In the midst of celebrations around the 10-year anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, many will be evaluating the film’s impact on cinema, and remembering Heath Ledger’s career-defining turn as The Joker. There’s a plethora of thoughts and musings on the film already. But the simple fact remains that the film is iconic and deserves revisiting again and again. Yes, it may have some plot holes and some elements that don’t quite hit the heady heights of others but it has quite rightly been labelled a modern classic. Here are six ways the film transcended its shortcomings and changed the superhero genre forever.
Heath Ledger’s Game-Changing Casting
An unsurprising bit of trivia here — the role of The Joker was hotly pursued by many in Hollywood hoping to nab the part. Hollywood’s finest were keen to emulate Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman, which in turn set a precedent for A-list superstars playing Batman villains. Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Paul Bettany and more were linked to the new version before Ledger was cast, with Nolan saying that they “completely saw eye-to-eye on the bigger picture of this guy”.
His casting sent shock-waves through the industry, in a similar way to when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman in 1989 — but under the added glare of social media and internet commentators. Ledger had the last laugh, though, and his performance raised his reputation into the stratosphere.
Revolutionising the Blockbuster Experience with IMAX
“No-one has ever done this before… I felt shooting certain sections of this film using IMAX technology would give us the biggest possible canvas on which to keep telling the story,” said Christopher Nolan back in 2008. A huge undertaking, the sequences meant “going back to school” for Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and others, as the technology was very different from what they were familiar with.
There were only four IMAX cameras in the world then and they were bulky, incredibly hard to use (with one actually breaking during the bank-heist sequence) and so loud when turned on that much of the dialogue in those sequences had to be re-recorded. The results, though, were spectacular and fans flocked to see the film in its expanded version, rewriting IMAX box-office records forever.
Games, Scavenger Hunts and More — the Film’s Immersive Marketing
Back in 1989 when Tim Burton’s Batman was released, there was a firestorm of activity outside of the actual filmmaking process. It was something that Burton and co weren’t hugely aware of while they were shooting the film in London.
Across the US, Batman as an entity had become something more and Warner Bros embarked on a whirlwind of commercialisation that encompassed breakfast cereals, lunch-boxes, toys and more. Eight years later, that tack would play its part in the downfall of the franchise.
So, the studios thought smarter and decided to engage audiences right off the bat, utilising the internet to create viral campaigns designed to help “uncover” film secrets. Scavenger hunts, photos and trailers were all seeded to help market the films. One such stunt featuring a cake with a cellphone and wires caused a news station to be evacuated because it looked like a real explosive device.
The First Comic-Book Film to Join the $1 Billion Club
Batman Begins was a great success in 2005 but didn’t set the box office alight in the same way that Spider-Man and the X-Men had done in the years prior. Grossing just over $374 million worldwide, it went a long way in repairing the damage done by Batman & Robin and made a big splash on home entertainment formats. It followed that expectations were high for the follow-up. But no-one could have predicted its impact.
Opening on July 18, 2008, The Dark Knight shattered opening weekend records, taking $158.4 million. It became the second highest-grossing film of all time in the US with a $534 million haul, unprecedented numbers back then that only a handful of films have topped since. It broke records on a daily basis (midnight opening, largest non-Monday gross, quickest to $300/$400/$500 million) and with its gross adjusted for inflation, it’s still outpacing Avengers: Infinity War…
The Hero Can’t Always Save the Day
As a hero, Batman is different to almost all those around him: he’s a real man who faces real-world consequences. He could meet his maker anytime. His actions elicit reactions and have serious implications, and The Joker character presented here is revolutionary.
But it’s one relatively simple piece of writing from Nolan and his brother Jonathan that resonates more loudly than anything else in the film, making a lasting impression that is still being felt today. Every superhero is faced with the impossible choice: save the innocent people or the person he loves. Normally, they can do both. But what if they can’t? What if they lose? In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne loses.
Since then, we haven’t seen a convention like this taken so boldly apart in this way. Until Thanos came along, that is…