more discussed than felt.
Two scenes stuck out to me though, Chris, with meanings I had never really conceived before. Alfred’s story about the thief in Burma seems like, basically, a cool story from a wise elder, some kind of lesson for Bruce to learn. But upon rewatch, everything about the story seems… well, insane. Alfred says he was working for the Burmese government — like, sorry, was this the militarist government that suppressed student uprisings? We’re meant to take his parable of the thief as a connection to the Joker — but if you listen closely, doesn’t it also sound like he’s describing a modern Robin Hood, robbing from corrupt tribal leaders and tossing rubies (the size of tangerine!) to the local kids? Shouldn’t that describe Batman, not Batman’s nemesis?
What strikes me most — what makes me feel like there’s still a lot of movie we haven’t uncovered in Dark Knight‘s muchness — is how Nolan and his collaborators seem to be leaving room for some healthy skepticism here. Consider the early arrival of the Batman imitators — people who admire the Dark Knight but have already started to mutate his purpose. These faux-Batdudes carry guns and don’t seem to mind killing people (shades of Batfleck!). They’re vigilantes following in Batman’s wake, standing their ground with lethal weapons — and Batman is, specifically, against them. (Though only for the most explicitly douchebaggish reasons: “I’m not wearing hockey pads!” he says, a synonym for “I’m rich, bitch!”)
This is, if nothing else, a pretty big distance from, say, Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises, which would go all the way in on the Caped Crusader as a sacrificing nuclear messiah. So I guess I’m troubled by parts of The Dark Knight, but I admire how much room the film leaves for what you might call aggressive thematic expansion. Its order will always descend into chaos. I’m curious, Chris, were there scenes on this go-round that you experienced differently in 2018? And I think this is a somewhat mandatory question for a film critic: How would you rank this movie in the superhero film canon? Back in 2008, I probably would’ve put it at number one. It’s still top five for me now, but it’s not even my favorite Batman movie.
CHRIS: Okay, so it’s agreed then. All hail Heath Ledger! Not the most controversial or contrarian position, but there it is. And for the record, this is the scene that has been stuck in my mind’s projector on a loop since rewatching The Dark Knight:
Look at that marvelous freak. He’s like a tail-wagging golden retriever hanging his head out of the car window, giddy on his own nihilism. Good boy! And I’m just guessing here, but I’m 99.9 percent certain that he came up with that scene himself. It’s too much of a throwaway for the meticulous Nolan to have conceived. And if that’s not true, then don’t correct me. I want it to be. “Print the legend…” and all that. The other thing of his that I can’t stop thinking about — or rather, hearing — is the way Ledger’s Joker keeps smacking his lips, like he’s still getting used to his disfigured, etched-in-flesh perma-smile. God, between that and his pack-a-day hyena cackle, he’s a million times creepier on the ears than Hannibal Lecter’s fava-beans-and-chianti pfft-fft-fft ever was. You get the sense that his Joker only laughs to keep himself from crying.
You’re absolutely right about Nolan probably being challenged by Ledger. I’ve loved just about every movie Nolan has made (including the always-underrated The Prestige), but he doesn’t strike me as an actor’s director. I think it’s sort of assumed that when you’re in a Christopher Nolan film, you’re tacitly agreeing to be part of a grander vision where showboating is frowned upon, sort of like with Kubrick. Everything has to be just so. Ledger ain’t got time for that nonsense.
You mentioned the champagne glass and the hospital explosion. Both those scenes are great. But they’re great because Ledger adds that extra flourish. Go back and look at the champagne glass scene. When he grabs it, he does it so violently that all the champagne spills out. But Ledger just keeps going when most actors would stop to do the scene again, and he rescues it by looking at the empty glass in disgust, as if it defied him like all of the inept clown-faced goons in his gang. And with the explosion scene, what makes it great isn’t the giant fireball (although it’s awesome). It’s the one charge that didn’t go off. So he keeps pushing the detonator button until the second blast goes off too. Without it, you get the sense the whole thing would have been somehow disappointing to him. Ledger’s playing three-dimensional chess where most actors are merely playing checkers. I get bummed out thinking of all the performances of his we’ll never get to see.
Alfred’s “Some men just want to watch the world burn” Burma thing didn’t bother me. But now that you’ve brought it up, I can’t unhear it the way that you heard it. Damn you, Franich! Caine has so few for-your-consideration moments in the film, how dare you expose their flaws! Still, that scene where he takes back Rachel’s posthumous kiss-off note when he’s delivering Bruce’s breakfast? Perfection. If you have some sort of post-colonial revisionist hot take on that one, keep it to yourself, sir. As for the wannabe Batmen, those slightly out-of-shape weekend vigilantes in homemade capes and cowls, I think more could have been done with that. Especially since Batman talks such a good game about dreaming of a time when Gotham won’t need him anymore. Why not let these chumps take up the job for a while and steal Rachel back from Harvey Dent? That’s right, because Bruce Wayne needs to be miserable. I don’t think he’s a crimefighting hero as much as he is a masochist who will never be able to wash away his guilt, or whatever it is, from the death of his parents. If there was no Joker to fight, he’d be beating himself up in some other way. He takes less joy in being a playboy billionaire than seems humanly possible.
Since you asked, the scene (or scenes) that played differently for me this time around were the ones with Rachel, for sure. As you said, she just seems like a trophy to be won. Something inanimate he passes off to Harvey because he’s too busy saving Gotham. That felt a bit off. And I could have used about 30 fewer instances of Two-Face flipping a coin. We get it, life/fate = chance. Now put the coin away. I remember sort of rolling my eyes at Two-Face’s charred face and eyeball socket the first time I saw the movie. I thought it was a little cheesy in the practical effects department. But I have to say, I really dug it this time around. The jaw tendons and extra-crispy scalp really skeeved me out. The truck flip is still magnificent. The DePalma-esque race to save Rachel and Harvey is virtuoso stuff. And Freeman and Oldman’s performances have aged like fine wine, especially considering how many terrible performances we’ve seen from respected actors in superhero movies in the past 10 years. Nolan may not be an actor’s director, but man does he know how to cast well.
As for where The Dark Knight fits into the superhero canon ranking-wise (it always comes down to ranking with you, doesn’t it?), I guess I’d put it right near the top, along with possibly Wonder Woman, the first Captain America, and the first 12 minutes of Watchmen. What about you? Top five, please.
DARREN: My top three is solid as a rock, specifically a red rock fist. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is my ride-or-die number one, just another epic-fantasy relationship-dramedy/creepy-puppet tree-god Barry Manilow elegy. Closely followed by grody-Christmas classic Batman Returns and Sam Raimi’s ebullient Spider-Man 2. The Dark Knight’s number four, though I think a proper experience requires a paired viewing with Adam West’s kooky-crazy Batman movie.
And I’ll see your “first 12 minutes of a Zack Snyder movie” and raise you one “gigantic misshapen mass of accidental-trilogy bliss,” because Marvel Studios’ run from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 through Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther is a three-part symphony of beautiful destruction, our reigning super-franchise getting wild and freaky and empowering in exciting new artistic directions (even if a lot of the action still looks like green-screen plastic).
But damn it, that means there’s no room for my favorite X-Men movie, the one where Wolverine fights the Yakuza on a bullet train! Or the first half-hour of Wonder Woman, the best burst of world-building creativity to come out of DC’s movie universe since, well, The Dark Knight! There are so, so many superhero movies, Chris, but 10 years later, there’s still life in Nolan’s singular vision. Lots of comic book films lately offer magnificent cosmic visions of digital excess. When it comes to magic tricks, I’d rather watch the Joker make a pencil disappear.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny