There are some spoilers here, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen The Dark Knight, move along.
The Dark Knight is currently poised to destroy every major box office record in the history of cinema. Having already smashed opening day and weekend records, the trends indicate it may overtake 1997′s Titanic as the high-grossing film of all time. This is an impressive feat for any movie, but my interest is held by the fact that it’s a Batman movie.
The concept of Batman has always had a place in pop culture, constantly reinventing and adapting itself. In the early comics, it was the darker approach of a regular guy righting wrongs from the shadows that caught the attention of a country already growing weary of the boy scout image portrayed by Superman and the characters he inspired. In the 1960s, there was the camp TV series that brought Batman and Robin to the public forefront with a take on the characters that would forever stain any serious discussion with “POW”s and “WHAM”s and “Holy this and that, Batman!” Counter to how the Dark Knight was portrayed in the original comics, this version provided a new lexicon for reporters to use when talking about anything related to comics (even now, as the public gets used to the darker, grimier version brought to us by Christopher Nolan). Tim Burton blended the dark and the camp in 1989′s Batman and 1992′s Batman Returns. The other pre-Nolan Batfilms don’t warrant mention (aside from their resaturation of the stains on the character’s image). The various Batman cartoons have all had their whack at the legend, most notably Batman: The Animated Series, a show that was kid- and fanboy-approved.
Batman, it seems, has always been around, forever adapting and changing. So why is it that The Dark Knight has risen to such mind-boggling heights? While ever-present, Batman has never been as popular or admired as the superheroes in brighter tights like Superman and Spider-Man. More than likely, The Dark Knight has set the world on fire based simply on the fact that it never lets itself act like a superhero movie. Unlike its predecessor Batman Begins, which only started acting like a comic book film when the big microwave bomb was headed into the heart of Gotham, The Dark Knight is a thriller, an action film, and a sociopolitical allegory wrapped into a tightly-weaved (yet needlessly long) film.
Batman Begins wasn’t without its own allegorical moments. A terrorist group (one that literally caused terror with a fear gas) using a public transportation method to crash down everything in mid-town Gotham? That story has been lived through, although admittedly with less Gary Oldman. But The Dark Knight sets itself up from the get-go. Batman is America (vascillating between its citizens and its government), the Joker is terror, the Underworld is the rest of the world. The Joker is wild, unpredictable, and impossible to reason with. Batman goes to extreme lengths (such as essentially wire-tapping the entirety of Gotham City) as way to restore order. At the same time, the ultimate symbol of hopeful justice, Harvey Dent, is corrupted along the way. Even the Joker’s creation, which we assume is a direct result of Batman’s presence in Gotham, rings of the true reasons behind the terror attacks we’ve faced in this country. In the end, we’re watching our world on screen for two and a half hours, played out with puppets in armor and purple suits.
The resolution, however, is ideal. And it’s the build to that resolution is what keeps people in their seats. Batman (America) catches the terrorist leader (The Joker) using his own means. He becomes reviled in the name of How It Should Be Done, but it’s for a good reason. As the credits roll, we see Batman in the perfect position. Safer yet still living by his own terms. He lost some things that were important to him, like his girl and the shining, scarred version of Justice represented by Harvey Dent. Are these losses acceptable? That’s to be determined in the final film of Nolan’s planned trilogy. One that will, no doubt, make another outlandish payday for those involved and hopefully frighten, entertain, and empathize with the American public. As long as it doesn’t suffocate itself in convoluted plots like Pirates 3 or Spider-Man 3, I think we’re in for another treat.
It’s still amazing to think that Batman will likely sit perched atop the list of film records, cape billowing in the wind. To a point it helps legitamize the industry of comic books, but it transcends that “genre” with such facility that it’s hard to even apply its success to its source. It would be great to see a reversal, in fact, and see some comics coming out that match The Dark Knight in its twisting plot-lines and solid, real-world characterization of unreal characters but using those elements unique to graphic storytelling to take it even farther. There are a few out there, but they are few and far between. The immediate thought is Watchmen, but even that is so grounded in the fantastic that it’s hard to compare.
What The Dark Knight teaches us is that source material and flash are irrelevant when you have a solid interpretation, a masterful storyteller, and the right amount of social resonance. I’m not saying I want to see a Superman movie fitting the same template, but The Dark Knight makes me crave more intensity in my moviegoing, not just in the action sense, but in the emotional and psychological. Tell me a story I already know, but do it in a format and a way I never knew could work so well. Teach me about myself and the world around me. Make me think and cringe and cheer all at once. The Dark Knight did it. And it’s going to be as much of a legend as Batman himself ever was.