By 2008, writer-director Christopher Nolan was already one of the most promising new filmmakers in Hollywood. His 2000 breakthrough Memento earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, while his 2005 film Batman Begins presented a more mature and grounded look at the superhero genre. But after the 2006 thriller The Prestige, Nolan released his most critically and commercially successful film with 2008’s The Dark Knight, which is now playing on Netflix streaming in the United States.
The second film in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight centers on Christian Bale’s Batman forming an alliance with District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) to try and take out organized crime in Gotham City. However, the appearance of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an anarchistic and unpredictable villain, causes havoc for Bruce Wayne and tests his moral code as Batman.
While Bale’s Batman is certainly the hero of The Dark Knight, the true star of the film is Heath Ledger, in one of his final performances before his surprising death at the age of 28. In Christopher Nolan’s film, Heath Ledger’s Joker is by far the most interesting character of The Dark Knight, an adversary for Batman that can’t be reasoned with. Ledger played Joker with a maniacal attitude, yet there was always a method to his madness. Even more than Jack Nicholson before him, or Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix since, Ledger knew how to walk the line between terrifying and captivating, incalculable yet entirely in control.
But in addition to Heath Ledger’s phenomenal performance, The Dark Knight works so well because Christopher Nolan treated this almost as a thriller first and a superhero film second. Inspired more by Michael Mann’s Heat than by any previous superhero films, Nolan made The Dark Knight suspenseful and uncertain in a way that superhero films rarely are. The Dark Knight wasn’t just a great superhero movie, it was simply a great film. Coming out the same year as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Iron Man, Christopher Nolan set up how – for better or worse – DC would handle their darker take on superhero films going forward.
At the time of its release, The Dark Knight was the highest-grossing superhero film of all-time, and the first superhero film to make over a billion dollars worldwide. Having made over $534 million domestically, The Dark Knight still stands as the 12th highest-grossing film in the United States, and is the highest-grossing DC film in North America. Based on worldwide gross, The Dark Knight is the second highest-grossing Batman film ever, beaten only by Christopher Nolan’s sequel, The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.
The Dark Knight is still the highest-grossing and most critically appreciated film of Christopher Nolan’s career so far. The film currently holds a 94% on both Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer and its audience score – the highest-ranking for any Christopher Nolan film. In his four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert said that The Dark Knight helps “redefine the possibilities of the ‘comic book movie.’”
The Dark Knight would be nominated for eight Academy Awards, and winning two: Best Sound Editing, and Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger. The performance of Joker by Ledger would dominate film awards for the year, and would show the incredible actor we had lost with his heartbreaking death. Surprisingly, Christopher Nolan was not nominated for his screenplay or for directing. The lack of The Dark Knight and WALL-E receiving nominations in Best Picture is believed to be the reason the Academy expanded the number of nominees the following year. In 2020, The Dark Knight was selected to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Yet it’s hard to quantify how important Christoper Nolan’s Batman series, and The Dark Knight in particular, was not just to superhero films, but action films in general. After the origin story of Batman Begins, films like Casino Royale and Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed that old stories could become new again by starting back at the beginning. The Dark Knight showed that a compelling villain could be even more interesting than a great hero – a balance that superhero films still struggle with to this day. The Dark Knight made DC follow a path of darkness in their films, while it upped the ante for what rival Marvel had to accomplish with their films.
Even though Christopher Nolan followed up The Dark Knight with an impressive lineup of films that includes Inception and Dunkirk – both films that did earn Nolan a Best Picture nomination – it seems likely that The Dark Knight will go down as one of his most significant contributions to film. The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the greatest superhero films ever made, it’s also one of the best films of the 2000s.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is now available to watch any time on Netflix.