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Thoughts I Had... Rewatching "The Dark Knight"

by Nathaniel R

Why so serious? Yes, you're 10 years older on this anniversary of The Dark Knight's release and probably watching the world burn with significantly less glee than The Joker would but still. Lighten up! At least we have the movies! I was commissioned to write a piece about The Dark Knight's Oscar history elsewhere but I jotted down more film-centric notes during a recent rewatch and will now share them here.

This a chronological skip through the movie. It made such a cultural impact you surely remember its release and maybe even the circumstances in which you saw it. If so, do share in the comments. Ready? Let's press play...

This is the first shot of The Joker but we don't know it's him. Yet. We suspect, of course, given the composition of the frame. He's given more weight than the other guys wearing clown-masks. It's interesting that he's introduced in broad daylight whereas Batman only comes out at night. That's the opposite of how heroes and villains are coded. Four minutes later he gets his first closeup and his first line.

I believe whatever doesn't kill you makes you stranger."

It's surprisingly hokey line as first lines go, especially given the serious tone of the movie. But then again this entrance is scored with great seriousness (hi Hans Zimmer) and the closeup is so close and the makeup so blood-smear looking that it's clear we're not mean to laugh but to gasp.

I had 100% forgotten about this visual gag listing "Batman Suspects" in the police station.

The first shot of Batman is nearly ten minutes into the movie, making it clear whose movie this is: The Joker's! Though I have a few reservations about Nolan's Batman movies, I do love how vulnerable they make Batman. In his first scene he's thrown against a wall and it looks painful. And he also gets bit by a dog!  

But then again, he's still got your typical superhero invulnerability, as in this shot that weirdly manages to be elegant and blunt simultaneously. (Wally Pfister was Oscar nominated for the cinematography). Dog bites can hurt him but landing on his feet on a movie car after falling from several stories up? No biggie. 

The first time we see Bruce Wayne out of drag, we are reminded of the male gaze. The straight male gaze that is. Despite Bale's endless hours in the gym, Nolan's camera has no interest whatsoever in looking at his incredible physique. Bale actually turns his back to the camera to take off his shirt, and the reverse shot is Alfred (Michael Caine) averting his gaze for a moment before commenting on all the bruises. LOL! We get less than 1 second of Bale's body. And he's even shot from the cleavage up. This Batman's got rules: No guns. No nipples! 

Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes - UPGRADE) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) enter the movie now and they're a couple and gorgeous together. They're zooming around in some other movie. It's a courtroom drama and police procedural with lots of fast-walking-down-hallways banter.

-You're crazy.
-No. No, I'm not.  

The Joker's first dialogue heavy scene is kind of a marvel and I'm not talking about that pencil disappearing trick that the bros love so much in the movie. I'm talking about how Heath Ledger takes what is essentially a GIANT EXPOSITION SCENE and makes it absolutely sing; a million actors have played a character with an affected voice but Ledger's vocal tricks have a four octave operatic range. There are so many weird tics within the weird tics. Better yet are the moments that feel like unmasking, where you've gone from watching a living nightmare to lucid dreaming and you suddenly think you've spotted the actual man underneath the makeup. He's still insane, mind you, but this performance isn't tricks on top of tricks, it's a fullbodied character study of specific if unknowable pathologies. Unknowable to us that is. I'm convinced that Ledger had worked it all out done to the molecular structure.

The Joker is so fascinating that it's always a bit of a letdown to return to Batman scenes. Marvel Studios would do well to study this. Yes, they make better superhero movies than any other studio but they so rarely have understood that great villains are the magic trick to enduring genre movies. What would The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars be without the Wicked Witch and Darth Vader? Not the immortal classics they are!

That said, if we're going to have big long scenes of boys fiddling with their gadgets, it's good that Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are there to invest the scenes with some sly line readings. They're pros. But gawd this is a boy movie. So much cooing over weapons, gadgets, cars, and toys. 

That trip to Hong Kong is filler for me, as is the silly ballet troupe as Bruce Wayne cover sidebar so let's skip ahead. 

You look nervous.

One of the great tragedies of losing Ledger so young beyond the obvious of what an incredible actor he was and how many grand performances he might have given was that we didn't really get a sense of what he could do onscreen with actresses. In all of his best performances (Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight, and I'd add his very brief role in Monster's Ball) he's paired with male actors. Though his intimidation of Rachel is a one-sided scene (she has almost no dialogue) I still cherish it for putting Ledger in the same frame as a formidable actress. 

And speaking of actresses...

Nolan has just never been good with them. It's not just that his movies are exclusively about men and men fill 90% of the roles, even within the ensembles, but when a woman does show up it's uncomfortable. She's either about to die or already dead. He definitely can't do romantic scenes. Note that in The Dark Knight's only physically intimate moment, he moves almost immediately to a longshot. 

Gyllenhaal tries to give Rachel a personality and point of view but the movie is only interested in whether she belongs to Harvey or to Bruce and how important that distinction is to both men. (Yes, I'm aware that there are two exceptions to this sucky female characters rule: Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises and Moss in Memento but in both cases I give all the credit to the actress herself because we've seen the evidence!) 

But Nolan is a good director of men and all of them deliver here.

This movie was a major breakthrough for actor David Dastmalchian, who is a terrific guy offscreen (and a friend of TFE) and his big scene with Aaron Eckhart is fire. He cycles through so many livewire emotions in split seconds, while also still selling 'schizophrenic who actually knows nothing about what he's gotten himself into with the Joker.' 

Dastmalchian is mostly cast as sinister or disturbed men, we're guessing due the black hair and angular face, but we'd love to see him play a sweet guy one of these years. At least he gets to play a good guy in his comic role in the Ant-Man movies.

When the Joker is captured (on purpose) and "interviewed" by Batman, his laughter as Batman hits him is not entirely a surprise (at this point in the film) but still alarming. Though this is a singular creation one performance it does remind me of slightly (ever so slightly) is Brad Pitt's underrated work in Fight Club (1999), particularly the masochistic madness in the "you don't know where I've been" scene. 

I'm embarrassed to confess this but because Nolan is never invested in his women, I find the tragedy of the loss of Aaron Eckhart's beauty (ohnoooooo...the chemicals on his face. We know what that will lead do!) more upsetting than Rachel going ka-boom. But then I loooove me some Aaron Eckhart (even if I don't really understand what's become of his career.)

That hospital scene between Harvey and The Joker  -- "Hiiii." and "I don't want there to be any bad feelings between us" is gallows humor at its finest.

It literally can't be true that Ledger improvised the bit with the faulty explosive while in his nurse's costume (you can't improv a practical fx scene) but the success of his performance is that it all feels so spontaneous that it feels like you're watching it live, when idiosyncratic beats might happen.


There's no sense pretending otherwise though I know this is blasphemy to some: I find that The Dark Knight is frontloaded, or, no, middle loaded. After the hospital scene I always begin to lose interest.

The last act's grand reach for meaning with its muddled statement about privacy and human nature and the communal good versus survival and surveillance and I forget what else ... even though I'm skimming again as I type this... is a bore.

The biggest statement this movie could ever make is in the moments spent watching Ledger crafting an immortal screen villain. The rest is anti-climax. And even The Joker's final scene is anti-climax. There he is having captured Batman and he's about to tell us yet another false memory about how he got those scars and Batman goes and interrupts him with heroics and throwing him off a building. Boo. Who else wanted to hear another tall tale?

Finally, jumping backwards for the finish. This is the defining moment and image of the film. It happens about two/thirds of the way into the picture, and it's over in 4 seconds.

It's placement in the editing, the sound mix dropping out the diegetic noise, the color, the fully realized character. It's both a perfect cinematic moment and a fitting tribute to Heath Ledger, whose time on movie screens was short but glorious.

The Joker's ecstatic abandon, lost in this very moment, is not unlike our own whenever a movie lifts off into greatness. 


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Reader Comments (33)

Agreed about the women in Nolan's movies. Even talented actresses usually fail to raise above the material. The two instances where they've done it (Hathaway, Moss) they're action heroes and it seems them at least Nolan pays more attention to them.

I have my reservations about the movie, including yes, the weak third act and how Nolan's writing does it absolutely not favors but I'm still mesmerized at Ledger's work. Completely off the rails, wildly surprising, bonkers, the whole package. It's such an out there performance that is nonetheless perfect for the genre and feels scarily true. The closest anyone ever got to playing the Joker as diabolically as the comic ever intended, it's crazy for me to think the only other time it sort of worked it had to be done animated (Mark Hamill).

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlexD

I didn't realize it's already been 10 years! Oddly enough, we were talking about this movie last week at work and I was talking about my own viewing of it a little less than a year ago. I quickly found myself skipping large chunks and going directly to the scenes with the Joker in them. It was a damn near perfect hour or so of movie watching. Starting with The Departed, going to There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, and ending with this film, the late Aughts were a great time for wonderfully demented male characters.

And that shot is absolutely perfect. It's so surreal and dreamy. Nolan made a whole movie about dreams that doesn't a single moment equal to it.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Great write up! This is truly the defining performance of the millennium Is say - at least in the mainstream cultural zeitgeist - a staggering achievement. Such a tragedy to lose such a talent so young.

I was twelve years old when this movie came out! I saw it at midnight in Australia and I remember the electricity in the room before the screening. I was soooo excited. The marketing had been so staggering and I think seeing Heath particularly resonated with australians at the time. The movie did not disappoint me! There was applause at the end, especially for Heath's title card.

The film is definitely not without its flaws but I believe it will be heralded as a Star Wars equivalent event for people of my generation.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I feel like the actresses of Brokeback get overlooked. Ledger played opposite some really fine work from Michelle Williams, Linda Cardellini, Kate Mara and (though not actually on screen together) Anne Hathaway.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Unconnected points:

1. I suspect that one reason the Batman story appealed to Christopher Nolan was because there were no significant female roles.

2. There's a recent Hollywood Reporter interview with Michael Jai White where he says that his character Gambol wasn't originally supposed to die:

3. Finally, I always felt that Heath Ledger was channeling Beavis-as-Cornholio, but no one else ever noticed:

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Thank you for the Hathaway/Moss exceptions. I'll add Cotillard in Inception but there are plenty of examples where he misses the mark with his ladies.

Ledger could have given us so much. His one-two punch with this and Brokeback are up there with Dean's 55-56 brilliance. So glad he won this Oscar. One of my favorite wins in the category.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Still more impressed with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the 1989 version. Why he wasn’t nominated for his scenery-chewing is beyond me. I think that People went overboard after Ledger’s death. This portrayal started for me my constant irritation with most of Nolan’s films - he allows the characters to talk with mush-mouth, garbled sentences to the point where you don’t understand what the person is saying. I had to rewatch TDK, TDKR and Dunkirk with the captions on to really hear what Ledger and Tom Hardy were trying to garble...

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

I grew up and raised on dc comics reading them. The dark knight is a journey that Batman goes on but ledgers performance is uncanny. Gotham city and metropolis could be any part of major city in the world. The dark knight trilogy rocks as a crime epic. You care about the adventures of the caped crusader and Harvey dent and throw a bone at the villains like the joker, scarecrow and bane. The locations and cinematography is good

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Gyllenhaal is SO bland in this. Holmes would have been way better, if just for the consistency of character and keeping the emotional beat (I cared two shits when Maggie died). She also had markedly better chemistry with Bale.

But, yeah. There are certain films you can pick apart to death if you’d like as their flaws are many but they also have such great heights, I forgive their flaws all day long. Still masterpieces. Think: TLOTR trilogy, this film, any James Cameron film, etc.,

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

It will always be difficult to wonder how this film and performance would be viewed with out Ledger's death,every generation gets their River Phoenix and it's so sad..

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

It's definitely the best of Nolan's Bat-films, following the surprisingly frequent pattern of trilogies I've noticed over 50+ years of film buffery:

First film is three stars - well done, lays out its cast and concerns well, comes off better than might be expected on a modest budget from a not-yet-first-rank filmmaking team.

Second film is four stars - after the success of the first comes a bigger budget, creative risks, better actors, a story push into darker territory, and a superior film that hits all the marks required for an outstanding sequel.

Third film is two stars - overlong, self-indulgent, tries to do too many things, and is often something of a letdown if not an outright disappointment.

This pattern applies amazingly frequently, all the way back to 30s Frankenstein films. More recently: Godfather/II/III, Star Wars/Empire/Jedi, Batman Begins/TDK/Rises, Spider-Man/2/3, X-Men/X2/Last Stand, and loads of other examples. (Though not for something like LOTR, which was made as one long film and released in three acts.)

Anyway... TDK is the clear high-water mark of Nolan's Bat trilogy... great writing, acting, etc. But there's one thing about Nolan's Bat films that annoy the heck out of me: their alleged "realism", which I find a distasteful trick... though audiences and critics ate it up. This reaches its apogee in TDK's ferry boat sequence, where "real" people make the "right" decision and partially thwart the Joker's plan. I don't believe a single thing about that sequence, it's pure fantasy. Maybe I just have a much lower opinion of how the "average, real person" would behave in such a situation...

But there's no denying TDK is a darn good film, despite its problems. As a lifelong comics fan, I consider it one of the VERY few four-star superhero movies (approximately five out of something like four-dozen since 1978).

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Your point about Nolan answers your question about Eckhart: Hollywood doesn't reward actors for being great with actresses. Take Michael Douglas. He plays opposite Close in Fatal Attraction, Stone in Basic Instinct, Turner in Romancing the Stone (not to mention Bening in The American President) and the only performance Oscar cared about was Wall Street.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

When will Christopher Nolan get an Oscar he is overdue he’s been nominated several times

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

@Hayden - I'd add DiCaprio there, too, with 'The Aviator' being an exception to the rule. He's just at his best when acting with women!

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Complete garbage. I was thrilled when the Academy "snubbed" this worthless trash. Thrilled, that is, until I found out they had chosen an even worse movie instead, "The Reader". Be careful what you wish for.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

I agree about Nolan not being very interested in female characters, but he’s been an oddly great director for Hathaway. Both Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar give her good roles that she gives surprising depth.i kind of feel like Nolan appreciated the harder edge and prickliness that made Hathaway’s work in Rachel so memorable, and gave her the space to show that side in two massive blockbusters. I love those performances, and while that’s obviously Hathaway’s work, there’s a reason that Nolan cast her twice

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterIanO

My best friend and I saw the movie the Monday or Tuesday after it premiered in theaters, and at the 1 hour and 45 minute mark we turned to each other and wondered aloud why it wasn't over yet.

Thank you for revisiting this, Nathaniel, so that I wouldn't have to.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Rebecca Hall in THE PRESTIGE is another exception to the rule that Nolan doesn't work well with actresses or, if you want, female characters

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Batman is not self centered like most comic book movies are geared to self centered people. Batman has a mission, he has a journey ahead of him after his parents were killed by joe chill. Dick Tracy is another good example, I found warren Beatty’s role as dick Tracy to be in awe when I saw this tough cop keeping the city streets safe and arresting caprices goons.
Mystery men is another good one. Normal guys dressing up like they ready for comic con

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I've never understood the crazy love for The Dark Knight. It's good, but like you, I find that third act just an absolute bore. It runs out steam so thoroughly and every time I've tried, I just lose interest. The film is too long to sustain its dark, twisty, brooding tone, especially when Ledger isn't on screen. He's really the only reason I like the film as much as I do (and that isn't much).

And also, the editing of a lot of those action scenes is spectacularly bad, with little to no spatial awareness to speak of. The editing nomination always baffled me.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Doctor Strange: Agreed on the third movie. Probably even stronger than you. Catwoman's subplot amounts to nothing before she gets dumped into the main plot. The (Robin) John Blake subplot got dumber and dumber with each passing moment, and the final joke reference is BLUGH. The "the cops will be hunting Batman" angle at the end of the last one is ditched before they do ANYTHING with it on screen. And they start the movie with Jim Gordon's kids punted off-screen, basically to tell the audience "what, you thought this Jim Gordon focused Batman series would get to Batgirl? You crazy?" This is in spite of the fact that if you fold what Catwoman does that's actually main plot relevant and what John Blake does that's actually main plot relevant into one character? They'd be most of the way to a great Barbara Gordon subplot.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

You would have to pay me to make me see this movie again.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue: I mean, this is a great movie, but its also one I've become disappointed in that I only re-visit when I want to exercise to a Batman movie and can we, PLEASE, get a similarly great Batman movie that...isn't...the only good version of the noxious bro vision of Batman?

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

o wow it's been 10 whole years since this movie came out and I didn't care then and I don't care now!
Honestly, felt bored & disengaged all the way through it, as I am w/ most C Nolan movies.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I haven't revisited it since it came out- all I can really recall is Ledger stealing the show, the silly deus ex machina in the third act with the surveillance technology, and how long it took to get out of the parking garage after the midnight screening.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Volvagia - You're right, that film is a mess in loads of ways. But my problems with The Dark Knight Rises start at an even more basic plot point: At the beginning, Bruce had retired as Batman 8 years ago because of Rachel's death. This shows no understanding of the core of Bats/Bruce: he does indeed have a superpower - it's that he NEVER GIVES UP.

When the character is written well - like in Batman: The Animated Series and the follow-up Justice League (Unlimited) - it's clear that his determination to war on crime overrides everything else, and provides the discipline for him to do the impossible every single night. Losing a girlfriend, even a beloved childhood pal, shouldn't even dent that.

OTOH, compared to the godawful writing of Batfleck in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Dreck and this year's Justice League (don't get me started on how much I dislike the "older, pissed-off Batman" approach!), Nolan's trilogy is just fine. Much better than the old Burton/Schumacher films too... but it's still not B:TAS, which remains the best adaptation of the character outside the comics.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

I loved this movie when it came out. I rewatched it a few months ago expecting diminishing returns and I was right. But the highs in this are so very high that I still have a pretty strong inclination to defend it. It doesn't need to be said that Heath Ledger is incredible, but on the repeat watch I had a much stronger appreciation for his little tics and physicality, especially in the interrogation and hospital scenes. Christopher Nolan also has an undeniable talent for visual flair and spectacle, even while working in a cool, restrained palette; people also seem to have forgotten he spearheaded a return to practical effects, anti-3D, anti-CG, and pro-film turns — without Dark Knight coming first a studio might not have been able to handle something like Fury Road appropriately, which would be a real loss. I think the Wagnerian elements of his Batman are definitely a little much and seem even kind of bro-ish now and there's a lot of muddled reactionary themes and crap filler action. But it's still a Nolan film, which is always worth showing up for. He's one of the only blockbuster directors who still reliably puts out original epics every other summer. And I think he's still capable of a true artistic classic — Dunkirk came very close! Someone to write good dialogue would probably go a long way.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Jessica Chastain in Interstellar?

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

I'm happy they haven't nominated The Dark Knight for Best Picture. Today, looking back, would be

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMelchiades

A modern epic.
I am a great fan of Ledger's performance (who isn't?) but I have always wondered, if he hadn't died, would he still win the Oscar?
His win remains to be once in a blue moon for comic films and one of the best.

July 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

STFU: Honestly, I'd imagine he'd still get the nomination, but that Brolin or Downey Jr. would have gotten the win, if he hadn't died. But if he didn't? I'd guess either Eddie Marsan or Ralph Fiennes, for In Bruges, would have been the last slot. Tom Cruise and Ralph Fiennes, for The Duchess, at The Globes were gag nominations, essentially, and who honestly believed Patel (nominated for the SAG) was "Supporting" in Slumdog Millionaire? Supporting who? Himself?

July 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I was in college in New York when the eerie posters of this came out, with a fuzzy image of Ledger and the words "why so serious'?

Then Heath Ledger died on Broome Street and they changed all the marketing. I dropped out of college and saw the film in Minnesota.

Personal anecdotes aside, your comments about how women don't get their due in this movie makes me think of how a lot of The Dark Knight's story is from the graphic novel THE LONG HALLOWEEN, which does have interesting parts for women! (One of which is Dent's wife, who obviously couldn't exist here, but there's also a Janice Soprano-type in Carla Vitti).

July 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Ledger's performance is staggering and one for the ages. That alone makes this film a classic for all time. Too bad the trilogy as a whole disappointment (lukewarm on "BB," ugh to "TDKR"). So glad Heath Ledger won the Oscar. RIP.

Feel old now.

July 31, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

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