2008 gave us an innovative blockbuster phenomenon. A movie that broke boundaries, raised the bar, and, in truth, had it been in any other genre, would have swept the awards. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was so good, and the performances in it so spectacular, it still managed to win an Oscar.
Ten years on – and in light of the release of Avengers: Infinity War, which is clearly one of the biggest comic book movies in history, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to The Dark Knight and reflect on it’s impact. And in particular, to remember the late Heath Ledger.
The Dark Knight is a massive film.
The expectations and buzz around the movie were huge – bigger than any comic book movie before it. Nolan had already made Batman Begins, and people were excited to see this universe develop. Then the buzz began to leak out about the late Heath Ledger’s Joker performance, heightened by the news of his tragic death months before the film’s release.
I remember seeing the trailer, and the first glimpse of Ledger. It was mesmerising. Even in the two minute trailer, he dominates. You could see it was different to any movie about a comic book character, and arguably the most terrifying villain ever seen.
And the film delivered – the Joker dominates. Ledger’s nomination for an Oscar was sensational, as he was only the second actor in a comic book movie to be nominated for an Oscar. But without doubt, Ledger deserved to win the award he won posthumously at the 2009 Oscars.
This year, I watched a documentary about Heath Ledger – which is so far detached from the Joker it’s unrecognisable – and then watched the movie again. Looking back 10 years, disconnected from the hype and emotion surrounding the movie’s release, the true measure of the performance hit me, leading to this simple conclusion:
Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a masterpiece.
They often say a sign of a great piece of acting is that you don’t see the actor, only the character. This is undoubtedly true of this role. When I watch the film I don’t even think of Ledger, I just see the Joker. He inhabits the role, he IS the Joker.
The work Ledger put into the part was phenomenal – staying in a hotel room for 2 months writing a Joker diary, figuring out his voice, his mannerisms, his character, his personality. He did his own make up, and was given freedom to improvise by Nolan. He truly created and lived this role.
Often with iconic roles, you have actors who embody the role so much they define it for whoever follows. Christopher Reeve as Superman. Sean Connery as James Bond. Heath Ledger undoubtedly achieved this with the Joker.
The Dark Knight is also unique, in that although it’s a movie about comic book characters, it transcended and moved beyond it’s genre. It isn’t just a great comic book movie it’s a great movie, period. It’s a gangster/crime film, it’s a psychological thriller, it’s a character-driven thriller.
Naturally, with a movie as big and successful as this, it’s legacy was huge. A lot of its influence can be seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s impact can be seen in the earlier Marvel Studios movies, all of which were more realistic, down to earth, and plot driven. It also encouraged Marvel to do what they do now, and give individual directors creative freedom with their movies – even in a shared universe.
Ironically, The Dark Knight may have been a curse for DC movies – because they made the fatal mistake of thinking the thing which made The Dark Knight successful was it being dark and gritty. But it wasn’t. It was because it got to the heart and truth of Batman and his world – which is dark, gritty, and grounded in reality.
Wonder Woman learned the true lesson of The Dark Knight – to get to the heart of the character, their truth, their world, their story, and build a tone, a story, and a world around that. Richard Donner’s Superman – from which Nolan took inspiration for his Batman trilogy – pioneered this approach.
Above all though, The Dark Knight was a huge event in movie history. It raised the bar when it came to standards of filmmaking, especially for comic book films. It raised the bar in terms of acting performances in comic book films. It raised the bar for actors playing villains. It was a game changer. It shifted what people expected. The MCU has a lot to thank Batman for.
After The Dark Knight, comic book movies began to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It created a hunger, a thirst, for more high quality movies about comic book characters – and clearly opened the door for Marvel – and eventually DC – to expand their cinematic universe.
I hope, as time goes on, maybe those who are not comic book fans, will began to recognise The Dark Knight for what it truly is – one of the greatest movies of all time, containing one of the great acting performances of all time. A movie which transcends genre and time, and will stand up decades from now, as a great piece of cinematic art.