Ten Years On: THE DARK KNIGHT

In July of 2008 I was a twenty-one year-old college student who'd just finished an extra semester at the local community college in order to up my GPA so that I might earn a transfer scholarship to the university I wanted to attend. It was at this university I would begin studying digital filmmaking and eventually come to discover my love of writing and passion for story. It's not hard to remember the first day of class in your first filmmaking class and that aroma that emitted a pungent combination of eagerness and anxiety. One of the first assignments our professor doled out was that of listing our top ten favorite films. Not necessarily what we thought were the best films of all time, but our current ten favorite movies that first sprung to mind. It was no surprise the next time we all convened that a fair number of students in the room had included The Dark Knight on their lists; a film that had come out a mere month before this class probably took place. I can remember hearing the professor state that he wondered how much of a flash in the pan this new Batman movie might be as he could remember lists of this ilk flooded with the likes of The Matrix or Pulp Fiction the semester after those films had premiered and while I doubt there are nearly as many lists a decade down the road that include The Dark Knight as there were in my class that day I have a hard time believing, in this golden age of super hero cinema, that the gold standard for all super hero flicks no matter ones choice of tone, isn't at least on a few people's lists. That is to say, there have been many incarnations of the super hero film in the decade since given The Dark Knight came out a mere two and a half months after what was, at that time anyway, the unknown birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and yet it is still Christopher Nolan's epic crime saga as told with people in silly costumes that remains widely considered the best super hero movie of all time. I'm not here to dispute that fact. I agree with it. I agree with it because The Dark Knight is the most memorable movie-going experience of my life thus far and I highly doubt that will change any time soon if ever.

The first commercial IMAX theater of sorts had just opened in Central Arkansas in the summer of 2008 (the first movie screened in the theater was King Fu Panda) and in many ways it felt like destiny as it seemed only right that Nolan's version of one of the all-time greatest grudge matches in history, Batman versus The Joker, could possibly be experienced in any other way. Nolan certainly thought so as he'd shot extended action sequences in the film on 70 mm IMAX film stock and boy did that pay off in big ways. Ten years down the road and I can remember exact lines of thought that ran through my head as I watched and ingrained myself in that first viewing. How many movies can you say that about, if any? I can remember the anticipation as myself, my three younger brothers, and a multitude of friends arrived at the theater nearly four hours early to ensure we got to pick the best seats in the house. And honestly, four hours might be greasing the truth a little bit to make us not seem too crazed or too big of dorks as it very well could have been six hours. Maybe seven. Keep in mind, this was a time well before reserved seating and slightly before Thursday preview screenings really became a thing. The first showing of Nolan's sequel to his 2005 break-out, Batman Begins (which I saw twice on opening day), didn't begin until midnight on the seventeenth and when it did it was as if everything I knew in my twenty-one years on this planet had been leading to this moment. Had it really? Of course not, but it felt like that as the Warner Bros. logo floated onto the screen and then the blue-lit smoke bellowed out as the bat emblem came rushing through and then...that opening shot. That massive, helicopter shot quickly zooming in on a metropolitan building holding us all in suspense as to which window something was about to happen in. To this day, every time I watch the film, I try to pick the correct window from which the explosion will occur. From this moment, that grand IMAX shot as the camera dollies in behind Heath Ledger's Joker holding his clown mask and on to the moment he reveals his face from under that mask and speaks his first line the opening sequence would not only take every person's breath in that theater away, but it would set a precedent.

This precedent is what would ultimately lead to The Dark Knight and Nolan's trilogy as a whole being something of an anomaly among the super hero genre. This precedent was only held for one more film. Batman Begins was a good movie, but it was an excellent Batman movie. The Dark Knight was a great Batman movie, but maybe more importantly it was an exceptional movie in general-a masterpiece among crime epics if you will. And say what you will about The Dark Knight Rises, but it was an ambitious film that had the unenviable task of following-up the greatest super hero movie ever made, closing out Nolan's trilogy, and in the process somehow processing and fulfilling the need to be bigger than its predecessor if not just in scope, but in ideas. I won't go into the multiple themes and ideas of Nolan's trilogy of Batman films as that would serve as what is essentially another review of the films and/or series, but what is more interesting in looking back at this groundbreaking cultural event a decade later is not only the spot it's thus far earned in history alongside other films in the super hero genre, but more the place it has earned in the lives of those who were at a point in their own lives where it became something of a seminal event. It is easy to dismiss the age at which we experience certain things, including movies, in our lives until much later. I'm sure no eight year-old's were sitting in movie theaters in 1985 watching Back to the Future thinking, "This is it. This is going to impress upon me a standard to which I hold all movie-going experiences for the rest of my life," but that undoubtedly happened. While I wasn't eight, I wasn't someone who went to the movies all too often as a child (I didn't see Jurassic Park on the big screen until its 25th anniversary re-release) and when my family and I did go it was more often than not to the local dollar theater long after any new release hype had died down. Needless to say, given the fact Batman Begins opened the summer after I graduated high school and The Dark Knight the summer before I began film school there was a distinct sense of this trilogy marking significant moments in my life combined with it being my first IMAX experience, and the ever critical factor of being a child of the nineties that worshiped the Batman animated series. It was hard to ignore the fact The Dark Knight felt like that aforementioned culmination. What did this mean to me then? What did it signify? Well, simply that it was mine.

In the decade since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began it has continued in a manner consistent like nothing else in the history of cinema before. Every single year the MCU and Kevin Feige offer up at least two new movies of which they are always fairly well defined as to which genre of film they are attempting to emulate while at the same time being undeniably entertaining and wholly charismatic no matter the protagonist. Marvel, at this point, is an unstoppable machine and it's fun-even as a thirty-one year-old who's been watching since the beginning-to keep up with the overreaching plots of the series as the films only continue to evolve in admittedly interesting ways. This isn't an essay to explain why Nolan's darker and more contained trilogy is better or is the better way to make super hero movies because I don't necessarily know that it is-I mean, doesn't Marvel's structure hue more to the source material type of continuity while Nolan's is more cinema-based? The point being this is more to say that while I enjoy the continued adventures of the MCU characters and everything that has come of their individual arcs (I'd be lying if I said Infinity War won't make my top ten movies this year) they are a series of movies that belong to us all. And it's a wonderful thing to be able to share, don't get me wrong, I'm sure when my current three year-old daughter is twelve or thirteen in another decade we'll still be enjoying whatever MCU phase we're in at that point and eventually the phases will take on their own generational ownerships, but as of right now they span multiple generations and multiple demographics as the singular point of tentpole filmmaking that are guaranteed to bring a mass audience to the theater. What will forever be true of The Dark Knight and the two films surrounding it is the fact it is a singular piece of art very much of the time it was born from. I will never feel the relationship to The Godfather or Godfather Part II no matter how great I recognize them as being the same way someone who was able to experience them in the theater upon their initial release does. Those films will always belong to those born in the forties and fifties. The Dark Knight is to me what Tim Burton's first Batman film was to those born in the sixties and seventies. Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker is to me their Jack Nicholson and so on.   

It's difficult to find more and improved words to try and continue to make the point the previous paragraph attempts to formulate, but the essence is the fact Nolan created both a sprawling and very finite trilogy of films that will forever remain untouched by anything else in pop culture. I mean, would I love for someone to make a live action Batman Beyond film in another twenty years that saw Christian Bale reprise his role as Bruce Wayne? Um...hell yeah I would, but the odds of that actually happening feel slim at the moment. The Dark Knight is the finest of that trilogy for a number of reasons and as good as its performances, its cinematography, that score, and even the writing-which has somehow only seemed to improve upon current re-watches with its strict plotting and layered meanings-what I take away most from the film are the memories attached to it including that initial reaction to what I'd just witnessed. Less than twenty-four hours after the midnight screening of the film I was back in the theater watching the film again. I would see it at least two more times before the end of opening weekend. It would easily become the movie I've seen the most during a theatrical run and you can bet your ass I saw it many more times in IMAX. That thundering sound design in the theater when Bale's Batman dropped multiple stories on top of Scarecrow's getaway van, or that first scene in which Ledger's Joker lets us know just how serious he is by performing that pencil trick, through to the revelation of where Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes truly are thus inadvertently creating Two-Face. The Dark Knight is filled to the brim with iconic moments and images and each carry a significant memory from one of those early viewings as I re-watch the film today. I don't know that I could ever fully express how much the experience means to me given the film itself, while being great, doesn't exactly hit on any themes or ideas that connect in a heartfelt or heart-wrenching fashion, but more it is an admittance of how awe-inspiring the experience was. The fact it is still rather awe-inspiring ten years on and when played on a quaint home theater system only solidifies how well The Dark Knight has and will continue to stand the test of time.