One decade ago the world was treated to arguably the greatest film ever made, and certainly the best film of the twenty-first century so far. On July 18, 2008, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” blasted into cinemas like a typhoon of cinematic perfection.
This film was one of those special universally shared cultural moments of populist enthusiasm and critical appraisal. It blew the doors off so many genres it’s hard to keep track. It was a perfect comic book film, a brilliant crime movie, a stellar action flick, an amazing superhero story, a nail-biting cop drama, an intense thriller, a political commentary, a tale of terrorism, and more. It defies classification.
It’s a story of pure good and evil ironically set within a nihilistic universe. It’s a neo-noir that surprisingly some Christians find too optimistic about human nature. It’s deeply tragic yet surprisingly humorous. But in the end the only label and analysis that really matters is that for two-and-a-half hours it is absolutely riveting. And ten years on nothing has changed.
I’ll never forget the day I saw it. A theater in Pasadena with my immediate family and my new wife of a mere 3 months. An electricity was in the air. Everyone in that theater and across thousands of theaters the world over were being connected by a narrative that transcended all of us. As the film came to its shocking Pyrrhic conclusion I could sense what was about to happen. There was a physical excitement and tension about to be unleashed.
As soon as the last line was spoken and the credits rolled, the entire audience of several hundred people rose in unison to their feet with thunderous applause. I don’t remember how long that moment lasted, but it must have been a while because later my hands felt raw.
Moments like that are what make the cinema truly special. Before film we had novels and plays. These are either very private subjective experiences or unrepeatable corporate events. Film is objective. It’s always the same. Everyone gets to have access to the exact same images and words. When we fill the theaters on an opening weekend we are all experiencing the same thing. It is a sacred moment that transcends time and space.
“The Dark Knight” did this in a way that no other film ever has. Other films have made more money or effected our emotions more deeply. But few have spoken so deeply and so powerfully to the tragic vision of human life, while also being so relentlessly entertaining.
Each cast member feels entirely at home, tailored exactly to their role. But the two key parts are actually Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s final performance is rightly praised for its incomparable brilliance, but in many ways Oldman grounds the film. This is one of his least spectacular roles, in that he isn’t playing a villain or an eccentric.
But it might be his best simply because this is Oldman at his most human. With Ledger, of course, it’s the exact opposite. He’s not human at all in this film. Ledger imbues the Joker with a bizarre sort of demonic puppetry. He doesn’t really seem alive, more like possessed. A conduit for evil insanity. He goes from goofy to terrifying within seconds. There’s never been a villain like it.
Adding to the cultural moment, we all said goodbye to a beloved actor. Ledger died before the film was released and never got to see how special his contribution to our world would be. We said farewell while watching him at the height of his powers, powers no one knew he had.
On more than one occasion I have thought that if the film has a flaw, it’s that there’s really no final physical confrontation between Batman and the Joker. But the truth is that would have made it a lesser film. The conflict between them is moral, not physical. And they are fighting for something bigger than the typical cops and robbers business of the funny books. They are fighting for the human soul writ large, represented by the people of Gotham. As the Joker says, “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you?”
Ultimately this film is about the forces of ordered freedom versus pure senseless chaos. Rules and laws bind a man. Law makes men corrupt. But so does chaos. The truly good man learns to be a law unto himself. A self-restrainer. That is the essence of Batman. It’s why he won’t allow himself to violate that one rule: no killing.
Only a rightly ordered soul can flourish in this world when everything is crumbling to dust. At their best this is what Superheroes represent. They are not properly vigilantes. They are something more.
The central theme of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the cost of standing up to evil. That when a truly good man goes to war, all the corners of darkness gather together and spiral after him as if moths to a flame. Goodness is not easy. To be good has a cost. And the cost of Batman is escalation, which is why “The Dark Knight” is such a brilliant sequel. It takes the threads laid down so carefully in “Batman Begins” and creates an amazing tapestry with them — a tapestry of escalation.
Goodness is controversial. True virtue is divisive. As Jesus said: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword …Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
This is why “The Dark Knight” is such a powerful myth. It resonates, echoes, and harmonizes with the archetypal true myth of the Cross. The film’s chorus is “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Jesus did both.
And when Batman faces the final evil, the seduced and corrupted Harvey Dent, he defeats his failure through self sacrifice. Batman becomes the scapegoat. The soul of Gotham is about to be crushed by the revelation of Harvey Dent’s turn to evil. The people have expressed their faith by not destroying each other in the Joker’s trolley death trap. And Batman decides to reward that faith. He says: “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
This is why “The Dark Knight” makes our hearts flutter with the echoed promise of our own redemption. The Batman runs into the wilderness of the night falsely branded a murderer in the place of the true sinner, then travels through the underground passage where the Joker set his ambush. He passes through hell and death. Then the one covered in the darkness of the night, bearing the shame of false guilt, ascends out of hell into a blinding light.
Over this like a prophet Gordon majestically says: “So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”
Similar but more profound words were spoken thousands of years before by an actual Prophet: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”