Looking Back at 'The Dark Knight'

On 10th anniversary, 'The Dark Knight' returns to theaters, hits Netflix
In the decade since the release of 'The Dark Knight,' critics and academics still can't agree on what it all means.

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.

The Dark Knight
PG-13; 152 Mins.
Opens Friday at the AMC Metreon in IMAX

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