The greatest genre films are ones that challenge the genre they reside in, to its fullest capabilities. If their genre is known for levity, they provide grit. If their genre is known for action, they provide drama. If their genre is known for shallow characters, they provide depth. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a film that challenges the superhero genre of filmmaking. Manifesting a haunting film with tragedy and moral complexities that challenge our caped crusader. Producing characters that even the most non-comic book fan can come to know and love. Because of great direction, great writing, great performances, and great technical production, “The Dark Knight” became the standing barrer for comic book movies and remains to be that proverbial measuring stick of the genre.
This isn’t to say that superhero movies are too funny and need be darker or that today’s comic book movies are merely satisfactory. I am, of course, a fan of Kevin Feige's universe of Doctor’s, Guardians, Iron Men, and Captains, but “The Dark Knight” is almost incomparable to those movies. They have their place for fans of the cinema and comic books alike, but “The Dark Knight” is a film that redefines its genre. Not just telling a simplistic tale of good versus evil, but rather a story of Batman’s (Christian Bale) trials and tribulations as a hero. The moral quandaries that only a villain like The Joker (Heath Ledger) could produce. He’s a Mephistopheles that places Batman (Christian Bale) in points of crisis that he’s never been before, tempting the noble dark knight to break his one rule.
Nolan shoots the film on location. The Chicagoan skyscrapers become part of Gotham in a way that marries comic book sensationalism with reflective storytelling. The action is enthralling as the camera winds through the underground battlefields of Chicago in some elaborate chase sequences. There are masterful showcases of The Joker’s (Heath Ledger) diabolical schemes between forcing the upstanding citizens of Gotham, and it's criminals to blow up one another to save themselves. Or, The Joker (Heath Ledger) immersing his mystique upon the city as he not only challenges Batman’s (Christian Bale) resolve but the city of Gotham's as well.
Why “The Dark Knight” works so well is The Joker (Heath Ledger). His role in the film is a constant pushing force that nullifies Batman’s (Christian Bale) greatest strengths. His dialogue is poetic, filled with depth, and philosophically revealing of The Joker’s (Heath Ledger) reasoning for the dilemmas he puts forth. "He’s not a man that can be bought or reasoned with," as Alfred states “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” He prods Batman (Christian Bale): poking at his mystique, nudging to learn his identity, challenging his resolve, and probing at his moral code.
He, like the monstrous psychopath from David Fincher’s “Se7en,” stays one step ahead of Batman (Christian Bale) as he continues to squeeze out the life of Batman’s (Christian Bale) resolve. Showing Gotham that Batman (Christian Bale) is not incorruptible nor is his moral ethics without consequence, he shows Gotham his true colors and eventually reveals that Batman (Christian Bale) is limited by those he loves. He showcases the limits of Batman (Christian Bale) which deepens his resolve and leads to a consequential battle for Gotham’s soul.
Ledger, like Bale, shines in the spotlight of this fictional icon. They share moments of palpable conflict, pushing each other as characters and as actors. They inhabit the ideals and statures of these comic book idols, not allowing the spectacular visual makeup of the film to upstage its characters. Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman are two fellow contributors to this powerhouse of storytelling, both of whom deliver performances for characters who are equally challenged by the sociopathic ideology of The Joker (Heath Ledger).
Nolan, alongside his brother, Jonathan, manifest a screenplay that frees the legend of Batman (Christian Bale) from the canvas and intertwines a world that has no points of weakness. The supporting characters, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine), are essential to the story as well. Becoming the proverbial hints at the lessons that Batman (Christian Bale) has to learn to become “The Dark Knight.” Providing ethical objections and resolve to dilemmas that Batman (Christian Bale) is unprepared to endure like that of a letter left behind or an unethical method of eavesdropping.
Nolan and his brother, produce a screenplay that places Batman (Christian Bale) into a broader scope of human emotion, emotion worth examination and confliction. They, like comic book writers, test the waters of comic book filmmaking. Pushing their audience to recontextualize the heroes they love in ways that are filled with complexities, depth, and emotion. Providing dilemmas for the characters that touch upon the same fears, traumas, and fantasies we have.
They juxtapose the ideas of the poignancy of reflective character studies with the sensationalism of comic book filmmaking. Allowing us to resonate with characters that are rarely so perfectly constructed, and manifesting a film that not only challenges its genre but breaks through it too becomes something without limits, with great resolve. Showcasing how two characters from two sides of the same coin can profoundly affect storytelling in a way that merely has become as iconic as it's comic book lineage.