In a film about Batman, the Joker will always stand out above him as a diabolical iconWARNER BROS. PICTURES

“Why so serious?” Why name as the best film in one of cinema’s lightest genres a movie without a single joke in it? Even worse, a superhero movie without a single joke in it? That a superhero film should be named in the action category by this generation of students is no surprise. Over the decade which followed The Dark Knight’s release, superheroes have come to dominate the box office. Spy or heist films have now become the exception rather than the rule.

“It makes us care as much about the state of Batman’s conscience as his flipping over a semi-truck.”

But this is not the only way in which The Dark Knight has come to define the cinema of the last ten years. It established Christopher Nolan as an authorial force of almost Spielbergian stature. It also wrote the score for nearly every blockbuster that followed. After his work on Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean, Hans Zimmer’s collaboration with James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight, and the Joker’s theme in particular, marked the birth of Zimmer’s late style, which abandons melody in favour of texture and rhythm. That very style gave us Inception, the single most influential piece of film music since Star Wars.

The Dark Knight’s influence is not, however, what made it special enough to win in our film survey’s action category. The fact that it is a near-perfect movie did. Strangely enough, one might not typically describe The Dark Knight to someone who has not seen it as an action film, and many of its fans would be hesitant to do so. One of its many successes is that it makes us care as much about the state of Batman’s conscience as his flipping over a semi-truck. This is not just down to Nolans’ script. The brilliant Lee Smith, who has edited every Nolan film since Batman Begins, gives every scene as much attention as a good editor typically gives the action scenes, delivering an impeccably paced film, despite its 145-minute runtime.

Harvey Dent further reveals our worst fears of system infiltrationWARNER BROS. PICTURES

Nolan’s film also stands out because it has different sources to the superhero films which came before it. The main inspiration seems to have been Michael Mann’s gangster films, and his masterpiece, Heat, above all. As well as the film’s opening heist, The Dark Knight borrows straight from Mann’s colour palette of beiges and navy blues, and features the same semi-realistic depiction of Italian-American mobsters. But these, as in Batman Begins, do not serve as the main villains of The Dark Knight, far from it.

The first and last thing that is said about The Dark Knight, most of the time, has to do with Heath Ledger’s Joker. While he has by now gone the full circle of being a culturally oversaturated motif, he remains worth talking about, and not just for the well-known stories of Ledger’s total dedication to the role. Part of what is interesting about the Joker is that he should not work. The Dark Knight’s Joker is the antithesis of Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face, and even of Jack Nicholson’s own Joker, in one respect: he has no motive. Or rather, his motive seems to be the ‘Bad Writing Sin’ of simply being evil for its own sake. Except this is not quite the case.

“Batman, Gordon, and Fox do not defeat the Joker using the same morally irreproachable methods as Superman or Spiderman.”

As he eloquently explains in his hospital speech to Harvey Dent, the Joker has no endgame other than to cause chaos, to “upset the established order.” To this end, he does not use the techniques of warfare like The League of Shadows in Batman Begins. Instead, he sends cryptically threatening videos to the media, takes hostages, destroys public buildings, and uses suicide bombers, exploiting the mentally vulnerable to serve his destructive agenda. The Joker stands for everything the post-9/11 West is afraid of. He is not just scary because he is a mix of Tom Waits’s diction and Malcolm McDowell’s eyes in A Clockwork Orange. He is scary because he is what we are scared of when we switch over to the news channel.

Indeed, more than simply the Joker, The Dark Knight as a whole is a very scary film, and that that is part of what has made it so compelling for our generation. Batman, Gordon, and Fox do not defeat the Joker using the same morally irreproachable methods as Superman in the Christopher Reeve films, or Spiderman in Sam Raimi’s trilogy. They do so by making increasingly dubious choices. Most notoriously, the final confrontation with the Joker is made possible because Batman spies on all 30 million of Gotham’s inhabitants just to find one man (without telling them before or after doing so, of course), but this is only after illegally extraditing a foreign national, not to mention the use of torture. The critic Dan Olson has observed that “the implication in The Dark Knight is that massive violations of civil liberties – by a vigilante no less – are all OK, as long as you promise to tear down the system once you got what you were looking for.”

Is it solely the action that marks the film out as a modern cinematic masterpiece?WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Olson later acknowledged that his assessment of the film might have been unfair, which is probable considering that the hero making morally questionable choices both despite and because of his strong principles has been a constant feature of Nolan’s cinema since Memento, and Batman has, since the 80s, proved fertile ground for a more complex discussion of superhero ethics.

The final scene of The Dark Knight is also evocative of Memento because it repeats the same idea of the necessity of lying to oneself to remain happy. While both Gordon and Leonard’s speeches are delivered with an equally optimistic tone, by the end of Memento Leonard is obviously morally repugnant, or at least some of his actions are clearly objectionable from the viewer’s perspective. In The Dark Knight, the score and the use of the IMAX camera (the first feature-film to do so) lends the scene an epic scope which reinforces agreement rather than disagreement with Gordon’s argument.

“Solidifying Bush’s preferred portrayal of terrorism as an evil much greater than any of the evils necessary for its eradication.”

All of Nolan’s films, except for the Dark Knight trilogy, make for fairly obvious tributes to the power of cinema, with Inception exposing Nolan’s Grand Theory of the director (Cobb) planting an idea in the mind of the viewer (the dreamer), without the viewer realising, through the medium of film (dreaming). What Nolan’s Batman films present instead are the conflicts between narratives about people and the world. When Batman and Gordon choose to lie about Dent’s crimes at the end of the film, it is the victory of the Joker’s view of humanity. If, for there to be order, a mythical hero has to be constructed, then people are not, as Batman claims when he confronts the Joker, inherently good. Batman chooses to lie to the people and justifies it by saying “the Joker cannot win.” In order for his truth to win, to emerge as the correct view of the world, he has to make up a lie.

In a typically Nolanesque turn of metacinema, The Dark Knight is the very thing it represents. It is a narrative which justifies the torture and mass surveillance carried out by the Bush government by solidifying Bush’s preferred portrayal of terrorism as an evil much greater than any of the evils necessary for its eradication. By showing us the moment that the decision to lie to the people “for their own good” is made, Nolan might have revealed to us something similar to what he, as an independent filmmaker, might have experienced when he was recruited to direct a trilogy of big-budget superhero films. In his own words “most movies present a quite comfortable universe where we’re given an objective truth that we don’t get in everyday life. That’s one of the reasons we go to the movies.” And he made it his mission to challenge this objective truth

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