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Supers on the Screen: The Dark Knight

All right, time to talk about superhero movies! Remember when I said my favourite superhero was Batman? Well, I should probably clarify: when I say “Batman,” I mostly mean Christopher Nolan’s Batman. And Christopher Nolan’s Batman doesn’t get better than The Dark Knight.

dark knight

I don’t think many superhero fans (or movie fans) would disagree with me that The Dark Knight is the best comic book film of all time. Except it’s SO much smarter, darker, and riskier than any other superhero movie that it almost seems unfair to put it in the same category. So maybe I’ll just say this is one of my favourite movies, and it happens to feature a superhero.

Here’s why I love it:

The Dark Knight is the only serious comic book movie I know of. Since it came out, several others have attempted to bring some gravitas and cultural commentary to their flashy storylines, but the fact remains that most superheroes are inherently silly. (They were originally created for children, remember.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this movie takes the genre to a whole new level. Sure, there’s a hero with a cape and a villain with a gaudy suit, but The Dark Knight is not an escapist fantasy by anyone’s standards.


First of all, I love the way it’s filmed. A superhero movie without digital effects? Can such things be?? The stunts are performed by real people. The explosions are real, some of the fistfights are real, and, yes, the truck flip is totally real. And although there’s a fair amount of violence onscreen, the really disturbing stuff always happens off-screen. If we got to see the mob boss “try-outs” with a broken cue stick, or if there was a close-up of the cell phone bomb going off, this movie would definitely be rated R (it’s kind of pushing PG-13 as it is). But I think it’s almost creepier this way.


Moving on to the deeper stuff: I hate to point out the obvious, but the Joker is easily the most memorable thing about The Dark Knight. He’s far more unsettling than the average supervillain, not only because of Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance, but also because he should feel very familiar to a 21st-century audience. Most superhero movies at least try to give their villains a motive, even if it doesn’t make much sense, but the Joker is deliberately left without one. He doesn’t have a traumatic past (those conflicting “know how I got these scars?” stories are clearly lies), he’s not out for revenge, and he’s definitely not in it for the money. He just has a complete disregard for human life, including his own, and he thinks chaos is fun. If that kind of villain doesn’t sound realistic to you, just turn on the news. The Joker embodies the scariest kind of real-life villain we have: a terrorist, or a mass shooter–the increasingly common criminal who goes out and kills strangers for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, Alfred was right when he said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”


Naturally, Batman is the only hero capable of dealing with the Joker, and the way he does it should also be familiar. Tapping cell phones? Covering up a scandal by lying to the public? Sound like anything you’ve heard on NPR recently? And yet, in The Dark Knight, such shady doings are the only way to keep the Joker menace under control. And Batman has the moral high ground over today’s politicians in at least one respect: he takes responsibility for his actions. In fact, he even takes the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes, which makes him a monster in the eyes of the city he saved. The ending doesn’t completely solve Dent’s dilemma at the beginning of the film: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” But it deals with the question in an intelligent, nuanced way that I haven’t seen in many other action movies.

There have been lots of good superhero movies and lots of good philosophical “thinker” movies, but I’m pretty sure The Dark Knight is the only movie, so far, that has managed to be both. Better step it up, Marvel!



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