The Dark Knight came out ten years ago. I was 18-going-on-19 when the film was released*, and I was absolutely obsessed it. It was so dark, so gritty, so unlike any other superhero movie at the time. It was raw and real and got straight to the darkness in men’s souls.
Ten years down the line, I kind of despise it for what it did to superhero and blockbuster movies.
What did The Dark Knight do to its genre and to blockbusters as a whole? Well, it codefied the concept of the thinking man’s blockbuster, a superhero movie for grownups. This article from The Atlantic seems to suggest that The Dark Knight is just so perfectly wonderful because it wasn’t concerned with a larger universe or setting up sequels, and it also notes and praises the fact that The Dark Knight is stripped of any fantastical or outlandish elements (the author, David Sims clearly forgot about the cellphone-sonar used to find the Joker at the end). The article states:
“While Batman Begins had one foot firmly planted in the pulpier side of the character, The Dark Knight was filmed like a gritty, atmospheric crime movie, with Nolan taking visual cues from Michael Mann’s bank-robber epic Heat. Rather than heightening Gotham City to the point that a man dressed as a bat makes sense as its public defender, Nolan turns Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) into jarring archetypes who are incongruous to the world of gangsters and cops around them, and symptoms of an increasingly polarized society of heroes and villains.”
These are some very nice and very true observations about the film, but Sims never noticed what The Dark Knight did by putting Batman and the Joker into a hyper-realistic world: it sucked out all of the fun. I mean, have you ever watch The Dark Knight more than twice? I have, and by the fourth and fifth viewings, the film just seemed so thoroughly realistic that it was painful. It wasn’t painful in the way a bad film is painful because The Dark Knight is an amazing, well-done film. It’s painful because the film feels too real, and thus, too brutal. Every loss, every death becomes sad and soul-sucking. That bothers me because it means that this movie plays into a lot of shallow modern ideas about fiction, many of which can be found cropping up in M.F.A. programs across the country and during the film industry’s awards season. The biggest and most influential of these ideas is this: The darker and more painful a work of fiction is, the truer it is.
Somewhere along the line, we as a society got it into our heads that anything bright and color is shallow and meaningless, and that everything dark and gritty is meaningful. This can be seen in a lot of post-9/11 fiction, especially the Nolanverse trilogy (of which The Dark Knight is the second installment) as well as the Bourne movies and the Daniel Craig iterations of James Bond. All wacky elements of existing characters had to be stripped away. Everything must have extra doses of meaning and symbolism. This is how we got to the terrible DC movies of the 2010s, including Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, which proved that having a dark tone does not automatically mean a film will be good.
The existence of The Dark Knight also help serve as a strange litmus test for moviegoer maturity, I believe. Lots of critics and average Joes with opinions seem to believe that fans who enjoy colorful, interconnected superhero stories like those in the MCU and the CW’s Arrowverse (which features lower-profile DC heroes–more on this in a minute) are somehow less mature or shallower than those who enjoy either darker superhero fare or who deride the genre altogether. That isn’t true, though. Maturity and critical thinking aren’t expressed in the genres that people consume; it’s expressed in how people think and talk about them. For instance, my younger sister can give you a treatise on why and how the Arrowverse’s Flash/Supergirl crossover musical “Duet” is basically “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: The Musical.” And the more I think about it, the more her ideas make sense. (Basically, watch the film version of RaGaD, then watch “Duet” and pay attention to how both works are structured, and how one mysterious character shows up repeatedly to deliver some sort of weird message, and how clueless both main characters are while having polar opposite reactions to everything that happens to them.) Are my sister and I shallow, immature, or simple for thinking critically about colorful, cheesy superhero shows? I don’t think so, but then again, I suppose I know nothing.
There’s more I could say about how putting The Dark Knight on a pedestal bothers me. I could compare it’s fairly simple “chaos vs. order” setup to the emotionally complex workings of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but people don’t like James Gunn anymore, and this subject is, frankly, exhausting. So I’m just going to leave things here for now.
*Fun fact: Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on my 19th Birthday. Good times.