Written by J.T. Johnson
Superhero films have dominated the big screen since the late 1990s. There are a few notable moments that established the genre’s dominance. 1998’s “Blade” showed Marvel that there may be a future on the big screen. In 2000, “X-Men” saw a mainstream studio take the genre seriously for the first time since 1989’s “Batman” and in 2002, “Spider-Man” exploded onto the screen and suddenly, every studio in Hollywood was scrambling to find which heroes they had the film rights to.
Yet, even then, they hadn’t quite nailed the genre yet. While films like “Spider-Man 2” and “X2: X-Men United” continued the success of those franchises, real stinkers such as “Elektra”, “Hulk” and “Daredevil” revealed that Hollywood was a little lost in the dark. Then, 2008 arrived and changed everything.
Two influential films of the genre came out that year. First, “Iron Man” established the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been going strong ever since with the release of 20 films over the last ten years. The other influential film is a little DC film called “The Dark Knight”.
In 2005, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan brought back Batman in a big way with the amazing (and slightly underrated) “Batman Begins”. The movie retold Batman’s origin story and reestablished the Caped Crusader’s big screen presence after the critical failure that was 1997’s “Batman & Robin”. While it was a success, “Begins” actually didn’t do as much business as one might think with the movie only bringing in $375.2 million on a $150 million budget.
Still, that was more money than “Batman & Robin” and the movie was helped by great critical reviews and a fanbase that felt that the filmmakers had finally gotten it right. In other words, Warner Bros. approved the sequel with all key filmmakers and cast returning for the sequel.
The new movie would be called “The Dark Knight”. The villain, as suggested at the end of “Begins”, would be the Joker. One of the first pieces of information released about the film was that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker. I must admit that I was one of plenty of people who didn’t understand why Nolan had hired Ledger for this iconic role.
It was similar, in a way, to the situation in the ‘80s when Warner Bros. had announced that Michael Keaton would play Batman. Most people knew him from comedies and that meant that even in those pre-internet days, fans called foul. They were worried that with the hiring of Keaton, director Tim Burton was going to turn the new “Batman” into a comedy.
Thankfully, Keaton was fantastic and the film was a dark take on the Caped Crusader. Just like the fanbase in the ‘80s, fan’s nerves in 2007 and 2008 were calmed by the movie’s marketing. First, they released an image of what Ledger looked like as a more sinister Joker, with a Glasgow smile and paint rather than being scarred by chemicals. Then, a teaser trailer was released only highlighting the bat symbol as we heard Ledger’s Joker for the first time before a Joker card slammed through the deteriorating symbol.
From that point on, most criticism around Ledger’s casting was muted. Then, the best viral marketing campaign I’ve ever seen began on the internet. Websites were set up to promote the film such as a fake campaign site for Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. There were also games for audience members to play in the real world in order to reveal more images from the film.
By the time the first trailer hit theaters, we were already pumped for the film thanks to the viral online marketing campaign. On July 14, 2008, the film had its premiere in New York City before being released on July 18, 2008, and the film became a phenomenon! Critics hailed it as not just a good superhero film, but a good film overall and one of the best of the year.
What I remember thinking was that Hollywood had finally gotten a superhero film completely right. Nolan also proved that superhero films didn’t have to just be disposable entertainment. If taken seriously, the film could be just as good as any other flick out there.
Ledger inevitably stole the show as the Joker, completely losing himself into the role. Sadly, he would not get to see the fruits of his labor. On January 22, 2008, Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. While his life may have been cut short, Ledger’s performances live on, especially his turn as the Joker that posthumously earned him several awards including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the 81st Academy Awards.
As I watched the film again for the purposes of this article, I couldn’t help but marvel at how well it has stood the test of time. Before I go on, I’ll go ahead and say that there are some minor nuisances. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about Bale’s Batman voice which, for some reason or another, has never really bothered me.
No, I’m talking about other things such as the fact that I actually preferred Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in “Begins” over Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Dark Knight”. I just feel that Gyllenhaal is a bit too bubbly in the role and she doesn’t really do much until her character’s untimely demise at the hands of the Joker. The only other minor criticism I have is the occasional piece of corny dialogue that pops up like a sore thumb, especially when they have Batman monologuing… Batman never needs to monologue. Ever.
Beyond that, I was just as hooked watching the film today as I was back in 2008. The Joker’s thrilling bank heist, the amazing Bat-Pod chase sequence and the climactic ending still hit home. That’s even more impressive once you realize that these sequences predate ten years of heavy and constant superhero content from everyone including Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox.
While Ledger is still the major highlight of the movie, extra credit should also go to Bale for his performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Yes, there’s the voice but he’s really the only actor to really create two distinct characters. He also has one of the strongest support casts in history including Gary Oldman as the weary Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as the dependable Lucius Fox and Michael Caine as the loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth.
Sometimes, when I revisit a film, the movie in question may lose some of its appeal over time. Thankfully, this is not one of those times. Nolan was smart due to the fact that he was more focused on making a good movie and one that still transcends the superhero genre. To put it another way, “The Dark Knight” is still the best superhero film ever made and to celebrate it, you should definitely attempt to revisit what is already a modern classic!