Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the director’s follow-up to Batman Begins, is perhaps the quintessential example of a sequel that examines the qualities that made its predecessor great, hones in on those, and then sets its sights even higher, becoming something completely of its own.
There are a lot of people who are of the mindset that The Dark Knight is vastly superior to Batman Begins. I find that to be entirely untrue: if Batman Begins hadn’t been what it was, The Dark Knight could never have been made. And I don’t mean that in the obvious, “if the original was never made there wouldn’t be a sequel,” way. I mean, literally, that if Christopher Nolan had done Batman Begins differently, The Dark Knight could never have exceeded typical superhero shtick and leapt instantly to the top of societal consciousness.
Batman Begins set the foundation for Nolan’s Batman. Nolan knew he wanted to make a darker, grittier, more serious and grounded Batman. And so, in order for Nolan’s Batman to become a regular part of our society, the director needed to recognize Batman’s previously silly comic book portrayals and pay homage to it before he could move forward.
Not until the middle of Batman Begins do we begin to see his transformation from playboy Bruce Wayne to superhero Batman, well, begin. And with that, it’s as though Nolan says, “Alright, I can admit to you that a man dressing as a bat and fighting crime is somewhat silly, but as we move forward with this film, you’ll begin to see why you should be taking Batman seriously.” The film’s somewhat comic tone allows us to more easily make our transformation from non believer to believer. And we have. Thus ends the setup for The Dark Knight; now for the film.
The Dark Knight is a film that is now intimately woven into our cultural fabric. It is the standard that all other comic book films are judged against. The film tackles relevant social and political issues, without Nolan ever making a true argument for which side to take. Nolan simply wants to tell his Batman tale as he sees it in his head.
2008’s Gotham is unsettlingly real. It could pass for most any Big City, USA. It’s a place where the good guys become the bad guys, and the bad guys become even worse. And it’s because of this reality that the film has taken up such space in our memory. The Dark Knight isn’t so much about a man who dresses as a Bat as it is about a city so corrupt that requires such a man’s services. And so Nolan has built a world where we not only accept that there is a vigilante dressed as a bat, we embrace it.
Beginning shortly after Batman Begins left off, The Dark Knight starts by introducing us to a maniacally brilliant, dark, and deranged villain in Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Joker has been busy in Gotham, robbing banks and killing people left and right. To what end, we don’t know. Some people just want to watch the world burn, and the Joker is one of them.
Having already recruited Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) for help, Batman (Christian Bale) brings new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) — Gotham’s White Knight — on board in trying to rid Gotham of its criminal underbelly. What they discover is that the corruption in Gotham has now fallen almost entirely under the responsibility of the Joker, who insists, “It’s all part of the plan.”
This plan includes issuing an ultimatum: every day that Batman continues to hide his identity, people will die. And no one is off-limits. Cops, lawyers, elected officials, innocent people, criminals, the Joker doesn’t discriminate. Soon he is captured and put into protective custody, but escapes his holding cell with a clever plan involving a homemade bomb. The Joker is again on the loose, and it is up to Batman to bring him down.
Placing his attacks squarely under the responsibility of Batman, the Joker is able to turn Gotham against the Caped Crusader and make sure that Bruce Wayne’s days as a vigilante crime fighter are numbered.
The theme of The Dark Knight is chaos, and it’s most ruthless agent is the Joker. It’s clear that this film is as much — or perhaps even more — about the Joker as it is about Batman. Heath Ledger brings such charisma and depth to the role that you’d be hard pressed to think he exists solely in the comic world. He is an intellectual terrorist, bringing anarchy to a city already on shaky ground. He is even able to corrupt the supposedly incorruptible Harvey Dent.
The White Knight to Wayne’s Dark Knight, Dent represents the good of Gotham. But once the only thing in his life that he cares about is gone, he tries to take vengeance on those responsible, namely Lieutenant Gordon and Batman. Dent’s descent into the evil that belies him, with his freshly burned face, is incredible to watch. It’s just unfortunate that he dies and so won’t reprise his role as the main villain in The Dark Knight Rises. But I digress.
Director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s clever use of a new color palette — various blue and purple hues with loads of black — paint a picture that informs us that this film is a different beast than Batman Begins. It continues the storyline that was laid out at the end of that film, but The Dark Knight is a film all its own, one that is cold and dark and compelling. And Hans Zimmer’s second go-round at the composer’s stand is even more nuanced and complex than in Begins.
Without a doubt, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the king of all comic book films to this point. It has transcended genre and taken a spot among the stars as a wildly entertaining, deeply complex, and wholly unsettling crime thriller. With an Oscar-winning turn from Heath Ledger and notable performances across the board by its stellar cast, The Dark Knight earns its reputation and has set the bar astronomically — and probably unrealistically — high for the last chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, which hits theaters July 20.