This weekend The Dark Knight broke box office records, a remarkable feat for a movie that was not released in May. The reason may well be simple. With The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan has given us a remarkable film that is unlike any superhero movie ever made.
There are those who will say that he has transcended the genre, but as a comic book fan I know this is not true. After all, comic books are capable of great artistic works. What Nolan has done instead is brought Batman back to his roots, as a dark knight who had more in common with pulp heroes such as The Shadow and The Spider than his fellow comic book heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel. The early Batman stories were dark, gritty and full of violence. In the first Joker story alone, The Joker killed four people. In the second story featuring the Harlequin of Hate, he killed seven more. This was the world of the early Batman stories and Nolan has translated that world perfectly to the screen.
Indeed, Heath Ledger's realisation of The Joker on the big screen may be all the more chilling for fans of the comic books, because Ledger has grasped the heart of the character in a way that no actor before him (not Jack Nicholson and certainly not Caesar Romero) ever has. Even for people not familiar with the comic books, Ledger's performance of The Joker must go down as one of the most terrifying in film history. His Joker does not commit murder and mayhem for profit or an agenda or any rational reason. As Alfred, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler observes, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." This makes The Joker all the more frightening, for his acts of terror simply cannot be predicted.
While much is made of Heath Ledger's performance, it would be unfair not to state that the whole cast of this film gives what may be the best performances of their careers. Christian Bale stands out as Bruce Wayne and The Batman, pondering if perhaps if it is time for The Batman to retire with the arrival of earnest, new district attorney Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Harvey Dent, the crusading DA who has his own share of darkness to deal with, Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman give their best as Batman's allies, Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, CEO of Wayne Enterprises and Batman's armourer. Gary Oldman, after long being the consummate heavy (after all, he played Sid Vicious, Dracula, and Dr. Zachary Smith), proves again he can play a good guy by reprising his role as Lt. Jim Gordon.
There is no shortage of action in The Dark Knight. The movie includes some of the most thrilling action scenes of late to grace the screen, including a three way chase between The Batman, The Joker, and a Gotham City paddywagon. Another highpoint is the first meeting between the Harlequin of Hate and The Caped Crusader at, of all places, a fund raiser held in Wayne Tower. And the film is undoubtedly cinematic in scope and epic in scale. Some scenes were shot using IMAX technology. One scene will particularly stand out in viewers' minds, as Batman stands atop a skyscraper (possibly the tallest in Gotham) looking out over the city, right before leaping downwards, his bat cape unfurling like wings.
The Dark Knight is ultimately much more than a superhero movie. In many respects, this is very much a crime drama, with more in common with the pulps of old and movies such as The Road to Perdition (itself based on a graphic novel) than the Spider-Man. It is definitely not a movie for children. Not only might they be disturbed by The Joker's acts of violence (at one point he kills a mobster with a pencil....), but they probably would get lost in what is a complex, deeply psychological plot.
There are those who will chalk up the movie's already incredible box office to the death of Heath Ledger (The Joker was his last completed role). I suspect it is much more than that. Batman is perhaps the superhero with the most visceral appeal, an ordinary man (albeit a rich one) who has built himself to the peak of perfection and chosen to fight crime. Is it any wonder that in 1966 and 1989, and now perhaps again, the world was in the grip of Batmania? But more than that, it may be because Christopher Nolan has given us a truly remarkable film. The Dark Knight is a true epic, a crime drama in which the hero wears a bat suit and the villain is a psychopathic clown. Alongside such recent entries as Iron Man, it certainly shows what superhero movies can be. In fact, I dare say, The Dark Knight may be the greatest superhero movie of all time.