"You've changed things."
Those words, uttered by the late Heath Ledger in his incendiary performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, were directed at Batman (Christian Bale) but might as well have been spoken about Nolan and the movie themselves. The Dark Knight was an earthshaking moment in the relatively short history of superhero films: a motion picture event that not only pushed the genre to even higher levels of financial success, critical acclaim and pop culture awareness than it had enjoyed before, but also planted the idea that the form could transcend itself and enter the realm of great filmmaking, period.
Ten years later (the movie came out in 2008 on this date, July 18), The Dark Knight still stands as a formidable achievement, a gripping action thriller and one of the best superhero movies ever made. It immortalized the eternal battle between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime as an epic clash between order and chaos, raked in more than $500 million at the North American box office alone, and earned the genre its first (and so far only) non-technical Oscar — under tragic circumstances — while making the stodgy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begin to rethink its attitude toward genre movies in general.
It's been a decade and The Dark Knight still reigns supreme. How did it all happen?
"Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"
First, a quick flashback: it's 1997 and Warner Bros. Pictures had just about killed off the Batman movie franchise with Batman and Robin, an unmitigated disaster of a film that turned the Caped Crusader into box office poison.
But the studio took many pitches from various filmmakers and writers on how to revive the Bat's box office fortunes, and eventually settled on a take offered by Memento director Christopher Nolan. The young filmmaker wanted to tell Batman's origin story in great detail — which had never been done onscreen before — and present a more realistic, grounded view of the character and the mythology.
The result was 2005's Batman Begins, which introduced Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne and was a solid, if not necessarily spectacular, hit for the studio, grossing $374 million worldwide, including $205 million in the U.S — nearly $100 million more than Batman and Robin.
The Bat was back, and the final scene in Batman Begins — Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) handing Batman a Joker playing card found at the scene of a recent crime — was one of the greatest teases for a sequel ever committed to film.
"You crossed the line first, sir."
With a second film clearly warranted, Nolan and Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer set about drafting a treatment for a sequel that would pick up almost exactly where the first left off — and feature perhaps the most famous ongoing clash in comic book history, between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime.
The Joker had been played on the big screen nearly 20 years earlier by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), with the legendary actor giving a then-definitive performance, while Mark Hamill later made the role his own by voicing the character on Batman: The Animated Series. Whoever Nolan cast was going to have some formidable predecessors looking over his shoulder.
Goyer initially came up with a treatment for both a second and third film: the Joker would scar district attorney Harvey Dent in the courtroom early in the third movie, leading Dent to go on a rampage as Two-Face. Nolan decided to turn Dent into Two-Face in the third act of The Dark Knight instead, giving the heroic "white knight" of Gotham City a tragic sacrificial arc. As per the comics (at least early on), the Joker was not given an origin story; Nolan described him as "fully formed" and an "absolute" whose goal is simply to create complete chaos.
The central theme of The Dark Knight was going to be something that Batman Begins had touched upon in its final scenes: the concept of escalation, that the criminal element in Gotham would go to greater lengths to preserve its freedom and defeat Batman — eventually leading to the unleashing of "a man they didn't fully understand" in the form of the Joker.
"I'm not a monster, I'm just ahead of the curve."
With Bale set to reprise his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman, plus Batman Begins stars Oldman, Michael Caine (Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) also returning, the search got underway for someone to take on the role of the Joker. Immediately the rumor mill started churning, with actors like Paul Bettany, Mark Hamill, Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody and Lachy Hulme either expressing interest or being mentioned as possible candidates (although Hulme later claimed he was not in the running and never even met with Nolan).
In the end, Nolan chose Australian actor Heath Ledger, whom he had wanted to work with for some time and had even considered approaching about playing the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. Coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in 2005's Brokeback Mountain and an acclaimed appearance in 2007's I'm Not There, Ledger was not immediately embraced by Batfans (a now-familiar refrain) but began his customary immersion into the role, deciding to play the Joker as a complete psychopath and living alone for a month in a hotel room prior to filming while he developed the character's voice and mindset.
Other new additions to the cast included Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes due to the latter's scheduling conflicts as assistant D.A. — and love interest to both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent — Rachel Dawes, while Aaron Eckhart won the role of Dent. Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber and Matt Damon had all had their names attached to the role at one point or another, while Mark Ruffalo actually auditioned for it — three years before he would instead join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Hulk.
"The night is darkest just before the dawn."
Filming on The Dark Knight began in the spring of 2007 and was completed by December of that year, with the production spending time in Chicago (13 weeks), Pinewood Studios in London and Hong Kong. Viral marketing for the film had already begun in the spring, with a reveal of the Joker's visage online and various other online games and scavenger hunts leading excited fans to more pictures and other film-related websites. The traditional marketing, meanwhile, also focused on the Joker and the "Why so serious?" tagline, while his opening bank heist was shown before IMAX screenings of I Am Legend in December.
Then on January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger died in his downtown Manhattan apartment from an accidental overdose of prescription medication. The actor was 28 years old. He had completed all his scenes for The Dark Knight and would not have been required for any reshoots or additional work, with a stunned Christopher Nolan saying that the finished film would feature Ledger's complete performance. The Joker-centric marketing for the movie was adjusted somewhat, although the character was still an integral part of the studio's promotional efforts.
By the time The Dark Knight opened on Jul. 18, the advance buzz about the movie and Ledger's performance, the undeniable allure of seeing Batman and the Joker clash again, and the scope of the trailers and marketing reached a feverish pitch. Then the first reviews began to emerge, with Nolan's movie being hailed as taking the superhero genre to a new level of versimilitude and sophistication, with Ledger's work acclaimed as mesmerizing.
The Dark Knight went on to make $158 million at the North American box office in its opening weekend, shattering every previous record and holding the record for best opening weekend ever for three years, until it was surpassed by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. It achieved many other records as well -- some of those, like highest Sunday gross and highest first week gross, beaten in 2012 by The Avengers. The movie made a total of $534 million in North America and $470 million around the world, making it the fourth film in history to earn $1 billion at the global box office.
The critics were exceptionally pleased as well, with the movie earning a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 327 reviews. Ledger's Joker was singled out as the standout performance in the picture — and deservedly so — while the movie itself was acclaimed for taking a basic superhero story and elevating it into a complex crime saga. Themes relating to the War on Terror, whether the ends justify the means and how we define a hero were all noted as part of the movie's fabric, with the film compared favorably to crime epics like Heat and The Godfather.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn't quite see it that way however. While The Dark Knight received a total of eight Oscar nominations — the most ever for a comics-based movie — they were almost all technical nominations with the exception of Ledger's nod for Best Supporting Actor. Nolan was overlooked for Best Director and the movie itself did not make the cut for Best Picture, with the fifth slot going to the inferior Kate Winslet-starring The Reader.
With The Dark Knight clearly pleasing both critics and audiences, it was suggested that the Academy was snubbing the movie purely because it was based on comic books. The outcry arguably led to the Academy later expanding the Best Picture category to include up to 10 films, instead of the usual five, which directly led to nominations in later years for movies like Avatar, District 9, Mad Max: Fury Road and others.
Ledger posthumously won the Best Supporting Actor award — after winning many others, including a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild prize, a BAFTA award and many others — with his family emotionally accepting the trophy at the Oscars ceremony. Ledger remains the only actor to date to win an Oscar for a role in a superhero movie.
"He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now."
There are several moments in the history of comic book movies that are turning points: the release of Superman: The Movie in 1978, the arrival of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, the opening weekend of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man two years later.
2008 brought two such events: the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in May with the release of Iron Man, and the achievement of The Dark Knight just two and a half months later. The Dark Knight proved several things: that comic book movies, while already successful, could be box office behemoths beyond anyone's prediction; that they could tackle serious subjects and themes with the same gravitas as any other major motion picture; and that they could interpret their material in such a way that they would appeal to more than just nerds picking up their pull lists every Wednesday at their local comics shop.
The Dark Knight also taught some in the film industry the wrong lesson: that "dark and gritty" was the the go-to template and tone for every superhero property. It was perfect for Nolan's take on the Batman (who could also be interpreted through other lenses as well), but it was the wrong tone for, say, Superman, a mistake for which DC's film universe is arguably still paying the price.
But even with its flaws (I still can't figure out to this day how Gordon knew when to exactly take that bullet for the mayor) and despite its unwarranted effect on some genre offerings in its wake, The Dark Knight remains one of the greatest movies of its kind. Heath Ledger's Joker has now become the definitive screen portrayal of the character, while the movie's epic scale and thrillingly complex narrative demonstrated that the source material — the comics themselves — could provide storytelling as deep, compelling and mature as any other medium. Like a watchful protector, The Dark Knight still stands tall 10 years later.