That the film is a fan-favorite has been well-established since its release in 2008. The movie made more than a billion dollars in the worldwide box-office, cemented Christopher Nolan’s reputation as a dour but beloved pop-artist auteur, and it left a legacy of dark color palettes and nihilistic action cinema that remains prominent throughout Hollywood franchise entertainment (most notably in Zack Snyder’s DC universe).
Add to that mix, the tragic death of Heath Ledger, which followed closely on the heels of his inspired and career-defining performance as the Joker. He won a posthumous Oscar for his work, and Ledger, as much as Nolan, has secured the legacy of The Dark Knight as a modern American superhero masterpiece.
Evidence of that legacy is evident everywhere one looks. Just google The Dark Knight and Best Superhero Movie and you’ll see dozens of people making that case.
Vulture has lately been celebrating the film too. At that site, earlier this month, Abraham Riesman named The Dark Knight the 3rd best superhero film since Blade. Riesman said the film’s faults pale in comparison to “Christopher Nolan’s masterful cinematic brutalism,” and called it a “master class in crafting beats.”
Then this week, Bilge Ebiri declared the film to be the 2nd best film directed by Christopher Nolan, coming in only behind Dunkirk. Ebiri called The Dark Knight “one of the most influential movies of our time,” one that “doesn’t shy away from tackling philosophical, moral, and political issues.”
The Dark Knight has become an object of reverence in American culture, and as reverent critics and film watchers continue to build the myth of The Dark Knight, it’s becoming ever-more difficult to get an objective look at the thing itself. First, though, know that I like The Dark Knight. I enjoy it a great deal. But lovers of the film, critics especially, need to ask ourselves whether that which is embraced deserves its place in the canon. So, does The Dark Knight deserve the cinematic and cultural crown it wears? I don’t think it does.
The reason The Dark Knight works is, plain and simple, Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan’s single great achievement of The Dark Knight was Ledger as the Joker. He was an odd choice at the time, to be sure, but it was a risk that paid off.
The Joker, as Ledger envisions him, is joyfully violent, intellectually creative, philosophically engaged. Joker calls himself an “agent of chaos,” and Ledger’s ability to capture chaos and nihilism is at once terrifying and compelling. It’s a once-in-a-generation performance, untamable and transcendent. Ledger’s work has not decayed, and forever deserves to be remembered.
Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan didn’t seem to realize what he had in Ledger. Joker is the lifeblood of The Dark Knight, and he disappears before the third act even gets underway.
When I first watched The Dark Knight, I could remember little else that happened in the film other than Heath Ledger and the Joker. Ledger provides so much gravity on-screen, is such a force of attraction for audiences, that everything that happened around him simply blurred out of focus. At the time I considered that fact a sign of Ledger’s success. But today, I think we should recognize that, as great as Ledger is as Joker, Nolan doesn’t know quite what to do with him.
Think about what the Joker does, in The Dark Knight. He is an agent of chaos, who wants to bring Gotham City down, primarily by showing the people that the values they hold, and the vigilante they worship, are wrong. He wants to introduce a little anarchy in their lives. Okay. How does he do it?
First, Joker rigs a game that requires Batman to choose one life over another: save the up-and-coming DA Harvey Dent or Batman’s long-held love, Rachel Dawes. Then, Joker rigs a game that requires Gotham to choose one life over another: let a boat full of citizens kill a boat full of prisoners, or let both the boats die. Finally, Joker rigs a game that requires Harvey Dent to choose one life over another: kill the Joker or kill the Batman. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result may be a sign of madness, but it’s also a sign of uninspired cinema.
Perhaps this redundancy is a sign of Nolan’s “cinematic brutalism,” as Rieisman says, demonstrating the Joker’s commitment to putting morality to the test via brutal death or death scenarios. But more likely, it’s just a lack of ideas in the story and script, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer. Joker’s repetition is not the only problem in the writing (it’s full of well-recognized plot holes that are generally overlooked because coolness), but it’s the most significant.
This problem is manageable when it comes to the Joker’s plot line, because Ledger carries the chaos on his back, pushing the thematic overtness to the side and centering his own work. But remember that the Joker disappears from the final act of The Dark Knight, which suddenly becomes a story about Two-Face’s attempt to kill Commissioner Gordon’s son.
Yeah. Remember that? It’s not interesting. It shouldn’t exist. It just gets Batman to the inevitable point when the city turns against him, shifting Batman into the hero Gotham needs, but doesn’t deserve (an interesting idea! Would that it were fleshed out!) Why there is a 35-minute post-Joker act in The Dark Knight is a complete mystery, topped only by how the film remains beloved despite this obvious dead weight.
Without Ledger, the dynamism of The Dark Knight almost completely disappears. Audiences are left with thematic concerns of the film hovering around an emotional climax (Nolan’s second weakest attribute) that pales in comparison to everything that precedes it. Wrapping up the central hero-to-villain arc before the climax of the film simply doesn’t make sense.
Those thematic concerns can largely be summed up as “post 9/11” concerns. While each of these interests (and there are many: security v freedom, spying on the public, the nature of evil, vigilantism, the failures of the justice system) is worthy of superhero/sci-fi treatment, The Dark Knight stumbles under the weight of all these threadless topical interests.
Should Batman spy on the the public in order to catch a terrorist? That’s an important question, and one that deserves considerate observation. But Nolan has no time for that, only an off-the-cuff line of dialogue meant to introduce the controversial topic and quell it at the same time. The topical nature of the films scene-by-scene themes adds a layer of adultishness to The Dark Knight (it’s sometimes described as grown up superhero cinema), but that lack of thematic commitment adds to the weak story the film tells.
It’s possible that these surface-level philosophy discussions are meant to be provocative, raising issues that are on the minds of viewers, even if they don’t offer particular insights. That’s a classic tactic of fantasy and sci-fi films, and one that I can appreciate. But The Dark Knight confuses ideas with captivation.
Instead of story, Nolan depends upon the tonal seriousness that defines his cinema. Such seriousness itself doesn’t deserve praise or criticism; Nolan makes serious movies about masculine characters who contain little humor. That’s just the palette he prefers. But The Dark Knight is so over-burdened with serious political and social themes as to make each of these matters more distracting than enlightening.
What would have helped The Dark Knight escape this post 9/11 thematic taxation is a narrative that permitted Nolan to dive deep in his real pursuits: narrative structure and cinematic technique. Nolan’s two great films, Dunkirk and Interstellar, do just that. Interstellar is narratively winding and explores the relativity of time and space as it exists in the universe and in the lives of his characters. Dunkirk is short and simple in story but benefits from Nolan’s three-piece near-adjacent construction. Both stories contain a core narrative tool that anchors Nolan the director as he pursues his more ambitious technical interests.
Such is not the case in The Dark Knight, which creates the last problem for this film: considering how formal Christopher Nolan is as a writer and director, his work in the Dark Knight series is quite static, even boring. And even in the trilogy, The Dark Knight is the least interesting, cinematically. While original shot composition isn’t a priority for Nolan, film structure and action is. Inception is probably his most interesting bit of action-to-story construction. In that film, Nolan layered action sequences into a story built around a system of different worlds with different rules, building new satisfying action possibilities with each layer.
The Dark Knight affords no such opportunity. Instead, Nolan presents a straight-forward tortured superhero making interesting, if expected, choices to save a city threatened by a bad guy. Notice that when critics and fans share effusive praise of The Dark Knight, rarely do they actually talk about Batman, or Christian Bale. The man at the middle of the movie is a bland in character as the filmmaking of his director. The action sequences of The Dark Knight are not particularly memorable (neither Riesman nor Ebiri make mention of the major action scenes), and the big sequences are not particularly captivating, cinematically.
What Nolan does do well is create striking visuals meant to be viewed as still images. There are many beautiful visual moments in The Dark Knight that Nolan holds his camera on; a statuesque quality that invades his film and remains imprinted on the mind. This strength of Nolan’s has served him across his films, and results perhaps in part because of his adoration of film as a medium (he hates digital), and his proclivity for iconic, original, fascinating images over action. Action is Nolan’s weakest directorial skill.
This is one of the less acknowledged facts of Christopher Nolan’s work over the past decade, though it certainly was noted by critics when The Dark Knight was released. David Edelstein, for example, wrote that “Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action,” while David Bordwell, described the films simply as “unintelligible.”
With the exception of the rotating hotel room fight in Inception, Nolan has shown a lackluster capacity for creating specific and intricate action and fight scenes. His best work, Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Prestige, are notably unconcerned with large action set pieces. Their interests are much more aligned with Nolan’s obsessions: narrative, puzzles and character development via the breakdown of masculine expectations.
The Dark Knight contains only the minimum interest in these matters. What it does have is a mesmerizing performance from a brilliant actor, and a competent execution of thematically rich idea storm. Christopher Nolan has directed a number of excellent pictures. But I think it’s time to stop counting The Dark Knight among them.
I tend to agree with Jim Emerson’s assessment on The Dark Knight‘s relatively sloppy and uninspired construction. If Nolan wants to be among cinema’s great artists, the details matter, and the details in The Dark Knight are a disaster. Here’s a very-deep dive video on The Dark Knight and action editing, if you’re in to that sort of detail.
Watching the film again, it’s umistakable that it is Ledger that pushes The Dark Knight to its heights. And those heights are undeniable. There’s much to love in this movie, including several memorable, surprising scenes. The opening sequence bank heist is perhaps Nolan’s best work in the movie, introducing the darkness of The Dark Knight through brutal executions, while providing a template for the playfulness that will define the Joker’s chaos. Likewise, Joker’s scene with the crime bosses, in which he disappears a pencil into the brains of some goon, is one of the great moments in schlock. I love that moment because it shows a director and actor working in harmony. It also shows that Nolan can direct with pace and story in the front end, and carry a surprise in his pocket. But, again, it all comes back to Ledger, and his constrained wildness.
I mention these scenes as a reminder that the point of this exercise is not to dump on The Dark Knight. It’s to critically reassess the narrative that we have consumed for the past decade: that The Dark Knight is one of the greats, that it belongs at the top of our lists, and it shows a director at the peak of his craft. These claims don’t bear out. The Dark Knight will remain a beloved piece of American cinema, certainly, but the problems it carries should not be overlooked simply because the movie is really damn cool.
–Christopher Zumski Finke