10 years later, what makes The Dark Knight different than the superhero movies that followed?
Since kicking off its cinematic universe with Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has dominated the movies. All 20 installments have been financial juggernauts, a scale of unprecedented branding success for a conglomerate that is arguably not even a movie franchise anymore. By all accounts, the MCU is the most successful franchise in the history of cinema. Critics often bemoan the glut of superhero movies, but the DC films are a blip compared to Marvel. The MCU has become nearly synonymous with the superhero genre.
Which feels wrong, because it doesn’t even include the greatest superhero movie of all. The Dark Knight was released 10 years ago today, just two months after Iron Man arrived to launch the MCU. The Dark Knight was a critical and cultural smash hit, earning $158 million in its opening weekend (this gross would place it just seventh among the MCU installments). Heath Ledger became an instant legend for his performance as the Joker, for which he earned a posthumous Academy Award. The film’s exclusion from the Best Picture category despite widespread critical acclaim was also considered to be key in expanding the field of Best Picture nominees to 10 the following year.
There are many reasons why The Dark Knight towers above the MCU films. It has succinct, memorable action sequences that aren’t just a cacophony of what Josh Larsen of Filmspotting dubs the ‘punchplosions’ of the Marvel films. It was made by a prestige director in Christopher Nolan, someone who has garnered critical praise for non-superhero movies like Memento and Dunkirk and who knows how to balance the action with character intrigue. It’s part of a trilogy but is able to tell a story on its own terms, rather than serve the needs of future installments. And, most significantly, it has a divine performance by Ledger, who completely owns the movie with just 33 minutes of screentime.
These are technical components of The Dark Knight, classic avenues of film criticism used to understand what makes one movie better than another. But there’s something more intangible, or more thematic, that separates Nolan’s vision of the caped crusader from the superheroes that followed. The Dark Knight, unlike the MCU empire, possesses a willingness to engage with the question of whether we should need superheroes at all.
The premise of The Dark Knight is not unlike other superhero movies. There are some bad guys (the mob, the Joker), and there’s our hero, and our hero does superhero things to take down the bad guys. Unlike other superhero movies, though, the question doesn’t turn on whether Batman (Christian Bale) has the capacity to stop the bad guys. He easily dangles the leader of the mob over an alleyway, and quickly captures the mob’s accountant in Hong Kong.
The Joker is an incomprehensible menace, but his plans are haphazard, his operation is small, and he is a meager physical presence. When the Joker crashes the fundraiser Bruce Wayne puts on for Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), his best physical move seems to be kicking Batman with a small blade in his shoe; in the interrogation scene, Batman destroys him physically. Early in the movie, Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Wayne to “know your limits,” after a fight left him stitching himself up. “Batman has no limits,” Wayne replies.
Batman does have his limits, but they turn out to be symbolic, not physical. The Joker admits he’s not really interested in his proposal to the mob to ‘kill the Batman.’ Instead, his schemes are predicated on Gotham’s overdependence on Batman as their savior, and how quickly they’ll descend into chaos to turn on their former hero if the Joker gives them the slightest push. He’s a madman, but he’s not a nihilist; the Joker’s anarchic intentions are political/philosophical in nature.
Wayne himself recognizes the conundrum: the bad guys need to be stopped, but they can’t be stopped as long as he is in the picture. He has his eyes on Dent as his replacement. Explaining why Gotham no longer needed Batman, he tells Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal): “He locked up half of the city's criminals, and he did it without wearing a mask. Gotham needs a hero with a face.”
Which is why Rachel is so frustrated when, at the press conference to reveal the identity of Batman, Wayne lets Dent call himself Batman instead of revealing it to be Wayne himself. Rachel, incredulous, asks Alfred how Wayne could let that happen. Alfred suggests that Wayne and Dent both know that doing the right thing isn’t always the same thing as being heroic. “He’s not being a hero,” Alfred says. “He’s being something more.”
Ultimately, however, the Joker is able to turn Dent into a monster, ruining the public face of Gotham Wayne believes the city needs in order to replace Batman. Rather than let the people of Gotham see what Dent has become, Batman takes the blame, destroying his reputation as a hero so the city can uphold Dent as a vision of the possibility of institutional reform.
This is the message that defines The Dark Knight: the question of whether we’d be better off replacing our trust in heroes with a trust in ourselves. In Rachel’s letter to Wayne, she asks him to “please keep your faith in people.” It’s no accident that the film’s climax is less about the brief face-off between Batman and the Joker than about whether the ordinary citizens on the two boats the Joker rigged with explosives will blow each other up to save themselves.
They don’t, tying their lives to a blind faith in the goodness of humanity. The people didn’t need a hero with a mask to impart justice on their city, it turns out. They had those values within themselves.
This is a completely different approach to superheroism than that of the MCU. Marvel’s heroes sometimes get vilified, but the ire of the public is hardly ever a focus; in fact, the people our heroes are purportedly saving are hardly ever on screen. The MCU is more insular than that: it’s about the dynamic among the heroes, and between the heroes and the villains, exclusively.
It’s a perspective that leaves little question to the franchise’s sympathies: being a hero is good, having heroes in the world is good, and we need them to save us, over and over, from global (or even inter-galactic) annihilation. Tony Stark may be a smarmy asshole, and Starlord may be a bit daft, but the overwhelming goodness of the Avengers is never in question.
It’s a dynamic that went beyond the MCU this year, with Incredibles 2 (note: Incredibles 2 spoilers in this paragraph and the next). The villainy in that film centers on a plot to eliminate superheroes completely, precisely because we are over-dependent on their help. “The rest of us are supposed to put our lives into your gloved hands,” Evelyn says to Elastigirl, explaining her evil scheme. “That’s what my father believed. When our home was broken into, my mother wanted to hide. Begged my father to use the safe room. But father insisted they call his superhero friends. He died—pointlessly, stupidly—waiting for heroes to save the day...superheroes keep us weak!”
The Incredibles, of course, are able to foil her plot, and save the fate of superheroes. The family goes right back to fighting crime, which is good, because they’re our heroes, and we like them. But the movie never really provides a convincing justification for why Evelyn is wrong. Is it not reasonable for her to want people to be more self-sufficient, less dependent on these shining paragons of strength and virtue to save them? The Incredibles, for their part, certainly seem to do a lot of property damage to the city.
Making these movies with an absolutist faith in the goodness of superheroes is not a bad thing, per se. It certainly makes for tidy, consistent action movies, with uncomplicated heroes who are easy to celebrate. But it’s less interesting, and, perhaps, reflective of a concerning trend.
Entertainment is, to a certain extent, escapism. But all art comes from the world in which its creators exist, and the defining movie genre of a given time has never been an exception. During the Great Depression, Musicals and Charlie Chaplin’s class-tinged comedies provided a means of recognition and escape. The post-WWII Western immortalized images of American exceptionalism. Perhaps, then, the Superhero Era is reflective of a people who believe they need saving.
Only 19% of U.S. citizens trust the government to do its job, and this measure of political efficacy has been declining consistently since 2001. We are increasingly skeptical of the government’s capacity to provide us with the services we need. So, as Alfred says of the mob, the American people, “in their desperation...turned to a man they didn't fully understand.” A man, like the Joker, who tells us he has the answers to our problems, and tells us we need to rattle the system, but really has no plan at all, and only leaves us worse off than before. It should be no surprise that horror and sci-fi are the other genres most on the rise; our entertainment is reflective of a people who think the world is falling apart.
A deference to powerful heroes goes beyond a perverse infatuation with the president. This week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s political contributions became a controversy, after revelations that he donated thousands of dollars to the Republican Party. Those on the left called him a hypocrite for seeming to oppose the GOP’s climate change policies and yet still giving them money; Musk himself took to Twitter to clarify his political stance and defend his donations.
The question should not be whether Musk is a hypocrite, though, but rather why we should expect him not to be one. A billionaire entrepreneur has no societal obligation to use his wealth for benevolent purposes, and it’s dangerous for us to expect that they should. Zuckerberg and Bezos may be the caretakers of vast portions of our social conditions, but that does not mean they will willingly improve that condition at the expense of their own self-interest. And even when it seems like they might, we should be wary. Corporate philanthropy is good, but the causes it goes towards are entirely at the whim of the billionaire behind it, and it’s a nice way to evade paying taxes. A better social condition is something we must create ourselves.
The Dark Knight warned against this, against an over-dependence on the all-powerful. Even if Batman can save us, maybe he shouldn’t, because if he falters, or once he’s gone, we’ll be helpless. We need to be the people in the boats, not the man behind the mask.
Incredibles 2 was the highest grossing opening weekend ever for an animated film, and the MCU has four new movies on deck, with no end in sight. It seems the unquestioned reign of superheroes is set to continue indefinitely. If they are here to stay, I could use a little more of the self-reflection The Dark Knight had. I want superhero movies that restores my faith in people, not my faith in heroes.