Working with Jim Gordon, Batman confronts a series of crimes from a man who calls himself the Joker, who looks to create chaos in Gotham City. His most tragic target is new District Attorney Harvey Dent, who is hailed as the city’s new white knight.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer

From the opening scene of the movie, watching the Joker’s crew set up a bank robbery as one by one they turn on each other leaving only Joker to enjoy the spoils, it was clear this was going to be a different kind of Batman movie than anything we’ve ever seen. After the more over-the-top films focusing on the Caped Crusader from the 1980s and 1990s, writer/director Christopher Nolan gave us a Batman more grounded in reality in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS.

Despite how good it was, the first movie in what would eventually become Nolan’s trilogy of Bat-films can’t hold a candle to its sequel.

Nolan brought out the big guns for his sequel, pitting Batman against his greatest villain. And much like what happened in 1989’s BATMAN movie directed by Tim Burton, The Joker steals the show in THE DARK KNIGHT. Heath Ledger is a revelation in this movie, and is almost completely unrecognizable from anything he’s ever done before. Ledger takes an iconic character and a brilliant script and elevates them in a way that no one expected he would do.

Every look, every movement, every word builds on what he’s already done and foreshadows his immediate future. Everything Joker does as he terrorizes Gotham City is done to throw everyone off balance, to make it harder to see what he’s going to do next. Joker tells an injured Harvey Dent in the hospital, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… do things.”

And that’s the biggest misdirect Joker throws out in the whole movie. Bigger even than when he lied about the locations of Dent and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes. The Joker’s plans in THE DARK KNIGHT are meticulous, planned out to the final letter, but because they result in chaos, or in the hope for chaos, it’s just assumed that he’s playing things by ear. I love that duality to the character. He’s not the maniacal clown from the comic books, committing random acts of violence to get the Batman to notice him. Instead, as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred put it, he just “wants to watch the world burn.”

“I took Gotham’s white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!”

The Joker’s most successful gambit was taking a man being hailed as the savior of Gotham City, a shining light that could lead a troubled metropolis to a brighter future and making him a monster. It’s a crushing blow to the morale of the people who are defending the city to see golden boy Harvey Dent taken down so low. Dent went from almost single-handedly taking out the Gotham mob families to going on his own reign of terror, culminating in a confrontation with Jim Gordon and Batman while he holds Gordon’s family hostage.

Yes, THE DARK KNIGHT is an action film based on a comic book superhero, but Nolan makes it so much more than just a superhero movie. This is a legitimately good drama, a character study on duality and an examination of how good people can be pushed over the edge. It’s no wonder the film has been so revered over the last decade-plus.

I love this movie. I saw it three or four times in the theater and have probably seen it a couple of dozen times since. But for all of its positives – and there are many – I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. There are whole scenes and subplots, like the two ferries having bombs on them, that I think could be excised without losing much of the overall story.

But that’s really a minor quibble. THE DARK KNIGHT is a great movie – maybe the greatest comic book movie of all time.