The Complicated Legacy of 'The Dark Knight'

Christopher Nolan's acclaimed film changed the movie landscape when it was released 10 years ago this month, but at what cost?

“You’ve changed things. Forever,” the Joker says, leering at a caped crusader on the verge of defeat. It’s been 10 years since The Dark Knight carved a crooked smile into the world of pop culture. The film made Christopher Nolan a household name, redefined blockbuster movies, necessitated recognition of the artistry of big-budget filmmakers and transformed how the public viewed the mythos of Batman and the Joker. Simply put, The Dark Knight changed things. Forever. Ten years on, and with pages of comic panels spilling onto the screen on an almost monthly basis, The Dark Knight, which opened July 18, 2008, remains the high point of comic book adaptations.

Yet, despite the recognition of the film’s unequivocal greatness, much of the reason behind its greatness has become dislodged in the explosion of superhero movies, and the so-called dark, gritty, and grounded reboots that followed in its wake. Nolan delivered unto us what was arguably the first prestige superhero movie, but what did The Dark Knight cost?

It’s easy to misremember The Dark Knight as a superhero movie. And why shouldn’t we see it as such? Batman is a superhero, after all. He is, along with Superman, the most recognizable character to carry that title. And that’s in part what makes Nolan’s treatise on the character so interesting and risky. Even more so than its predecessor Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight detaches itself from many of the tropes associated with superhero movies and instead operates along the lines of a crime thriller-drama devoid of world-ending stakes or shared universe connections. Nolan’s Batman operates as a public servant rather than a superhero. There’s very little action in The Dark Knight, at least when compared to the superhero films that had set a precedent before its release, Spider-Man (2002) and its sequels, X-Men (2000) and its proto-grounded franchise, or going even further back, the Batman films shaped by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher from 1989 to 1997. And now, looking at the films that followed The Dark Knight, the DC universe, the recalibrated X-Men franchise, and most notably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Dark Knight is a far cry from cinematic superheroics before or after.

Yes, The Dark Knight is ultimately a film about a rich man-child dressed up like a bat facing off against a terrorist in clown makeup — the ethos of so many great Batman stories. But there’s also the fact that so much of the film comprises talk of finances, politics, extradition laws and exposition of complicated story beats — all things that we don’t associate with the most popular superhero movies of today, which opt for splashier if less narratively complex thrills.

It was this sure-handedness in which Nolan approached Batman, as a character not simply for kids or cartoonish urban fantasies, that awakened the voice that cried for genre films to be contenders during awards season. While many would stake The Dark Knight’s award season reputation on the late Heath Ledger’s magnetic, transcendent performance as the Joker, for which he posthumously won best supporting actor at the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony, the film’s prestige caliber goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply that The Dark Knight took itself seriously in a way that a superhero based film hadn’t done before, or that it boasted emotionally complex portrayals of Bruce Wayne, James Gordon and Harvey Dent from award-friendly actors like Christian Bale, Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart. The Dark Knight’s prestige came largely because of the particular way it captured the American zeitgeist.

It’s a film built on rules, and the breaking of them — order and chaos. With the Patriot Act still a hot button issue with President George. W. Bush in the White House, and Barack Obama making moves in Washington months before he would be elected President, The Dark Knight felt connected to who we were as a people. The Joker’s brand of disorder, his call for anarchy became a rallying point, particularly for young adults who would vote in their first college election that fall. The Joker became more than a popular Halloween costume, but a political slogan, one that saw Jokerized variations of Shepard Fairey’s famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster tacked to phone polls and graphited in alleyways. Batman was the hero of the film, but in the unjust world of 2008, the Joker held more answers. “They’re only as civilized as the world allows them to be. When the chips are down, these civilized people…they’ll eat each other,” the Joker says. His words rang true, and now 10 years after the film’s release they carry even more weight.

It was the prophetic voice of the Joker that captured hearts and minds, particularly for a generation that was just beginning to know what it was like to have a little power. And that power had to extend beyond just political spheres, to the people who recognized the best that film had to offer. The call for The Dark Knight’s best pictures nomination, and subsequent backlash that followed when it wasn’t, was a call for movies to be recognized beyond their ability to hold meaning for aging white men.

The backlash led to an increased number of best pictures slots, going from five to up to ten at the 82nd Academy Awards. This is where we first began to witness the cost of The Dark Knight. The Academy mistook the call to recognize important, generation-defining genre films as a call to recognize more films. While this did lead to Nolan’s Inception (2010) being nominated for best picture in 2011, it opened the door for films that felt like they were simply nominated to fill up the number of spaces. No one is writing anniversary retrospectives on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011). Some of the competitive spirit, and the ability for the Academy to recognize films with lasting impact, was lost in the aftermath of trying to find an answer to The Dark Knight’s snub. But the fallout from The Dark Knight wasn’t simply centered around awards season, but in the franchise’s looking to bring in Dark Knight bucks and admiration.

Dark. Gritty. Grounded. Buzz words we could all probably stand to never hear again. Yet, so many would-be franchises opted to take the Batman Begins approach with the hopes of having a bigger, better sequel down the line —their own Dark KnightG.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), Robin Hood (2010), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Robocop (2014), Fantastic Four (2015), Power Rangers (2017), all tried to borrow a page from Nolan’s handbook and failed either critically or financially, though most often both. Most of these films were taken out of the hands of filmmakers, and fell prey to studio interference, the very thing that Nolan had managed to avoid, and thus his success. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was the only film to successfully launch a complete series under the notion of taking a grounded approach and having a valid reason to do so. Those films that failed did so because they didn’t understand what Nolan, and screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, had going for them: a purposeful vision for why these characters should be grounded somewhere adjacent to our reality, knowing that once there they could influence it.

Nolan’s Batman, which is as grounded as a Batman film can be without losing the “flair for the dramatic” that gives these characters reasons to exist, has its roots in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (1987). Miller’s comic run also took a grounded approach to the character, showing the early days of Batman’s crime fighting against the mob, before Gotham City became overrun with the “freaks.” There is an inherent part of Batman’s character that can be grounded and remain successful. When it comes to properties like G.I. Joe, to ground them is to strip away the very aspects that make them appealing. Nolan’s Batman pulled from the comics, but also strayed from them so that he could tell his own version of a man who becomes a myth necessary to combat the corruption of our time.

In The Dark Knight’s popularity, non-comic reading audiences became enamored with this version of Batman, and this version of the Joker. There became an oft-repeated sentiment that Batman was supposed to be serious, to fit into the parameters of our world, and that the Joker was a brilliant futurist driven by a clearly defined goal of social chaos. But almost 70 years of Batman media offered much more to say. When The Dark Knight was released, writer Grant Morrison was combating the very idea that Batman was inherently serious, grounded and defined only by Miller and what had come after. Similarly, he toyed with the idea of the Joker being a character who evolves as Batman does, and a pawn in the grand scheme of things rather than the ultimate evil. Morrison showcased Batman as a character who fought aliens, who had a backup personality, who mixed it up with inter-dimensional imps, and who above all is just a scared little boy surrounding himself with toys and a child’s routine so that he wouldn’t go insane. Batman is malleable and so are all of the characters who populate his world. This is exactly what Nolan set out to explore in his films, removing these characters from Schumacher’s Day-Glo antics, just as Burton’s neo-Gothic films removed themselves from Adam West’s Batman of the '60s. Nolan’s Dark Knight films are built on rules, not rules inherent to Batman, but rules that interest Nolan as a filmmaker.

In the greatness of The Dark Knight we, as a general populace of fans, have forgotten why it’s so great. Beyond the memes, imitations, merchandise and satires, there is a real film — one that serves as a reminder that Batman is not a singular vision, a stagnant character defined by a set of checkmarks, or a property meant to remain on a pedestal in the same way Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) has unfortunately been placed upon. Since The Dark Knight’s release, we’ve witnessed a rejection of other takes of the character and his supporting cast, with even Nolan’s follow-up The Dark Knight Rises earning a share of controversy for Batman not behaving in a way that the head-canon surrounding Nolan’s films expected him to behave.

And Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the film that comes closest to Nolan’s films in terms tackling the political and philosophical mire of today, was scorned, despite the fact that his depiction of the characters falls closer to the comics than any of Nolan’s Batman films, and offers a clear vision for these characters as opposed to imitation. While we so often refer to The Dark Knight as the best comic book adaptation, filmmakers and audiences have largely failed to learn from its creative lessons: comic book characters are malleable. They are able to be grounded or fantastic, able to be prestigious or pure blockbuster entertainment, to be dark and gritty or light, to be character-driven or action-packed, or any variation in-between.

Ten years removed from The Dark Knight we have a certain expectation about what a superhero adaptation looks like, how it operates and how it aligns itself with the most popular, introductory texts based around the character. Even with more superhero movies now than ever, there’s a sense that we’re being limited, that we’re only seeing the success of films guaranteed to work. It’s plausible to imagine that this film we love so much, The Dark Knight, would not receive the same kind of standing ovation today. The Dark Knight is a testament, an invitation to change, break rules, rework canon and introduce a little anarchy.