I think it’s a stirring testament to how rabid Christopher Nolan’s fans are that if I had more readers, I guarantee you people would be outraged that I’ve “disrespected” this film… by having it among my top ten favorite superhero films of all time. Just think about that for a moment.
#9: The Dark Knight (2008)
First and foremost, The Dark Knight is an unbelievably well-made film. Despite clocking in at 152 minutes, this film doesn’t really feel that long thanks to its brilliant pacing. There’s just always something “happening” in this film. It never lets up, but it also somehow avoids the trap of becoming fatiguing as a result. The characters and situations are complex and gradually developed, the tone is much more three-dimensional than its given credit for (still a bit dark for my taste, but not as monotone as some claim), and the acting is just absolutely brilliant. In short: this is a really, really well-made film.
One thing I will forever respect Christopher Nolan for is what he does with stunts and visual effects. 99% of the things you see in his films that make you say, “Okay, that had to be computer generated”? Nope. Nolan is notorious for avoiding computer-generated effects whenever it is practically possible to do so. Although I’m not on the “computer effects = bad” bandwagon (we’ll get more into why on one of the forthcoming films on this list), The Dark Knight is really a brilliant example of traditional filmmaking at its best, and that’s something I really can’t overlook.
This is not to say that Christopher Nolan is flawless. My biggest frustration with The Dark Knight and (moreso) Batman Begins was that you really couldn’t tell what was going on in a lot of the fight scenes. I know his legions of fans will defend this as an intentional, “stylistic” choice, but it’s really quite distracting and not at all appropriate for a superhero film. It’s worth noting that Nolan’s approach to this gradually improved throughout the series, reaching its high point in The Dark Knight Rises, which left very little to the imagination in this arena.
I hope it won’t come as news to anyone that far and away the most outstanding thing about this film was Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. I have to admit, I’ve never particularly cared for the character before. I wasn’t as impressed with Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman (1989) as everyone else seems to be. I tended to enjoy his character in Batman: The Animated Series (voiced by Mark Hamill), but didn’t really see that character translating well into live-action. Indeed, Nolan went back to the comics to find a darker interpretation of the Joker, drawing heavily from The Killing Joke. And Heath Ledger just absolutely nailed the part. Although Christian Bale is probably the best Batman we’ve seen in a live-action film, Ledger completely stole the show in The Dark Knight. He had at least three iconic moments that I can think of, and that’s being conservative with the label.
One of the most enduring refrains of this film is the Joker’s query, “Why so serious?” This could actually double as a succinct description of some fans’ reservations about Nolan’s Dark Knight: it is quite intentionally dark. I actually think these films are much more tonally diverse than they’re given credit for. The major beats these films strike seem to be traditionally “badass” moments (both for Batman and each film’s villains), wry humor, and fairly serious drama. I don’t find these films especially depressing or “hopeless” as some do. My problems lie elsewhere.
The flaws I find in Nolan’s vision of Batman are in his interpretation of Batman’s character. I find his three-film-long contention that Bruce Wayne cannot be psychologically healthy and Batman at the same time a serious reinterpretation of the character, and one which writes off the vast majority of the character’s history. In the comics (and animated series, and even Batman Forever), Bruce Wayne is able to move on from his parents’ death to a certain extent (it’s still a huge motivating factor for him), and experience new sources of tension and conflict. In Nolan’s world, Bruce Wayne can either be happy or Batman. (Or, in the first bit of The Dark Knight Rises, neither.) This isn’t necessarily a flaw, because Christopher Nolan’s world is separate from other continuities.
But therein lies my fear. Because these films were exceptional, it’s natural for a lot of people to consider them the “definitive” interpretation of Batman. I think this is a grave mistake, as the franchise has a rich and complex history, much of which directly contradicts Nolan’s reading of the character. And the last thing I want is a bunch of Nolan wannabes making every Batman film from now on, when Joss Whedon just showed us how well an unironic take on these stories works. (Shockingly, comic book films can be good and unabashedly based on comic books at the same time.)
That’s hardly my only problem with Christopher Nolan’s vision, but it is my biggest one. It still infuriates me that Rachel Dawes (here played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, previously played by Katie Holmes) exists. That Nolan felt he had to invent a character, and a pretty pointless one at that, to serve as the love interest in the first two films when Batman’s history is full of so many strong women with complex relationships with the Caped Crusader will never cease to confuse me. Worse, he actually compounds the problem in The Dark Knight by making Rachel the subject of a love triangle involving Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. Moreover, she is basically the entire reason Harvey turns into Two-Face. I really hate to harp on this point, but characters who previously didn’t exist should not be this large a part of two main characters’ lives!
I already discussed this in greater detail in my review of The Dark Knight Rises, but it is again worth noting that the politics of this film are awkward at best. During the height of the U.S.’s debate over the privacy and due process issues associated with wiretapping, Nolan has Batman able to spy on every single cellular telephone in Gotham. Not only did the politics of this leave me feeling perturbed at best, it demonstrated an element of Batman’s character that Nolan completely failed to incorporate: his renown as the “world’s greatest detective.” In these films, Batman comes off more as a moodier version of James Bond, relying mostly on his gadgets and right hook than his investigative talents.
Again, this is a great film. Ledger’s performance as the Joker alone would’ve carried this thing to huge success, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. The other major source of this film was The Long Halloween, the source of the triangular relationship between Batman, James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart.) Their performances were terrific, as were two of the most overqualified supporting actors you’ll ever see in a superhero film, Michael Caine (as Alfred Pennyworth) and Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox.) And everything is held together by another excellent score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
From a pure filmmaking standpoint, this should pretty clearly be much higher on the list than I have it, if not at the top of the list. (I would probably reserve that spot for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), but it’s very open to debate.) As a series, Nolan’s Batman films have an essential element which separates truly great superhero films from the rest. These films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, to me are still the Holy Trinity representing what we get when good filmmakers are given control of superhero films. What makes them so spectacular is that they’re helmed by filmmakers who have a very clear idea of what they want to do, and are exceptionally good at bringing that vision onto the screen. In Raimi and Singer’s cases, I happened to love (for the most part) what they wanted to do. In Nolan’s case, I happen to have quite a few reservations. But that doesn’t stop me from recognizing that this is an exceptionally well-made film.