The Dark Knight: how most critics got it wrong 10 years ago about film that changed the way world saw comic-book adaptations
The dark Batman sequel – the first feature film to make full and extensive use of Imax camera technology – garnered eight Oscar nominations and won two, but at the time critics were divided on its merits
Roger Ebert got it right away.
“Batman isn’t a comic book any more,” the legendary film critic wrote in the summer of 2008 upon the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Instead the reviewer saw “a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy … This film, and to a lesser degree Iron Man, redefine the possibilities of the ‘comic-book movie.’ ”
When The Dark Knight landed in cinemas 10 years ago on Wednesday, the “comic-book movie” centring on superheroes had certainly experienced some creative peaks, including Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s first two Superman movies beginning in the ’70s, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Bryan Singer’s first X-Men in 2000 and the launch of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise.
But in 2008, even after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man birthed the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that same summer, superhero cinema was not accorded much artistic pedigree. As art, it was popcorn filmmaking that didn’t even rise to the level of Star Wars, many mainstream critics and film-goers believed.
Nolan, his sibling co-writer Jonathan Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister greatly altered common perspectives on superhero movies. Their dark Batman sequel – the first feature to make full and extensive use of influential Imax camera technology – scored critically, garnering eight Oscar nominations and winning two, including a posthumous trophy for Heath Ledger’s hauntingly iconic performance as the Joker.
But could such a bleak film draw swarms of summer fans? As The Wall Street Journal wrote at the time: “The whole movie is a social experiment on a global scale, an ambitious, lavish attempt to see if audiences will turn out for a comic-book epic that goes beyond darkness into Stygian bleakness, grim paradox, endless betrayals and pervasive corruption.”
The film, of course, scored commercially, too, becoming the first superhero movie – and only the fourth film ever at the time – to top US$1 billion in worldwide gross. When adjusting for inflation, Dark Knight is one of the biggest superhero movies ever, sitting in the company of such recent behemoths as Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War .
Dark Knight was such a well-regarded success that its failure to land a best picture nomination is commonly cited as the academy’s impetus for changing the rules to allow up to 10 best picture nominees each year.
In the long view, that best picture snub has only enhanced The Dark Knight’s reputation as a masterpiece. For many fans, it soars even above such later acclaimed Christopher Nolan films as Inception and Dunkirk (the latter finally bringing Nolan his first Oscar nomination for directing).
Yet a decade later – as Variety reports that Dark Knight will get a limited Imax 10th-anniversary re-release next month – it’s worth reflecting on just how much critical prejudice the film faced at the time, and how some of the most notable national movie critics then couldn’t appreciate what Nolan had delivered.
Some reviewers, even while appreciating Ledger’s riveting performance, could see little else to like amid the darkness of this brooding Batman.
Ebert was among the critics who articulated why Nolan’s second film in his Batman trilogy stood apart from many of its predecessors, writing: “It is customary in a comic book movie to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen.
“The Dark Knight slips around those defences and engages us … Because these actors and others are so powerful, and because the movie does not allow its spectacular special effects to upstage the humans, we’re surprised how deeply the drama affects us.”
Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post’s chief film critic a decade ago, was among those who believed that Dark Knight, despite its highs, yielded mixed results.
“It’s because Ledger’s performance is so intense and so lasting; it’s because despite the insane mask, it’s a subtle, nuanced piece of acting so powerful it banishes all memories of the handsome Aussie behind it,” Hunter wrote.
“The make-up seems to have liberated him: he is supple of body, expressive with only his eyes, and his voice has undulations of irony and mockery and psychopathology to it. He is an essay – in a way he’s never before been, playing straight-faced characters – in pure charisma.”
That achievement, though, came with a price in the critic’s eyes.
“The performance is also the most interesting thing in the film,” Hunter wrote, “and when the Joker is absent, The Dark Knight loses most of its energy and dynamism and becomes nothing but a pretty-boy face off between Christian Bale [as Batman] and Aaron Eckhart [as Harvey Dent].”
The Baltimore Sun’s Michael Sragow, by contrast, thoroughly panned the “plods toward predictability” story.
“The Dark Knight is a handsome, accomplished piece of work, but it drove me from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then it went on for two hours more,” Sragow wrote. “It’s the standard-bearer for the school of comic-book movies that confuses pompousness with seriousness and popular mechanics for drama.
“It’s scaled to be an urban epic about the deterioration of hope and possibility in Batman’s hometown, Gotham City (standing in for all Western cities), but there isn’t a single stirring or inspired moment in it.”
New York Magazine’s David Edelstein was similarly unimpressed.
“It’s a shock – and very effective – to see a comic-book villain come on like a Quentin Tarantino reservoir dog,” Edelstein wrote. “But then the novelty wears off and the lack of imagination, visual and otherwise, turns into a drag.
“The Dark Knight is noisy, jumbled, and sadistic. Even its most wondrous vision – Batman’s plunges from skyscrapers, bat-wings snapping open as he glides through the night like a human kite – can’t keep the movie airborne. There’s an anvil attached to that cape.”
The Austin Chronicle’s Marc Savlov struck a similar tone.
“There’s something intangible missing from this Dark Knight,” he wrote. “ … For all its thrum and thunder, from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s wonderfully percussive score to the eerily beautiful shots of Batman, his cape fully unfurled, swooping among the vertiginous, skyscraping towers of downtown Gotham City, Nolan’s film feels chilly and ill at ease.
“Apart from the perpetually fascinating [Maggie] Gyllenhaal, who plays Bruce Wayne’s once-upon-a-girlfriend Rachel Dawes, The Dark Knight lives up to its title in both tone and execution, a grim commentary on a grimmer reality.
“The only thing here that feels truly, utterly alive is Ledger’s maniacal, muttery Joker. The last laugh is his and his alone. It’s enough to make you cry.”
For Newsweek’s David Ansen, the darkness blotted out his capacity to enjoy the film.
“There’s not a touch of lightness in Bale’s taut, angst-ridden superhero, and as the two-and-a-half-hour movie enters its second half, the unvarying intensity and the sometimes confusing action sequences take a toll,” he wrote.
“You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn’t be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not Hamlet. Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun.”
Then there was The New Yorker’s David Denby, who appreciated Ledger’s performance and some of the effects – yet he had no use for Bale, let alone the coming bombardment of superhero franchises.
“The Joker taunts and giggles, and Batman can only extend his wings,” Denby wrote. “It’s a workable dramatic conflict, but only half the team can act it. Christian Bale has been effective in some films, but he is a placid Bruce Wayne, a swank gent in Armani suits, with every hair in place.
“He is more urgent as Batman, but he delivers all his lines in a hoarse voice, with an unvarying inflection. It’s a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger … [whose] performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.”
Denby built up to the toughest part of his takedown.
“I can’t rate The Dark Knight as an outstanding piece of craftsmanship. [2005’s] Batman Begins was grim and methodical, and this movie is grim and jammed together. The narrative isn’t shaped coherently to bring out contrasts and build toward a satisfying climax.
“The Dark Knight is constant climax; it’s always in a frenzy, and it goes on forever. Nothing is prepared for, and people show up and disappear without explanation; characters are eliminated with a casual nod.”
Then came Denby’s final shovel-full of dirt in his burial of the film: “The Dark Knight has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it – while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next instalment of the corporate franchise.”