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Christopher Nolan: Deconstructing The Dark Knight

Welcome to THE DIRECTORS SERIES PODCAST, a show dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors. In the show, we breakdown the careers of film directors like Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson just to name a few. From their early works and short films to their blockbuster achievements and Oscar glory.

THE COLOSSAL CORNERSTONES is the third chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and career of director Christopher Nolan, covering his zeitgeist-defining pair of complex blockbusters. In this episode, we deconstruct with 2008’s The Dark Knight.

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The Dark Knight (2008)

The runaway success of BATMAN BEGINS in 2005 revitalized the flagging Batman movie franchise, leaving fans clamoring for more of director Christopher Nolan’s expansive and groundbreaking vision.  A sequel was inevitable, but rather than capitalize off the resurgent Batmania by pushing out the next chapter as fast as possible, Warner Brothers executives did something quite unimaginable by today’s standards– they gave Nolan space and time he needed to regroup and refresh his artistic approach.

THE PRESTIGE served as an effective palate cleanser in this regard, its warm reception further consolidating Nolan’s influence and bolstering his directorial profile as a breakout visionary.  Now that his artistic deck had been cleared, Nolan was ready to consider what a return trip to Gotham City might entail.  There were certain expectations, of course– a sequel would no doubt find Batman operating at the apex of his powers, and BATMAN BEGINS’ ending teaser scene suggested he would finally do battle with his arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Beyond that, Nolan had near-limitless creative and financial freedom to realize his vision.  As it would turn out, that vision would grow to become so complex and ambitious, it would require a canvas no less than four stories tall to properly contain it.

In crafting a fitting follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan once again looked to classic graphic novels for inspiration– specifically, THE KILLING JOKE and THE LONG HALLOWEEN, which respectively detailed the origin stories of two iconic Batman villains The Joker and Two-Face.  While he didn’t adapt those stories outright, certain aspects of these comics nevertheless served as touchstones for Nolan’s second foray into the wider Batman universe.

Receiving another story assist from David S. Goyer, Nolan set about crafting the screenplay with his writing partner and brother, Jonathan.  The brothers were intent on using this opportunity to depart significantly from established Batman lore and remake the Caped Crusader in their image, to the extent that they dropped the word “Batman” from the title of their screenplay entirely– a first in the property’s cinematic history.

The title they would use instead — THE DARK KNIGHT –simultaneously invoked one of Batman’s alternate mantles while signaling their intention to transcend the confines of the character’s comic book origins.  To make a Batman movie without “Batman” in the title is an admittedly risky move, and the fact that Warner Brothers allowed this to come to pass speaks volumes about the total trust they placed in Nolan as the current steward of their most-prized property.

As we all know now, their faith would be rewarded many times over, with THE DARK KNIGHT becoming a financial and critical juggernaut that not only installed Nolan as one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors but fundamentally changed the course of American studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future.

THE DARK KNIGHT picks up roughly nine months after BATMAN BEGINS left off, with the revelation of Batman’s existence compelling the citizens and bureaucrats of Gotham City to build a better, more just society.  The cobwebs of organized crime that once riddled the city with corruption have been largely swept away to the fringes, held in check by a debilitating fear of an unexpected appearance by Batman (or one of his many knockoff impersonators).

From his vantage point in a spartan penthouse high above the city, Bruce Wayne overlooks a cleaner Gotham and eagerly anticipates the day when Batman’s brand of vigilante justice can be replaced by legitimate agents, like the ascendant District Attorney, Harvey Dent.  Christian Bale reprises his role from BATMAN BEGINS, finding the iconic hero at the peak of his powers.  As this particular incarnation of Bruce Wayne, Bale appears much leaner– gaunt, even–  than he did previously.

This Bruce is a man who is deep into his obsession with justice, burdened by the philosophical weight of his calling and the growing realization his work may never be done.  His best hope for retirement lies in the efforts of Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart in a performance that draws heavily from the legacy of tragic political idealists like Robert F. Kennedy.  Hailed as a “White Knight” and a legitimate response to Batman’s shadow campaign,  the city’s new top cop sets about ridding Gotham of corruption through the court system and a relentless zeal for prosecution.

The relationship between Batman and Harvey Dent is the emotional backbone of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story, with both men bound to each other by principle, ambition, and their love for Rachel Dawes.  Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces BATMAN BEGINS’ Katie Holmes, arguably delivering a superior performance that ably evokes the nuanced heartbreak of loving two men who aren’t just willing, but eager to risk their lives in the name of justice.  She continues to be a key figure in Bruce Wayne’s life, with the switch in performers hardly registering thanks to the compelling and unexpected way in which Nolan expands and develops the character’s arc to its logical — and tragic —  endpoint.

BATMAN BEGINS closed on a triumphant, albeit cautious note-taking great pains to warn of the perils of escalation.  Naturally, THE DARK KNIGHT details how this manifests in a world where the good guys dress like bats and leap off of rooftops.  As the city’s various criminal factions are squeezed to their breaking point, they turn to a man they don’t understand– a psychotic criminal with no allegiances or backstory and known only as The Joker.

Easily the most recognizable and influential of all Batman’s various villains, The Joker as manifest in Nolan’s universe is, first and foremost, an agent of chaos.  He matches Batman’s theatricality even as he positions himself as the Dark Knight’s philosophical antithesis.  He spreads his nihilistic worldview by finding and using the weaknesses that lie in his opponents, turning them against themselves and each other.  After teasing his presence at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, there was much anticipation as to just how exactly Nolan would portray The Joker through the prism of his grounded, real-world approach.

The casting of Heath Ledger, then, was met with a significant amount of premature criticism from the blogosphere– here was a good-looking actor who, while generally regarded as a talented thespian, was so completely outside the physicality expected of someone entrusted to play Batman’s most iconic nemesis.  On top of that, Ledger had to compete with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989)– a performance that many considered to be the definitive screen depiction of The Joker.

To prepare, Ledger reportedly locked himself away in an isolated motel room for six weeks, keeping a journal he wrote in character and drawing inspiration from figures like Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as he developed and perfected slithery, serpentine energy all his own.

Topped off by a mop of greasy green hair, smeared face makeup, and a sinister Glasgow Smile, Ledger’s performance immediately silenced the critics the moment he appeared on screen and performed his now-infamous Magic Pencil Trick.  A budding director in his own right, Ledger went as far as directing the Joker’s hostage videos himself– a rare instance of Nolan ceding total directorial control and an illustration of both Ledger’s complete command of the character and Nolan’s unwavering trust in him as a collaborator.

The collective interest in Ledger’s depiction of the Joker was no doubt magnified by his untimely death in January 2008, which fueled something of a morbid fascination considering he was playing such a ghoulish character.  When the final product was unveiled, Ledger’s last complete performance was met with unanimous praise by critics and audiences alike, generating a wave of appreciation that culminated in a posthumous Oscar win for the late actor in the Best Supporting Actor category– a first for the superhero genre.  Since then, Ledger’s depiction of The Joker has gone on to invade our collective consciousness, leaving behind a legacy of anarchic iconography that’s been used in anything and everything: from political protest memes to Halloween costumes and, most unfortunately, real-world copycat killers.

Nolan’s handling of the equally-iconic villain Harvey Two-Face was also fraught with peril– a rogue made infamous by the grotesque disfigurement covering half his body and his penchant for flipping a coin over his murderous decisions, the character as established in the comics was already a far cry from Nolan’s vision of a grounded reality.

Tommy Lee Jones’ ham ball depiction in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER (1995) was essentially Diet Joker, so Nolan and Eckhart had a low hurdle to clear when it came to molding an adversary who could hold his own against Ledger’s dominating performance.  As mentioned previously, Harvey Dent’s fall from grace is the major dramatic through-line of THE DARK KNIGHT, with his death having profound implications for Gotham’s future that will resonate through the remainder of the trilogy.

Nolan takes great care to establish the monster already lying within before Dent’s fateful transformation, showing how his passion for justice and his friends can be perverted and twisted in a way that betrays his core principles.  The loss of Rachel Dawes and the burning of half his body in a gasoline fire orchestrated by The Joker doesn’t drive him to evil, it only brings out the evil that was there all along– simmering beneath his good looks and cool confidence.

Nolan and Eckhart wisely imbue Harvey Two-Face with a tragic sympathy that allows the audience to swallow the more outlandish aspects of his character, and more crucially, mourn for the loss of Gotham’s bright future during his brief reign of terror.

Owing to the film’s epic sense of scope and vision of a city gripped by crisis, a large supporting cast anchors Nolan’s core players while serving as a testament to his ability to attract prestigious talent.  Familiar faces like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy reprise their respective roles from BATMAN BEGINS, their loyalty rewarded with compelling dramatic arcs all their own.

Caine’s Alfred is the same dependable old butler he’s always been, but the burden of keeping Bruce’s secrets is clearly beginning to take its toll on him.  Freeman’s Lucius Fox continues to balance supplying Batman with updated crime-fighting gear while running Wayne Enterprises, but we also find him grappling with the ethical dilemmas inherent in assisting a vigilante unbound by the constraints of legitimate justice systems.

In order to find and combat The Joker, Batman has to resort to ever more-precarious methods of surveillance that blur the line between right and wrong– in this context, Fox becomes something of a cipher for 2008 audiences grappling with their own ideological standing on The War On Terror’s overreaching domestic surveillance measures.  Oldman’s Jim Gordon is more grizzled and battle-hardened since we last saw him, and his continued immunity against corruption sees him finally elevated to his character’s classic rank of Commissioner.

As Jonathan Crane and his villainous alter-ego Scarecrow, Murphy finds his character has fallen on hard times since the failure of his plot in BATMAN BEGINS– his influence reduced to that of a lowly drug dealer hawking his toxic fear compound as a recreational hallucinogen.  A few new faces join the fray, such as Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell, Anthony Michael Hall, and William Fichtner.  Roberts plays the smug heir to the Falcone crime empire, Salvatore Marone; his general ineffectiveness symbolizing organized crime’s waning grip on the city.

Carbonell draws influence from real-world bureaucrats like then-Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in his performance as Gotham City’s mayor, Anthony Garcia — a confident and idealistic politician who is eager to usher in a new age of prosperity for his beloved city.  Hall, better known for his turns in various John Hughes movies as a gangly awkward teenager, appears all grown-up here as a prominent news anchor who finds himself ensnared by The Joker’s masterful manipulation of the media.  Fichtner is the first of Nolan’s many nods to Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), cast as a feisty bank clerk during the Joker’s robbery sequence that opens the film.

Whereas BATMAN BEGINS used the idea of fear as its thematic backbone, THE DARK KNIGHT organizes its narrative around the central theme of chaos.  The Joker’s chief objective is to break down the established order by calling attention to the fragility of the ideological pillars that hold it up.  A rigid structure that won’t bend will break instead, rendering itself ineffective against a force that needs no structure whatsoever.

He sows the seed of doubt in his victims, calling into question their inherent natures, and then simply sits back and enjoys the ensuing fireworks as they do the destruction for him.  A perfect example of this is the chaos that ensues when The Joker calls on the citizens of Gotham to murder a Wayne employee who is threatening to reveal the identity of Batman.

If the man isn’t dead within an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital– the identity of which he strategically declines to divulge.  Faced with the prospect of losing their loved ones, the citizens of Gotham turn out en masse to eliminate the employee, besieging the police with an overwhelming and unpredictable wave of opposition.  THE DARK KNIGHT’s expansive canvas allows for the exploration of several other core concepts that inform the greater scope of the trilogy, such as escalation and various sociopolitical systems.

Foreshadowed by Gordon at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, escalation becomes a major driving force of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story– in their desperation, Gotham’s criminal underworld takes on a theatricality to match Batman’s, while their efforts become more pronounced and destructive.  Batman’s vigilantism inspires a slew of copycat wanna-be’s decked out in hockey pads and armed with shotguns.  Even Batman’s crime-fighting techniques become more invasive and unethical as he’s forced to lower himself to combat The Joker’s unconventional campaign.

Indeed, Nolan uses THE DARK KNIGHT to explore how the cost of justice is higher when doing combat with an agent of chaos– the sheer unpredictability and absence of a pattern necessitates the blurring of the thin blue line that stands between criminality and law & order.  While these ideas resonate regardless of time or context, THE DARK KNIGHT felt profoundly resonant in 2008, drawing clear parallels to the Bush Administration’s use of overreaching measures like the Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home and abroad.

Critics were divided on whether Nolan’s treatment of the subject matter was critical or actually supportive of these policies, which reflects not on Nolan’s ability to convey a stance on the subject, but rather the ethical quandaries that such a complicated subject engenders.  Rather than simply retreading his exploration of the justice system from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan finds new avenues to wander, showing how the system is limited by the arbitrary boundaries of jurisdiction.

A city cop in New York simply can’t go and arrest someone in Boston, for example– only an agency with federal jurisdiction like the FBI can do that.  However, a vigilante unaffiliated with an official law enforcement agency has no such limitation.  THE DARK KNIGHT finds Batman venturing outside of Gotham for the first time on-screen, traveling to Hong Kong to forcibly extraditable a corrupt accountant back to Gotham to answer for his crimes there.  As Batman, he can do things the Gotham PD can’t– a power that serves him well when needed but also casts the nature of his heroism into doubt.

One of the film’s most memorable lines belongs to Harvey Dent: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”.  The legality of Batman’s crimefighting forays has always been a grey area, but can usually be justified on an ethical level.  The nature of The Joker’s antagonism forces Batman to compromise his ethics, building a giant array of networked cell phones that visualizes signals into a kind of sonar so that he can better track his nemesis.

Indeed, the manipulation of communications systems like cell phones, satellites, and transmission towers as weapons to use against the populace echoes BATMAN BEGINS’ use of water & transportation systems for similar ends.  The blatant privacy invasion of spying on the city’s population via their cell phones has profound implications for the righteousness of Batman’s quest, setting the stage for his self-imposed exile at the end of the film.

The Joker’s self-proclaimed “ace in the hole” is his turning of Dent into a homicidal maniac– a development that stands to destroy the morale of Gotham’s citizens and tear down everything Batman and Gordon have worked so far to build.  In order to beat The Joker, Batman realizes he must take the fall for Dent’s crimes, sacrificing his heroic standing so that the dream of a better Gotham can survive.

THE DARK KNIGHT represents a major turning point in the development of Nolan’s visual aesthetic, establishing a super-sized approach to the cinematic spectacle that’s since become his dominant artistic signature.  The bulk of the picture was shot on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but in his pursuit of higher image quality over technical gimmickry, Nolan chose to shoot crucial action sequences and other select shots with IMAX cameras.

A longtime tenant in the nature documentary realm, IMAX had never been used to shoot all or even a portion of a conventional Hollywood feature, and for good reason: the cameras were gigantic, bulky, and cumbersome, and the mechanical noise produced by the 70mm film running horizontally through the camera meant that any sound captured on-set was often unusable.

Shooting a simple dialogue scene, let alone an ambitious action sequence, posed enormous logistical problems that would scare away any filmmaker– but Nolan was undeterred; he reasoned that if an IMAX camera could be lugged up into space, then there’s no reason it couldn’t be used for studio filmmaking.

This understandably caused no shortage of skepticism and trepidation on the part of Nolan’s crew — especially the Steadicam operator, who had to physically mount that monster onto his body on a regular basis — but Nolan’s supreme confidence and eagerness to innovate pushed them through their initial wariness to deliver an awe-inspiring cinematic experience the likes of which had never been seen before.

Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister found they had to adjust certain aspects of their style accordingly, such as designing their IMAX compositions to leave a significant amount of dead space at the top of the frame.  This was done to compensate for their discovery that audiences faced with a four-story screen had to keep their eyes trained towards the center out of sheer necessity.

While the use of IMAX is vital to conveying the truly epic scale of Nolan’s vision, it’s intermixing with the Cinemascope 35mm footage makes for an admittedly disorienting viewing experience at first– especially on home video.  While he uses IMAX mostly for self-contained sequences like the opening bank heist, he also employs it for select aerials and individual “statement” shots, which causes an abrupt change in the aspect ratio, filling out the screen at one moment and then compressing into the letterbox form factor in another.

To Nolan’s credit, however, one becomes quickly accustomed to the shift, and it ultimately doesn’t detract from the power of his storytelling.  It is a testament to Nolan’s reputation as a visionary that his use of IMAX has only seldomly been adopted by other directors– indeed, shooting a large portion of his films in the format has become a high-profile artistic signature of his, to the degree that anyone else who tries it risks being seen as a copycat or a pale imitation.

Rather than simply replicate the general aesthetic of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan and returning collaborators, Wally Pfister and Nathan Crowley expand upon its conceit of a cinematic reality by further embracing an air of immediate and visceral realism in the sequel.  Pfister’s cinematography departs from the amber-toned look of BATMAN BEGINS in favor of a colder, steel & stone color palette that consists primarily of greys, blues, and greens.

Nolan maintains his use of classical, spectacle-oriented camerawork, covering Batman’s crime-fighting forays with a mixture of grandiose dolly shots, majestic cranes, and sweeping helicopter aerials while also sprinkling in the occasional handheld move, speeding Russian arm maneuver, or circular dolly.

The circular dolly, in particular, is an admittedly overused technique in contemporary filmmaking — a quick and easy way to add stylistic flair — but Nolan finds the perfect use for it in a sequence where the Joker taunts Rachel Dawes at a high society political fundraiser, unmooring the audience’s sense of safety and building the suspense with a dizzying loss of control.

In a rather surprising move for a Batman film, Nolan chooses to stage a great deal of THE DARK KNIGHT in the cold light of day.  As such, the film’s aesthetic deals in bright washes of natural light instead of the sculpted theatricality of BATMAN BEGINS’ noir-influenced lighting scheme.

Crowley’s production design echoes this sentiment, foregoing the control of a soundstage for the tactile realism of a location shoot.  Nolan and his team once again use Chicago as the base for their particular conception of Gotham but refrain from obscuring it behind layers of exaggeration and stylistic artifice as they did on BATMAN BEGINS.

As a result, the Gotham City of THE DARK KNIGHT feels like a real-world location and not one from a comic book.  Just look at the dramatic differences in the facade of Wayne Tower between the two films– BATMAN BEGINS features Wayne Tower as a grand Art Deco spire anchored to the center of Gotham, whereas THE DARK KNIGHT’s rendition is simply just another hulking slab of concrete and glass rendered in a generic, corporate style of architecture.

This isn’t Nolan and Crowley’s only major departure from established BATMAN lore– the sacking of Wayne Manor in the previous installment gives the filmmakers an excuse to relocate Bruce to a spartan penthouse high above the city, which makes for a compelling change of scenery while adhering to the core themes of Nolan’s story.

Gone too is the iconic Batcave, replaced by a minimalist bunker hidden underneath a shipping yard and accessed via an elevator hidden inside an unassuming container.  It’s here that Batman temporarily stores his computers, suits, and his Tumbler, which Nolan has the audacity to destroy during a major chase sequence.

In doing so, he reveals a secondary vehicle hidden inside: the Batpod, which is essentially a futuristic motorcycle built from the machinery around the Tumbler’s oversized front tires and gifted with the kind of supernatural maneuverability that the Hell’s Angels could only dream of.  The major risk in developing Batman’s world out to include more toys and tech is the power it gives to the merchandising department — it is, after all, the original sin that sunk Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN and put the franchise into a coma for nearly a decade.

Thankfully, Nolan’s expansion of Batman’s crime-fighting tools is done first and foremost in service to the story, merchandising needs to be damned.  This kind of artistic integrity strengthens his overall vision, giving it a palpable weight and gravitas that commonly eludes other comic book adaptations.

On the postproduction side, Nolan retains key collaborators like editor Lee Smith and composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.  Grandiose but understated at the same time, Lee’s work often gets lost in the conversation, upstaged by the more immediate aspects of THE DARK KNIGHT’s craftsmanship.

However, Lee proves himself a crucial contributor to Nolan’s aesthetic, his ability to trace and intercut multiple parallel lines of action across one sustained sequence dovetailing effortlessly with Nolan’s epic scope and penchant for orchestrating the action like a symphony– each character thread becoming, in effect, its own instrument; played in harmony with the others and swelling to a climactic crescendo.  A prime example of this is the fateful sequence where Batman must choose to save Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent, only for his choice to be foiled by The Joker’s tricky manipulations.

There are several different threads going on here that Nolan and Smith must track– Rachel and Harvey being held captive, each in a separate location that’s primed to explode at the same time; Batman, racing across the city to save Rachel; Gordon with the assist, racing to the other end of the city to save Harvey; and The Joker, stuck in custody at the MCU and taunting his captors even as he puts his escape plan into action.

Nolan and Smith expertly orchestrate a cascading series of events towards their stunning conclusion, cross-cutting between the various threads so as to wring out the maximum amount of suspense.  The original score by Zimmer and Howard works overtime in this regard, driving the action with a thundering orchestral sound that develops and expands upon the themes introduced in BATMAN BEGINS.

A brand new theme for The Joker was to be expected, but Zimmer and Howard manage to produce a unique sound that no one could have expected.  Foregoing any sort of symphonic sound entirely, the composing team captures the anarchic essence of The Joker by distilling his theme down to a single, solitary note.

A mix of string instruments is electronically manipulated to produce an unconventional sound, their pitch seemingly escalating in perpetuity without breaking.  The effect is profound — and appropriately —  unsettling, like dancing on the edge of a razor.  The Joker’s theme mirrors the minimalism of Batman’s theme even as it becomes its ideological counterweight, musically reinforcing THE DARK KNIGHT’s emphasis on Batman’s and The Joker’s yin-and-yang relationship in an inspired and wholly unexpected manner.

With its ambitions and successful execution as a sprawling urban crime drama, THE DARK KNIGHT owes a profound debt to the influence of Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, HEAT.  A self-styled acolyte of Mann’s, Nolan finds in THE DARK KNIGHT a prime opportunity to make his own HEAT equivalent, albeit one where the bank robbers wear clown masks instead of ski masks.  Indeed, there are many direct connections to Mann’s film that we can draw from THE DARK KNIGHT.

In both its conception and execution, the opening bank heist sequence reads like a comic book twist on HEAT’s centerpiece scene, right down to the tactical minutiae and precision timing the criminals employ to successfully carry out the operation.  It’s not a coincidence that William Fichtner cameos in this scene, his presence serving as a playful nod to his Van Zandt character from HEAT.

While Van Zandt was a fairly meek criminal banker predisposed to hiding out in his office when the going got rough, here he’s empowered with the braggadocious confidence that only a high-powered shotgun can provide.  HEAT’s influence continues to course through THE DARK KNIGHT, whether it’s the latter inheriting the former’s signature cobalt & steel color palette, or Bruce’s spartan penthouse echoing Neil McCauley’s infamously empty beachside condo.

The fateful interrogation sequence between Batman and The Joker riffs on HEAT’s iconic coffee shop scene, with both staging themselves respectively as a battle of wits between two men sitting around a table and psychoanalyzing each other until they realize they have met their ideological inverse and intellectual equal.  Additionally, Gordon is shown heading up Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, the same department that Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna commanded in HEAT.

Indeed, Nolan lavishes a substantial amount of attention on the inner workings of the law enforcement complex as it pertains to the government and the maintaining of order.  Naturally, they have their work cut out for them in regards to The Joker, and must respond in a far more dramatic fashion than Hanna’s crew in HEAT ever did.

Among its many praises during release, critics marveled how THE DARK KNIGHT had transcended the trappings of the superhero genre to become a truly great urban crime drama– even then, the comparisons to HEAT were admittedly immediate, but the fact remains that, by applying HEAT’s storytelling template to the world of Batman, Nolan showed that a comic book movie could be so much more than its source material and that the character of Batman was more relevant to our current political climate than ever before.

THE DARK KNIGHT echoes Tim Burton’s sequel BATMAN RETURNS, in that both he and Nolan found their sensibilities somewhat constrained on their respective first films by the nature of the property and the expectations of the fans.  In other words, they were compelled to deliver fairly straightforward takes on the Caped Crusader while suppressing certain aspects of their artistic signature.  The opportunity of a sequel repays their good faith, giving them more creative control as a reward for their responsible stewardship.

In this regard, THE DARK KNIGHT is first and foremost a Christopher Nolan film, and a Batman movie second.  The character provides a natural conduit for the exploration and development of many of Nolan’s directorial signatures, to the extent that THE DARK KNIGHT becomes a defining work in his filmography.  Nolan’s narratives have always concerned the personal and intimate plights of profoundly-flawed male protagonists, but BATMAN BEGINS marked the turning point where these plights began to play out on an epic, monumental scale.

The grief and rage that drives Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego had been well-established in BATMAN BEGINS and the decades of comic book lore prior, and those same scars continue to inform the character in THE DARK KNIGHT.  His psychological issues remain unresolved, even after delivering Gotham into a period of relative peace and prosperity– his parents are still dead, and his love for Rachel Dawes remains unrequited.

The events of THE DARK KNIGHT compound his trauma by shattering his hopes for a better life with Rachel, as well as his dream of the day when he can give up the mantle of Batman entirely.

Indeed, Bruce’s emotional trajectory throughout the film revolves around his questioning the necessity of Batman’s existence and the devastating consequences he’s wrought upon the city he swore to protect.  The two and a half-hour running time provides ample room for Bruce’s arc to play out on Nolan’s largest scale yet, showing how his actions reverberate throughout the whole of Gotham.

As mentioned previously, Nolan even finds the time and a justifiable narrative reason for Batman to travel to Hong Kong, further expanding the scope of his story while satisfying his own directorial fondness for globetrotting narratives.

While many other blockbuster spectacles can lay claim to a similarly epic scale on running time or narrative sprawl alone, very few deliver it with the visceral weight and tangible physicality that THE DARK KNIGHT and Nolan’s larger filmography does.  His pursuit of practical effects wherever possible is undoubtedly a key contributor to this effect, grounding THE DARK KNIGHT’s astonishing cascade of spectacle with the gravity of real-world physics.

The world of computer-generated imagery allows us to destroy entire star systems or bring back actors long since dead, but as impressive as those visual feats are, they somehow pale in comparison to the visceral physicality of flipping a Freightliner upside-down on an actual city street or physically blowing up the entirety of a full-scale building.  Of course, one simply can’t make a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT without a generous dose of CGI, but by choosing practical in-camera effects wherever possible, Nolan successfully imbues the film with the kind of monumental gravitas that marked the classic epics from which he drew inspiration.

The bulk of Nolan’s larger filmography takes place in urban environs– as such, man’s relationship with architecture and the built environment forms an integral component of his artistic aesthetic.  THE DARK KNIGHT surveys the tapestry of urban life and its various social systems from a birds-eye view, encompassing so much of the city’s sprawl that many critics at the time argued a better title for the film would have been, simply, “GOTHAM CITY”.

Just as he examines how the contours of Gotham shape the flow of his narrative, so too does Nolan use THE DARK KNIGHT to explore the malleability of the urban landscape, and how those same contours can be actively reshaped for the purposes of criminality or justice.  Batman’s ability to glide between rooftops allows him to navigate the urban labyrinth of Gotham in a manner far different than the civilians below.  He can create doors and entrances for himself where there were none previously.

He can take advantage of negative space within a building’s design, turning it into a shortcut accessible only to him. An arsenal of equipment and a re-tooled Batsuit facilitates these abilities, giving him an edge by navigating Gotham in ways that conventional law enforcement officials cannot.  The Joker enjoys similar advantages, albeit through lower-tech tools like gunpowder and gasoline, but his use of them nonetheless positions him as Batman’s equal and a formidable counterweight.

Their mutual ascent to this elevated plane naturally manifests in a palpable theatricality, which Nolan balances with his artistic interest in functional style.  A common complaint shared by previous Batmen like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s current iteration alike is the sheer discomfort of Batman’s latex rubber suit– the outfit was a single, heavy piece that was hot, stuffy, and greatly restricted mobility and vision.

Bale famously channeled the anger and the crippling headaches he felt inside the suit into his performance for BATMAN BEGINS, using the pain and discomfort to his benefit.  For THE DARK KNIGHT, the filmmakers wanted to design a new, functional Batsuit that would reduce these problems, and so replaced the latex with individual plates of armor conjoined by a mesh undersuit.

The final result is a dramatic reinterpretation of Batman’s iconic outfit that maintains the classic silhouette– a design that Nolan actively works into the narrative by having Bruce communicate to Lucius Fox his desire for a more functional suit that can stand up to the elevated threat posed by The Joker.

The Clown Prince of Crime’s sartorial sensibilities also echo the conceit of functional style– his scraggly purple suit pays homage to the character’s classically campy appearance from the comic books while staying within the confines of Nolan’s grounded reality.  As evidenced by the fact that his handmade clothing contains no labels, The Joker’s choice of outfit appropriately conveys his anarchic identity, but it also serves a tactical use– whether it’s the cavernous pockets of his overcoat hiding an array of explosives rigged to his person, or a stinger blade hidden in his boots that can pop out at will.

Finally, one cannot talk about THE DARK KNIGHT as a definitive work in Nolan’s canon without mention of what is arguably the core component of his directorial identity– time, and the manipulation thereof.  BATMAN BEGINS unspooled in a somewhat non-linear fashion, incorporating flashbacks at strategic story junctures as Bruce gradually became Batman.

With his vigilante alter-ego firmly established, THE DARK KNIGHT naturally inhabits a constant forward flow of time; its story progressing in linear order.  That being said, the manipulation of time does serve an important narrative function.  The trope of the “ticking clock” is about as cliched as they come, but it’s nonetheless a vital tool to generate suspense for the audience.  The Joker incorporates this tool into his own arsenal, using “the ticking clock” as a way to persuade his victims to act against their self-interests or compromise their principles.

The best instance of this is also one of the highlights of the entire film– a nail-biting suspense sequence where two ferries carrying a load of law-abiding civilians and incarcerated felons respectively are revealed to be rigged with explosives.  The Joker’s characteristic twist on the situation is that he’s given both boats the detonator to the other bomb, challenging them each to blow the other sky-high before a predetermined time– if neither side hits the button before time runs out, then he’ll personally blow both boats with his own detonator.

This sets up an agonizing moral quandary for the occupants of either boat: do they destroy the other boat to save their own lives?  The fact that one of the boats is filled with convicted criminals adds another wrinkle to the dilemma– the law-abiding civilians would be justified in hitting the button, citing their fear that the criminals would not have the same respect for human life as they do.

However, to do so would be to pass blind judgment on the inmates, denying their humanity and capacity for compassion and, in effect, making them more inhuman than the killers and rapists they stand to destroy.  This sequence, which could have made for a captivating feature film in its own right, uses the pressure of a ticking clock to effortlessly distill THE DARK KNIGHT’s core conflict between civilized society and anarchy to its ideological essence.

Additionally, Nolan’s fondness for cross-cutting between parallel threads of action allows him to manipulate time himself, compressing it into one cosmic instance across sprawling distances.  Naturally, this does away with the objective truth that real-time provides, but Nolan inherently understands that cinema has the unique ability to subvert the flow of time while uncovering the emotional truth hidden underneath.

To Nolan, time is not an unstoppable, forward-marching force beyond our control — it is merely another storytelling tool; a dimension that can be stepped outside of and manipulated to his will.  THE DARK KNIGHT makes frequent use of this technique, structuring its story around several nexus points of action like the opening bank heist, the Hong Kong extradition, the Wacker Drive chase, or the hostage situation in the unfinished tower, and subsequently compressing time and space into tidy narrative blocks that each build to a cathartic emotional release.

The end result is an experience that some critics decried as a breathless succession of 3rd-Act climaxes– an admittedly reductive judgment, to be sure, but one that aims to convey the impression that a lot happens in THE DARK KNIGHT.  Simply put, Nolan’s vision for the film is exhaustive; his epic ambitions and his tackling of some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore combine to make what is arguably the ultimate screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader.

Nolan’s ability to compress long narrative distances over short spans of time is a key aspect of his artistic skillset, and in the case of THE DARK KNIGHT, it is a major driving force behind the film’s critical and commercial success.

Indeed, to call THE DARK KNIGHT “a success” is an extreme understatement– it’s essentially THE GODFATHER PART II of superhero films in both execution and critical standing.  By any reasonable metric, the film’s release and reception proved a watershed moment in mainstream studio filmmaking, the effects of which are still reverberating across the cinematic landscape nearly a decade later.

Just as BATMAN BEGINS sparked the trend of the “dark and gritty” reboot, THE DARK KNIGHT inspired a countless wave of bombastic imitators that drew the wrong lessons from Nolan’s success, like equating an epic scope with bloated running times or reveling in misguided dramatic beats masquerading as “bold” storytelling.  Produced for $185 million dollars and scoring over a billion dollars in ticket sales to become the 26th highest-grossing film of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT was a box office success of biblical proportions.

To put this into perspective, it only took six days for THE DARK KNIGHT to surpass the numbers posted by BATMAN BEGINS’ entire domestic run.  The film’s monumental success was the result of a perfect storm of factors: it belonged to an iconic franchise with a rabid global fanbase, it was a highly-anticipated sequel to a well-received predecessor, and it was filmed by a director known for his riveting storytelling and impeccable technical craftsmanship, to name just a few.

The X factor, the one thing it had that other films of its caliber did not was Ledger’s tragic death– and the morbid curiosity it fueled at the prospect of witnessing the final performance of an actor as such a ghoulish character.  Nolan’s desire to transcend the confines of the comic book genre propelled THE DARK KNIGHT all the way to the Oscars, where it was nominated in eight categories and would win for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor.

The Academy obviously leaves a tangible impression on the films it honors, but rarely does it happen the other way around– THE DARK KNIGHT’s failure to score a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director was seen by many in the industry as an injustice (if not an outright travesty), and the ensuing chatter was so loud that, the following year, the Academy doubled the number of nomination slots in the Best Picture category from five to ten in a bid to be more inclusive of well-received films that didn’t quite meet the conventional expectations of an “Oscar-worthy” picture.

It may have failed to enshrine itself in Oscar glory, but THE DARK KNIGHT is a triumph from every conceivable angle.  It’s not hyperbole to call THE DARK KNIGHT the most quintessential mainstream American film of the 2000’s– its identity is profoundly shaped by the ideas and anxieties that drove the course of history around it.  As for Nolan himself, the film is arguably his most definitive work– the capstone to a towering and influential body of work that still has several decades yet to play out.

Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.


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