It’s hard to imagine a time when DC was beating Marvel on the big screen, but that was exactly the case when The Dark Knight debuted in theaters 10 years ago today and raised the bar for superhero films forever. From Heath Ledger’s devastating performance as the Joker, to real stunts that included actually flipping an 18-wheeler and demolishing a factory, the best film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was lauded for its serious tone and depiction of Gotham City as a post-Sept. 11th, paranoid police state. Compared to other superhero films of the era, such as the flashy Spider-Man and X-Men trilogies of the 2000s, or even the playful earlier Batman movies by Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher, The Dark Knight was uncomfortably realistic and unrelenting. “You’ve changed things,” the Joker says. “Forever.”
Looking back a decade later, audiences are still noticing bits about the film—like the strangeness of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in the hospital being unable to recognize the Joker (in his full insane makeup) while wearing a tiny surgical mask. Or the fact that the Joker, having wiped out nearly all of his criminal competition by the end of the movie, might be a better vigilante than Batman (Christian Bale).
But despite The Dark Knight’s lasting effect on cinema, everything about the film was intended to be a temporary shake-up. Instead, we’ve been living in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s brooding vision of Batman, as countless superhero movies of the last 10 years continue to mimic The Dark Knight’s gritty and grounded tone, mistaking darkness for depth.
In the film, Bruce Wayne inspires good as “The Batman,” with crime bosses on the run and a new district attorney who can possibly take up the mantle of being Gotham City’s (legitimate) protector. Just a year in as the Caped Crusader, Bruce is ready to ditch the cowl, so he can be with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and live a normal life. For him, Batman is a temporary solution needed to clean up the city.
The first time Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent meet (Bruce crashes Harvey’s dinner with Rachel), a similar topic comes up. Rachel mentions Julius Caesar, who was appointed as a provisional protector of Rome and later never relinquished his power. At the end of The Dark Knight, the Joker is responsible for eliminating every other major Mob boss in the city. Dent also falls, leaving Commissioner Gordon and Batman alone to pick up the pieces. In both instances, a temporary change meant to bring about greatness has instead lingered and is now causing problems.
The Dark Knight was a movie about the effects of breaking the rules.
On screen, The Dark Knight was intended as darker alternative to traditional comic book movies, featuring a deeper level of realism than in previous superhero flicks. But rather than be recognized as a one-off that broke the mold, like Spider-Man or Sin City or even 1990’s seven-color Dick Tracy, The Dark Knight instead pushed filmmakers to adopt its brooding, violent and depressing tone that the genre (and subsequent DC films especially) now can’t seem to escape.
This is not to say that serious superhero films can’t be good (Wonder Woman, Logan, Infinity War and Black Panther are all great), or that all good superhero films are gloomy (look at The Incredibles 2, Thor: Ragnarok or even The Lego Batman Movie). It’s about remembering that The Dark Knight was a movie about the effects of breaking the rules. “Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos,” the Joker explains. It's 10 years later, and we’re still struggling with the same question in so many superhero films: Why so serious?