10 years ago, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still a twinkle in Nick Fury’s eye, the greatest superhero movie of all time took pop culture by storm. For the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight was a full-fledged phenomenon.
It’s a highly unscientific metric, but the barometer I use to measure phenomena is whether or not my parents were aware of it. I recall their protestations at Forrest Gump‘s absurdity and their “concerns” about nudity content when Titanic was suggested as a sleepover movie.
My parents saw The Dark Knight by themselves. That’s saying a lot when the last time they paid money to see a superhero movie it was because I was six.
The reasons for this are manifold. That twinkle in Mr. Fury’s eye matters especially here. Box office receipts be damned, the concept of Superhero Fatigue was not in the moviegoing lexicon in 2008. Audiences had trilogies in X-Men and Spider-man, and a handful of one-offs and failed franchises.
It had morbid curiosity. That’s never a good thing, and obviously Heath Ledger’s tragic passing was never part of any plan, but it’s hard to deny the pall that hung over this thing. Here was a man seemingly resurrected on screen, via some playful zombie incantation of a DC comic book villain, presenting a ghastly, magnetic figure that tapped into our anxieties perfectly. Ledger’s Joker in many ways is this movie, the horrifying embodiment of the “escalation” a younger Jim Gordon warned about in Batman Begins. The League of Shadows and fear gas have given way to execution videos, carbombs, and copycat Batmen (CopyBats?). Even the Shepard Tone of the Joker’s two-note theme, a motif that haunts the picture even in his absence, hints that the volume is about to get cranked way up. And yet, he’s about nothing at the same time, equally brutal and elegant in his simplicity. With a deliberately masked origin, The Joker’s only known motivation is to laugh at us. Pain is funny, and money is paper. He is the antithesis of banality, holding a knife to the throat of our collective consciousness.
Most importantly, it was a film. Nothing that had come before looked quite like this Michael Mann-inspired vision of Gotham. The Dark Knight looked adult, with the Paul Greengrass-styled editing masking the proverbial money sequences of action. The Dark Knight felt adult, and as much as it’s easy to rag on Nolan’s self-serious take on the Caped Crusader, that matters. District Attorneys and mob stooges alike soliloquize about their motivations in spite of their actions. Because this is still a world in which they’re defined not by who they are underneath but by what they do. Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days, but very few actually deign to tell a story.
The Dark Knight is a story. In a discussion with Bret Easton Ellis, Owen Gleiberman deemed most comic book movies as, in so many words, expensive vehicles for fan service. Citing Dark Knight as the outlier, the MCU has become fixated with expanding its heroes’ Wikipedia entries rather than telling a story, with ending the world over and over and over again. The Dark Knight goes smaller, its stakes are human. In a post-9/11 world, it’s hard to read the questions of suicide bombs and surveillance ethics as anything else. Gotham may have been terrified by some face paint and a couple of bullets, but the killing of an idea is the greater threat. In taking its aim at its titular hero, The Dark Knight gets at the heart of why heroes appealed to us in the first place.