In honor of the release of the new Christopher Nolan-produced Superman movie, we’ve decided to examine all eight of Nolan’s films as a director, from Following to The Dark Knight Rises. Each day, We Minored in Film’s own Julianne Ramsey will discuss and examine one of Nolan’s movies, leading up to the June 14th release of Man of Steel.
I am going to attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, because I think Nolan’s films are best enjoyed without prior knowledge of the paths they take. Yet there may be times in which I want to talk about a certain twist or plot development, and I will do so. What that basically boils down to is: Be warned. Spoilers may be present, but they will be minimal.
Film: The Dark Knight (2008)
If Batman Begins proved that Christopher Nolan could make a big-budget art film that could bring in audiences, 2008’s The Dark Knight proved he could make a critically adored, blockbuster smash that many call the greatest superhero film of all time. The Dark Knight had several things working in its favor upon its release: Batman Begins had done well at the box office, but had become a huge hit on DVD and as a rental property. Early images of Heath Ledger’s approach to the iconic Joker had the internet practically salivating in anticipation, but it was (not to be too callous here, but it’s true) the tragic death of Heath Ledger several months before the film’s release guaranteed all eyes would be on Nolan’s next foray into Gotham City. The result was a film that was both brooding and thrilling, stuffed with both action and solid character moments, and the highest grossing film of 2008. The film is dark, darkly comic, stuffed to the brim with well-drawn characters, and plays as much like a crime thriller/ Greek tragedy hybrid as it does a comic book film. For better or for worse, The Dark Knight became the standard against which all other comic book films would be judged and the template for almost every super hero film that followed in its wake.
Upon the film’s release, it was almost impossible to be objective about the film’s quality. Heath Ledger’s death made critiquing his performance seem almost in poor taste (he even won an Oscar posthumously for the performance) and the film felt so new and exciting, it was difficult to see the film as anything other than flawless.
Looking at it now, I have to admit it’s my least favorite of the Dark Knight Trilogy. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s’ a near-masterpiece, because I still find the film to be an amazing accomplishment. However, my favorite remains Batman Begins, because it placed the focus so squarely upon Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight Rises, plot holes and all (which aren’t as extensive as people make them out to be, but more on that later), returns the focus back upon the titular Dark Knight. This film places the focus more upon the Joker and Gothan D.A. Harvey Dent aka Gotham’s White Knight contrasted against Bruce’s Dark Knight (who anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the Batman universe knows will become Two-Face).
Bruce Wayne spends the majority of the film chasing after The Joker’s coattails. The Joker begins to fixate on Batman, challenging him with increasingly deadly moral dilemmas until Bruce Wayne sees no alternative but to relinquish his Dark Knight persona.
Check out the scene in which Bruce and Alfred discuss the challenges be faces below:
It isn’t until the film’s last third, following a loss that affects both Harvey and Bruce that Batman begins to share the spotlight with the villains. Beyond that, I think the scene near the film’s end involving two separate boats and explosives, while exciting and suspenseful on first viewing, drags during repeat viewings. The film still works quite beautifully, but not as well, for me at least, as the two films that sandwich it. I know I’m in the minority here, but I can only report on how I feel about the films.
During my discussion of Batman Begins, I referenced a Bruce Wayne character trait that continues to haunt him throughout the trilogy: his tendency to underestimate threats. In that film, it had to do with the League of Shadows. Here, it’s The Joker, who Wayne views as a secondary threat, because he remains focused on bringing down the Gotham City mafia. It’s only later, after The Joker has practically ripped Gotham City to shreds and Bruce Wayne has also suffered extreme loss that he finally resorts to drastic actions to stop him.
It would be impossible to discuss The Dark Knight without referencing Heath Ledger’s Joker. A Glasgow-smiled psychopath, with garrish black-and-white clown makeup that seems to deteriorate a little more every time he’s reenters the frame, Ledger is mesmerizing. He has a cruel, gallow’s humor, but he’s never the campy clown of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman. His humor is a perfect mix of the audaciously darkly and the purely horrifying.
Check out a scene below:
For all my disappointment about the lack of emphasis placed on Bruce Wayne, it’s easy to understand why The Joker seems to dominate the film. Whenever he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him.
He acts as a sociologist without conscience, setting up moral dilemmas for Gotham’s citizens with potentially fatal consequences. He creates such a dilemma for Batman, not knowing it is Bruce Wayne is behind the mask and the result is a far crueler dilemma than even The Joker is aware– with the result being that whatever decision Bruce Wayne makes, his actions are meaningless. By the end, the film is a battle for Gotham’s morality between stalwart Comissioner Gordon (yep, he becomes a comissioner here), crazed Harvey Dent, and Batman. The film has a lot going on, with several plot strands that begin to merge as the film nears its climax, and what a climax it is.
I remember seeing the film at a midnight showing, and there was a lot if discussion as to whether or not Ledger would be able to be viewed on screen without the knowledge of his death staying in the forefront of the viewer’s mind. For me, I was conscious of that knowledge for his first scene only. After that, I never thought about it again until the closing credits, when his name flashed upon the screen. Ledger’s performance is compelling and flawless, creating an iconic persona from a character whose iconic status was already never in question. He might not have been nominated for an Oscar had it not been for his untimely death, but that would have been a flaw of the Academy, not his performance. His Oscar was well-deserved. I’m just doubtful he would have received it had it not been for his unfortunate death. As soon as the credits rolled following that midnight showing, I wanted to watch the film again. I was elated and excited, my pulse was up, I had the most pleased smile on my face. It was everything I hoped it would be. For all the issues I find in the film upon subsequent viewings (and they’re really minor issues), I didn’t have them during that first showing. For me, cloud nine was about eighteen clouds behind me.
This film launched Christopher Nolan into another stratosphere as a filmmaker. With the success of this film and his next film, Inception, Nolan proved that multiplex audiences were willing to see a summer blockbuster made by a filmmaker who assumed they were as intelligent as he. I wish I could say it brought on a whole new wave of intelligent, character-driven blockbusters, but alas, it did not. At least we have Nolan still willing to experiment and choose that intelligence comes before spectacle.
Check out the film’s trailer below:
Next up in The Great Christopher Nolan Film Re-Watch is Inception, in which a spinning top has never been more debated except for that tim…nope, never.