Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Phenomenon That is The Dark Knight

This weekend The Dark Knight made another $75,630,000. Its total now stands at $314,245,000. That broke the record the biggest 10 day opening. It is also just short of the summer's highest gross so far, that of Iron Man, which stands at $314,905,000. In other words, in a day or two The Dark Knight will be the top grossing movie of the summer.

The question of course is why The Dark Knight is doing so phenomenally well. Many will point to the death of Heath Ledger. And there can be no doubt that has played a major role in the success of the film. Heath Ledger was a wildly popular star. His death made headlines for days. It would be a surprise if the film featuring his last completed role would not be a roaring success.

That having been said, I am not sure that accounts for The Dark Knight being a veritable phenomenon. Consider this, Rebel Without a Cause was released less than a month after James Dean's death. And the film did very well at the box office. And yet it wasn't even the top grossing film of 1955, which was Lady and the Tramp, which took in a whopping $93,600,000. Dean's final role would appear in the film Giant, released in 1956. The film also did very well, grossing $35,000,000. And yet it was only the third highest grossing film of the year, after The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days. If we were to expect The Dark Knight to follow the same pattern as the movies made by James Dean released in the wake of his death, then it seems to me that it would not be nearly as successful as it is.

It would then seem to that there are other factors at work behind the phenomenon of The Dark Knight. Among these I believe is the intrinsic appeal of the character of Batman. Unlike Superman, Batman is a mere mortal. He can wounded. He can be killed. This makes him more accessible to the averager person who is not a comic book fan and thus easier for them to identify with than the Man of Steel and other superheroes. Not only is The Batman physically vulnerable, but in some respects he is also psychologically and emotionally vulnerable. The Dark Knight has his share of inner demons. Indeed, his parents were brutally murdered in a mugging which he saw with his own eyes. The tragedy gave young Bruce Wayne not simply the desire to fight crime, but nearly a compulsion to do so. While it is true that other superheroes have had tragedies that started their careers--Spider-Man's Uncle Ben was similarly murdered--but Batman was the very first. As a hero born of tragedy, he is then all the more easier for the common man to sympathise with and identify with.

Indeed, the phenomenon of The Dark Knight is nothing new. In 1966 the TV show Batman debuted to phenomenal ratings and resulted in an absolute craze for the Caped Crusader. In 1989 the film Batman became the top grossing film of the year and still ranks number nine in the list of worldwide top grossing films when adjusted for inflation. It too resulted in Batmania. In many respects, then, history is simply repeating itself.

Of course, The Dark Knight would not be the phenomenon it is if it was not for the fact that it is a great film. Had it been absolutely horrible, it would probably still be a success, but it would not be the success it is. Indeed, The Dark Knight features some of the best performances not only of any superhero film, but of any film in recent history. Most notable is Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker, which is chilling in a way that even Hannibal Lector was not. Although Ledger has received the most praise, every one of the cast turned in great performances. Indeed, Christian Bale's turn as Batman is easily the best of his career.

Similarly, the script is wonderfully complex, adding depth to the characters and addressing deeper issues than any superhero film before it. Not only does the film address the themes of good and evil found in many superhero movies, but it also addresses such issues as the delicate balance between order and chaos, the fragility of human nature, and even to what extremes the fight to defeat evil itself can itself become an act of evil. These deeper themes no doubt speak to many viewers.

That is not to say that the film cannot be enjoyed as an action movie. The Dark Knight has some of the most spectacular action scenes ever seen on film. In fact, Christopher Nolan shows an outright gift for such scenes. Of course, over all Nolan's direction on the film is the best of his career. Parts of the film were shot using the IMAX process, and Nolan put it to good use. There are wide angle shots, hand held shots, and virtually every other camera shot known to man. Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister deserve kudos for a job well done.

The fact that The Dark Knight is a great film probably does owe to a lot of its success. Viewers see the movie and then often see it again. There can be no doubt that The Dark Knight is receiving a lot of repeat business. Many viewers will no doubt tell others about the movie, with the result that many will go see The Dark Knight who might not otherwise see a superhero movie. Word of mouth is then probably driving much of the film's business. While the quality of a movie does not always mean it will be a success, it can certainly help in being so.

The Dark Knight is then a phenomenon for more than the fact that Heath Ledger died. Much of its success may be due to the intrinsic appeal of The Batman, a character who perhaps appeals more to the average person than other superheroes. Its success is also due to the fact that it is a great film, with standout performances, great action scenes, and outstanding direction. Had The Dark Knight been a lesser film, then, it might not be breaking box office records.

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