On July 18, 2008, Christopher Nolan released a movie that would forever change the course of all superhero movies to follow. A sequel to Batman Begins, Nolan’s new film was highly anticipated. With the classic villain “The Joker”, fans were excited to see Ledger take on the role Jack Nicholson had executed so well. However, as soon as it was released, it was clear Nolan had done something different with this film. It wasn’t just a superhero movie anymore. He had taken a classic comic book hero and created a film that went beyond what was expected from this category. The Dark Knight is a cinematic masterpiece.
I want to take a second and examine this movie one more time. Not a movie review but more of a short analysis (there is WAY too much in this film to unpack in one readable article. Maybe I’ll have to make a video essay?). Even with so many new superhero films being produced, most agree that none have topped The Dark Knight. It’s time to take a closer look at why this is.
“Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” - Harvey Dent. Arguably, the most iconic quote of the movie, it seems as though Harvey is just talking about the Batman. We can see Wayne’s thoughts after Dent says this but when seen from a larger perspective, this quote is the central theme of the film.
The quote features two extremes, with no in between. It creates a dichotomy: good or evil. And that is exactly why Nolan chose Batman to tell this story. Batman is unlike any other comic book hero. Besides his dual identity, Batman struggles within himself with good and evil. Think about it. A man dresses up as a bat and beats people to a pulp all because his parents were killed when he was younger. At this angle, Batman doesn’t seem like much of a good guy. He’s violent, angry, ruthless, and shows no mercy. He even beats up cops and “good guys” if they get in his way. He has no limits and is not bound by the law. But he has one rule: he does not kill. In his mind, that’s what sets him apart from the people he is fighting. And that’s the part of him the Joker chose to attack.
The Joker is the one character in this film that has no duality. He is evil and chaotic. That’s it. And we learned that from the get go in the first five minutes in this film - the Joker is a ruthless leader who doesn’t value even the life of his own team and his first line in the movie is “Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you… stranger” (Again, just an amazing way to open the movie. To tell us everything we need to know about the villain before we even see him). He is the force toying with the duality within Batman. First, he wanted Batman to reveal his identity - the first concept of duality he tried to break. But after realizing that “[Batman’s] just too much fun”, he shifts his plan. He knows once Batman breaks his “one rule”, he will have descended to the exact evil he was fighting. But after Joker cannot break the Bat on his own, he takes Rachel and Harvey hostage and all hell breaks loose. Rachel (who’s love for both Bruce and Harvey created the dual aspect in her life) is killed and Batman seems to be broken. The Joker lied to him about who was where and he couldn’t stop the Joker from taking the love of his life.
Dent was Gotham’s “White Knight” as Wayne put it. With a man like that in leadership, Wayne thought soon, Gotham wouldn’t need Batman anymore. Again, duality comes into play. “The Dark Knight” and “The White Knight”. One hides in the shadows and uses violence to do what he needs to while the other, is in public, fighting crime with the law. Even his coin was heads on both sides - symbolizing how Dent truly was good no matter which side he was seen form. He put away the entire mob and even took the fall for being Batman.
But in the warehouses, Batman saves Dent (even though he meant to save Rachel). If Dent had died, he would have died a hero. But because he was saved and he lost “everything” he fell victim to his own words and soon lived long enough to see himself become the villain. Just Dent’s character development alone is truly astounding throughout this film.
From Gotham’s White Knight to a cop-killer, Dent’s fall in the film reveals Joker’s ultimate “plan”. Since he couldn’t break the Batman, he went after Dent - and succeeded. But the end of this film is where Batman’s true character is revealed. All throughout this movie, he struggled with being good or evil and in the end, he was both. Ultimately, he took the fall for Dent’s crimes and was “evil” to the public. He even repeated Dent’s words himself at the end. But to Gordon, to himself, and to us, he is a hero.
These were just a few examples but the dichotomy of good and evil is riddled all throughout this film. Whether it’s Gordon “dying as a hero” and then returning to “become the villain” when he lies to the city about what happened with Dent, or Lucious Fox struggling with his own dual identity as a corporate businessman and supplying Bruce as the Batman, the list goes on and on.
Nolan’s attention to detail with every part of the film, his realism in creating a superhero movie, Ledger’s stunning performance, the cinematic subtleties, and so many other aspects made this film as stellar as it was. And each of those aspects deserve their own analysis. But his underlying message is what truly sets it apart in its category. There really is no film like this one, and arguably, there never will be . The Dark Knight is a legend that will live on forever.