Author’s Note: Spoilers for The Dark Knight, Seven, Star Trek Into Darkness, Skyfall and The Avengers
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Back in 2008 I was so certain what the biggest film of that summer would be that I placed real money on a wager with some friends. Sure, there were those that put their money on the always reliable Pixar and their newest film, WALL-E. And some obviously had faith in the return of history’s most famous fedora-wearing archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And there were even a few weirdos that thought some tiny movie called Iron-Man starring a washed-up druggie would be a big hit.
But unlike the rest of those morons, I knew. Without a doubt I knew that the biggest film of summer 2008 would be…
Clearly my powers of precognition needed some work because, as we now know, The Dark Knight wasn’t just the biggest film of the summer, but comfortably became 2008’s highest grossing film worldwide, and finished 4th on the list of highest grossing films of all time. (It has since dropped to 35th place.)
It’s hard to believe that only 10 years have passed since the release of The Dark Knight, especially considering its overall impact on the state of cinema. Hell, on my first viewing I felt it was “only” a good movie for most of its running time. But then again, I was stupid enough to think the credits would soon be rolling once the Joker was captured by Lieutenant Gordon. Everything that happened afterwards: the creation of Two-Face, the realisation that the Joker planned to be caught, the death of Rachel; all of it mixed together in a mind-blowing escalation of cinematic extravagance. If everything up to that first Joker capture was a four star experience, then everything afterwards blew the lid off a now redundant five star rating scale.
And in the months that followed, that same appreciation would be almost universally shared. Considered the first movie that truly explored the tensions of a post-9/11 world, The Dark Knight blended together the fear of war and terrorism, as well as cutting to the heart of (then) current geopolitical issues that plagued our news broadcasts every night. Honestly, if the hero and the villain weren’t dressed up in ridiculous costumes, The Dark Knight would essentially have been an American crime drama.
It even ended up getting nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two of them. For a comic book inspired movie this was utterly unheard of. The Oscar win by Heath Ledger was particularly well deserved, if a little mired by the fact that he probably only got it because he died. And though many people (myself included) would have loved a nomination for Best Picture, perhaps that was a wish too far. Even if the Academy had managed to overcome their disregard of comic book movies; there was the added issue of people’s mindsets no longer wanting to deal with films that reflected the darkness of the real world around them. Looking back, it’s clear why an upbeat film such as Slumdog Millionaire ended up winning Best Picture. The US housing crash had devastated the world’s economy, millions were out of work and just as many had lost their homes. The only real bright light at the time was the recent election of Barack Obama to the American Presidency; a time which seems almost quaint when looked back upon.
Though as brilliant as The Dark Knight was and still is, its influence on future productions, while not disastrous, still resulted in many subpar motion pictures. This, in itself, is not the fault of Nolan or anyone else associated with The Dark Knight. Though the film’s various concepts, themes and ideas would inspire many, they would also be shamelessly stolen by those who didn’t understanding their meaning or reasons for existing. The most obvious being the now incredibly clichéd scheme where the villain plans to be caught.
In The Dark Knight‘s defense, it was hardly the first movie to do this. Seven’s John Doe famously does the same thing, resulting in the most batshit crazy plan imaginable. But The Dark Knight undoubtedly popularised this into a trend. Star Trek Into Darkness, Skyfall, The Avengers. It’s even filtered down to television, with Sherlock, The Flash and Supergirl doing something similar.
Yet even that could be considered a relatively minor impact compared to how the Joker has influenced various villains over the past decade. The character of Alfred (played wonderfully by Michael Caine) probably said it best when he reasons that “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
It’s that type of villain, an agent of chaos, that negatively influenced many cinematic bad guys; including The Mandarin from Iron-Man 3, Kurt Hendricks from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Malekith from Thor: The Dark World. All men who have no plan or end goal, but exist to cause destruction just because they can. While in some cases it can work (Raoul Silva from Skyfall works reasonably well because he represents chaos as a reflection to Bond’s order); the large majority of villains end up inferior because the need for a clear achievable goal is paramount when your hero and villain don’t have ideological differences.
However, the single largest cultural impact of The Dark Knight is how its dark and gritty mood has been reused in dozens of films, many of them being stories that don’t quite gel with that kind of aesthetic; while others are actively worse because of it.
Don’t be mistaken, Hollywood cinema has always had a streak of darkness in its reflection of the real world. The criminal devastation in major American cities during the 1970s meant that vigilante fantasies such as Death Wish or Dirty Harry hugely resonated with the public. That same vigilante justice would be codified into more legally acceptable responses in Robocop and Escape From New York by the time the 80s came around.
However, come the new millennium and the aforementioned films had been replaced by equally violent, but more fantastical affairs; even though they were still set in the real world. Both volumes of Kill Bill or 2004’s Man on Fire are good examples of this change. As such, it’s understandable that the success of The Dark Knight would suggest to filmmakers that audiences were ready for another cinematic shift in how their movies were tonally presented.
But what those same filmmakers didn’t understand is that The Dark Knight‘s murky aesthetic partly comes from Nolan’s push into a more realist expression. His choice to move Batman from the Gothic surroundings of Batman Begins, and replace it with the Chicago skies of The Dark Knight, was a way to naturally infuse a sense of authenticity. This in turn gave the film such resonance in our post-9/11 world because we could see the fears of Gotham City weren’t too dissimilar to our own. (Just read this fantastic article by Siddhant Adlakha about how Mumbai descended into its own Joker-like chaos.) That’s not to say there aren’t fantastical moments in The Dark Knight, but their presentation in a realistic world makes those instances feel far more logical in the moment.
When looking at the films released in the wake of The Dark Knight, it’s easy to see their creators haven’t understood this balance of realism and fantasy, especially in the comic book realm. Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four. Even Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t strike this balance as well as its predecessor. The only series that could be thought to be a success would probably be the new Planet of the Apes movies; a franchise where the hubris and greed of humanity could only be illustrated if told through a dark and gritty spotlight .
It will be interesting to see whether The Dark Knight will still stand as a pinnacle of cinema once the comic book era ends. After all, 40 years after the release of Star Wars, does anyone remember the knock-offs and imitations that were released in its wake? Maybe that’s the ultimate test of The Dark Knight? To see whether, in a couple of decades time, it will overcome its short term impact in exchange for an everlasting legacy.