When Batman Begins was first released, a pre-teen me biased by Tim Burton’s retrospectively “Dang, those were messed up!” Batman movies found it so goofy due to Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman that it didn’t take until The Dark Knight‘s release for me to appreciate Batman Begins, with the irony being that Batman Begins has become one of my favorite comic book movies since, favored above The Dark Knight. Even Christian Bale’s performance has grown on me.
That’s not to discredit The Dark Knight‘s cinematic achievement. There’s a reason why many call it the greatest superhero movie ever made, holding it at #4 on IMDb’s top 250 movies list. Whereas Batman Begins is a masterful comic book movie with crime movie elements, The Dark Knight is a masterful crime movie with comic book movie elements, with the Batman mythos used here being grounded just enough for such grimness and grit to work. It offers perhaps the most serious examination of good and evil the genre has yet offered; even when Batman compromises his morality in order to stop a seemingly unstoppable evil, we’re meant to question his choices.
The evil in question is, in the role that got Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar win, Batman’s definitive nemesis: the Joker, a terrorist with a soul so deeply corrupt that he’s setting out to prove that everyone, deep down, is as corrupt as him. He’s irrational on the surface, yet he’s always planning ahead in steps that pay off in perhaps disbelief-stretching ways, and he knows what seeds of despair to plant in the hearts of Gotham’s protectors. And yet, while Batman makes an ultimate choice that may or may not be ethical, which is the aspect of this film that really conflicts me, the film reminds us that even if our heroes fail us, we still have the potential to combat evil in our own ways.
In the near decade it’s been since the same summer Iron Man set the template for how superhero movies are made today, The Dark Knight‘s ambition perhaps has become even more poignant, an ambition that the pretentious Dark Knight Rises tries so hard to match that it ultimately collapses under its own weight. While I think the title for the greatest superhero movie ever made should go to a film that offers a more aspirational vision of heroism, The Dark Knight is still legendary in its own right.