By Bradley Lane
I’ll be the first to admit, claiming The Dark Knight as the best superhero film to date is not a profoundly unique take on the film. However, it’s for good reason as the film not only remains the standard by which other superhero films are judged, but also remains the best argument for the continuation of a genre of film that has flooded the market since the film’s initial release. Christopher Nolan unveiled the hidden potential for superhero storytelling by integrating other film genres into the superhero format, all the while crafting a deft statement on American interventionism, influenced by the ought’s tumultuous political landscape.
I fibbed when I had previously categorized The Dark Knight as a superhero movie at the top of this piece. Sure, there is a masked vigilante dedicated to his perception of justice and a colorful villain he must square off against, but the film shares more similarities with a crime drama like Michael Mann’s Heat than popular superhero films of the time like Sam Rami’s Spiderman trilogy. That’s because Nolan wisely recognized that superhero films are not their own genre, rather they are a format that genre can be applied to in order to create something more. The crime genre works well, specifically in the case of The Dark Knight because it was imperative that the story be grounded in a more realistic tone in order to fully realize the heavy political allegory they set out to tell.
Unambiguously, Nolan sets out to comment on the dominate cultural moment of the 2000s, America’s invasion of the Middle East. The Joker is a horrifying personification of everything that scared America after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an uncontrollable force of evil that saw no bounds of what was and was not acceptable aggression. A force created by conditions the America stand-in, Batman, made possible. It was Batman himself that disrupted the flawed, but stable Gotham controlled by organized crime that gave way to the desperation required for those crime syndicates to turn to a force as terrifying as the Joker to help defeat Batman.
But Batman’s outside-the-law methods alone do not represent the totality of America’s response to terrorism. This also includes Harvey Dent’s clean-cut idealistic approach to justice, a one-to- one representation of the enlightenment era ideals that America was founded. Together, they wrestle with how to take down the Joker while maintaining ethical standards required to remain the heroes of the film. Unfortunately, by the end of the film, the incorruptible idealism of Dent is perverted into the ultimate villain of the film and Batman’s mere existence is called into question for creating the Joker, who himself emboldened Dent’s descent into the role of a villain.
It seems like a pessimistic take on the war on terror with no clear defensible faction, but Nolan does see a way out and his faith is far outside of these rigid institutions. The climax of the film, which I will not spoil here, communicates a deep-rooted optimism in the individuals on both sides of the conflict. Recognizing that, above all, humanity’s spirit remains deeply empathetic to the struggles of our fellow man.
The Dark Knight remains the standard by which other superhero films are judged, not because of its ensemble cast or billion-dollar special effects, but rather because of its thoughtful examination of the cultural landscape under which it was created. Until a superhero film comes around that utilizes its subject to communicate more than a black-and-white version of morality, it will remain the best example of its kind. The Dark Knight is available to stream on Hulu. – 5/5 stars