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The Dark Knight a decade on - the superhero movie we both needed and deserved

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The Dark Knight Trilogy is to superhero movies what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Three films on a level almost unmatched by anything before or since. A pinnacle of the genre at its finest. None of Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies shows this off as well as the middle entry – The Dark Knight. It’s hard to believe that it is already ten years old, yet this came out when the Marvel Cinematic Universe had barely started. 

The Dark Knight is a very important moment for comic book movies, which weren’t exactly floundering at the box office but had not become the inescapable sensation they are now. The still very likeable Batman Begins (2005) had just about raised an eyebrow, and this was followed by the disappointing flop of Superman Returns (2006). The X-Men Trilogy (as it was at that point) struggled to consistently get over the half a billion dollars mark globally. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies started well but ended with the underwhelming Spiderman 3 (2007). And let’s not even talk about The Incredible Hulk (2008). The MCU certainly doesn’t.

Then almost out of nowhere, we get The Dark Knight. That moment in history where we can say “There. That was when superhero movies got their new millennium mojo”. It made in its first week what its predecessor had made during its entire theatrical run. It was only the fourth film in history to make over a billion dollars across the globe. It was also the most commercially successful superhero movie ever, a record later snatched up by Avengers Assemble in 2012.

It is not just its unprecedented success in cinemas that make The Dark Knight so legendary. The film itself is magnificent; an intelligent and absorbing crime thriller that ditches the stylised look of Batman Begins and sees the eponymous hero pushed to his ragged edge. Nolan makes a film fuelled by chaos, that is the chaos of a post-9/11 world and the ethics of fighting evil; the chaos of modern capitalism’s supposed security. Finally, there is the slowly escalating chaos of the film's antagonist, and the increasing danger for all involved. 

Said antagonist – The Joker – is the film’s crowning glory. Heath Ledger sealed a special place in history by producing one of the greatest villain performances we have ever seen. Even Michael Caine was reportedly scared of him on set. He is twisted, full of menace and malice and with no goal other than destruction. There is a complexity and watchability that Marvel has only just managed to match this year with Thanos. It’s an intoxicating performance, and Ledger deserved the posthumous Oscar he was awarded– the only academy award for acting ever given to a superhero movie.

That’s not to say that Christian Bale’s Batman – or any of the cast, for that matter – are embarrassingly shown up Michael Keaton-style. They all deliver at their peak. As does Nolan's directing, and his sharing screenplay duties with his brother Jonathon. The set pieces are immense, the plot detailed but not confusing, and they even find time for the odd joke. Nolan pioneered a darker, smarter style of blockbuster that has been ever copied since, but never bettered. It’s why films are described as “Nolanesque”.

It’s important to reflect on the success of The Dark Knight, because of how the mighty have fallen. Following The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the reset button was hit so that the DC extended universe could form. Apart from last year’s Wonder Woman, this has not went well. Watching a DC movie today is to shake your head in dismay at questionable decisions and bemoan an apparent lack of effort or thoughtfulness. Since the DCU started, none of the new films have been a bigger commercial success than the last two Dark Knight movies, and for good reason.

On the other hand, Marvel have thrived. The MCU is now nineteen films strong (soon to be twenty this year with Ant Man and the Wasp) and the top six most successful comic book adaptations ever are all MCU movies. Avengers: Infinity War has been a resounding success, raking in over $2 billion worldwide. But Nolan was the precedent. The Dark Knight was the first superhero movie this century to unquestionably reach a fan base beyond the traditional comic-savvy audience, and has set a precedent for every one since.

The Dark Knight has the quality and entertainment factor that audiences were craving. By the time Disney bought Marvel Studios in 2009, Nolanhad prepped the world for a cinema phenomenon that has been cashed in on almost constantly since. It is a film of the highest quality, reverence and significance. Despite Batfleck’s best efforts, it will not be forgotten soon.

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