In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.
August 30, 2018

On 10th anniversary, 'The Dark Knight' returns to theaters, hits Netflix


Ten years of superheroism and the world hasn't got any better. The Dark Knight (2008), the smartest and most intense of these power-operas, is on Netflix and returning for a 10th anniversary screening in IMAX. The ultra wide and dense format gives it the most power to the vertiginous aerial scenes. It's a movie that seems composed of two-thirds helicopter shots and views from the 200th floor.

The Dark Knight always ought to be played on the biggest screen possible—and played loud, like a Led Zepplin song. We've had scads of vigilantes since it emerged, but Christopher Nolan's took the most uneasy look at the fantasies of masked and costumed power trips, making them seem real through live-action instead of digital effects.

On one level, The Dark Knight is a lament over what America did after Sept. 11, a fable of enemy action met by ruinous overreaction.

Batman's mad methods work, but they're always questioned, as they wouldn't be in a straight-forward fascist film. Everyone from academics to online critics challenged the politics of Batman when this movie came out. Rewatching it, it seems the critique is already embedded in this adventure. Take the exchange between Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and his assistant, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), about the too-cozy relationship between the vigilante and the city's police. Dent says that during states of emergency, the Roman Republic had a specific officer to take charge of the city for a year. Rachel points out that the last one was named Caesar. Significantly, neither utters the Latin word for that office, because that would end the wordplay on the spot. That word is "dictator."

More than once, this movie about symbols cautions that a masked vigilante is the wrong kind of hero for a city, right up to an ending that contrasts a child's view of the story ("He didn't do anything wrong!" cries a little boy) and the adult Commissioner Gordon, who knows that no good comes from bending the rules. And the Joker isn't wrong when he sizes Batman up as a creature beyond the extreme, just like himself. Note Joker's shrewdness when he lures lawmen into the degrading—and useless—practice of "enhanced interrogation." It doesn't work, even though the beating in question takes place during a conservative pundit's favorite hypothetical, when there's a ticking time bomb going off. The Joker has the last word: "I just wanted to see what you'd do. You didn't disappoint."

The clown's real scorn is for those who hide their impulses, who don't feel like always keeping in the present tense. When he makes his money, he elevates himself to a visionary ready to conduct a version of "The Prisoner's Dilemma" with a pair of bombs, a pair of crowded ferryboats and a pair of triggers. It's a keen metaphor for nuclear brinkmanship, a system designed by best and the brightest. As Joker says, "Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even when the plans are horrifying."

A decade later, Heath Ledger is still shocking in this horror-clown role. The smeared makeup based on Francis Bacon's paintings doesn't disguise that the grin he wears might have been cut into his cheeks; he's still licking his wounds as he tells his lies about how he got his scars. We never know who he is.

His rudderless evil is summed up in Alfred's anecdote about the Englishman's commando days. The moral of the story: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." Sensational dialogue, and Kipling-worthy, but it's also an old colonial talking. Even Bin-Laden didn't want to see the whole world burn, just the Western side of it.

Nolan's insistence on making it real wasn't followed by the dozens of superhero films, with the phantasmagorica of digital animation, the Dali-scapes of Dr. Strange or the mass destruction in the Avengers films.

The movie's serious doubts about the use of extra-legal force are more than just liberal-hand wringing. It's every moviegoer's fantasy to see a sword unsheathed and taken to a Gordian knot. The quality in The Dark Knight is its insistence that a stroke of violence is absolutely the wrong way to solve an intractable puzzle.

Interested in becoming a MovieTimes Contributor?
Remarkable story of three brothers separated at birth has a dark twist

Remarkable story of three brothers separated at birth has a dark twist

THESE FAMOUS TRIPLETS DISCOVER LAYER UPON LAYER OF SURPRISES—NOT ALL OF THEM PLEASANT—IN THE NEW DOCUMENTARY ‘THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS’

Read more

'Mission: Impossible—Fallout' is a knockout, excelling in its mix of trickery and brute force.

'Mission: Impossible—Fallout' is a knockout, excelling in its mix of trickery and brute force.

The latest in action film franchise is a nearly perfect, highly explosive delight

Read more

'Crazy Rich Asians' is... OK...

'Crazy Rich Asians' is... OK...

The movie certainly deserves praise, but not for its plot

Read more

Rock Rubber 45s - Inspiring autobiographical doc profiles Bobbito Garcia, a man at the nexus of cool

Rock Rubber 45s - Inspiring autobiographical doc profiles Bobbito Garcia, a man at the nexus of cool

Robert 'Bobbito' Garcia tells his story, in his words—with a little help from his celebrity friends—in 'Rock Rubber 45s,' which is screening at this year's San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.

Read more

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon buddy up for forgettable spy comedy.

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon buddy up for forgettable spy comedy.

Kate McKinnon can't save this crass, chick-buddy flick aimed at dudes

Read more

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise

In documentary 'The King,' Elvis is a metaphor for American malaise

At his height, Elvis Presley captivated the nation; at his lowest, he died on his toilet hopped up on opiods.

Read more

In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

On 10th anniversary, 'The Dark Knight' returns to theaters, hits Netflix

Read more

'The Meg' promises a far bigger bite than it can deliver

'The Meg' promises a far bigger bite than it can deliver

Where was the block-long shark we were promised? This thing's only 70 feet!

Read more

In 'Blindspotting' the racial and economic divide tearing at the fabric of Oakland is explored through the friendship between a white man and a black man.

In 'Blindspotting' the racial and economic divide tearing at the fabric of Oakland is explored through the friendship between a white man and a black man.

Another film continues summer trend of highlighting inequality in Oakland

Read more

DISNEY’S CHRISTOPHER ROBIN REVIEW

DISNEY’S CHRISTOPHER ROBIN REVIEW

Disney’s Christopher Robin, now playing in theaters, is the feel good film you didn’t know you needed. It’s a great film for kids, but even better for adults could use something a little calming.

Read more

SKYSCRAPER (2018) REVIEW

SKYSCRAPER (2018) REVIEW

A SEMI-DECENT (IF NOT GENERIC) ACTION ENDEAVOR

Read more

In 'Eighth Grade,' early adolescent Kayla balances an awkward social life and highly polished social media presence.

In 'Eighth Grade,' early adolescent Kayla balances an awkward social life and highly polished social media presence.

Being stuck in the middle of junior high sucks, but it makes for a nostalgic story

Read more

In 'BlackkKlansman,' a secular Jew and Colorado Springs' first black cop team up to battle the KKK.

In 'BlackkKlansman,' a secular Jew and Colorado Springs' first black cop team up to battle the KKK.

Spike Lee's latest is a winner about an unlikely undercover mission

Read more

Two of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic films duel with a revival of two 007 films from 1983.

Two of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic films duel with a revival of two 007 films from 1983.

Marilyn Monroe, Sean Connery and Roger Moore all star in revivals at 3Below

Read more

Glenn Close does her best, but 'The Wife' is little more than a prestigious soap opera.

Glenn Close does her best, but 'The Wife' is little more than a prestigious soap opera.

Male egos and the Pulitzer Prize are fodder for a sappy soap

Read more

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.

Finally, a Western for the #MeToo era

Read more

In 'Puzzle,' a lonely housewife finds liberation through competitive jigsawing.

In 'Puzzle,' a lonely housewife finds liberation through competitive jigsawing.

A love story and family drama are pieced together in this jigsaw of a film

Read more

'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.

'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.

A clever framing device surrounds a more conventional film

Read more