THE DARK KNIGHT: An Influential And Prophetic Blockbuster
Christopher Nolan’s second Batman outing remains the fourth highest grossing film in the United States, but it was also the fourth film to cross the billion dollar mark worldwide. It’s an occurrence that has since become commonplace, but back in 2008-2009, it was a pretty big deal. Despite being a sequel, its cultural impact was far more sudden than films of its ilk, and while its tone became somewhat of a regularity amongst actions movies in the years that followed, The Dark Knight was, at the time, one of a kind. It’s considered one of the first real post-9/11 blockbusters, dealing with a political landscape where questions of war and security were constantly at the forefront, and it found itself caught somewhere between a superhero movie and a classic American crime drama. An epic five-act morality play that ended up creating waves like only a product of the Hollywood studio system could, one that would result in the ‘darkening’ of other major American franchises like 007, Die Hard and even Superman, each to varying degrees of success.
However, the American perspective isn’t why this film stands out to me. In fact, it may be disingenuous of me to talk about it from a domestic standpoint since it came out a full year before I moved here, but it’s a film I do absolutely feel the need to talk about, both because of the months leading up to it, as well as things that occurred several months later. It was an important film to a lot of people who were entering film culture at the time, but its significance to Mumbai, my home city, is also rather unfortunate.
American cinema has always been a massive global export, but The Dark Knight came out at a time when the face of international movie culture was amidst somewhat of an evolution. The Harry Potter series had begun to bring international release dates closer together, thanks to both hype as well as the growing fear of piracy, but it wasn’t until the mid-late 2000s that this shift in the age-old paradigm began to accelerate. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook had suddenly made the buildup to big movies globally ubiquitous, and The Dark Knight was amongst the first where the experience expanding beyond the walls of the cinema was an international phenomenon. Viral marketing filled with clues and competitions, massive online discussions involving people from all corners of the globe (I’m still friends with some of them!) and trailers hitting YouTube well before we got to see them on the big screen, followed by collectively picking apart every bit of available information and talking about our theories late at night, or early in the morning depending on which continent we were on. Gen X movie geeks in America tell me this began for them in the late '90s, so I suppose The Dark Knight was my generation’s The Phantom Menace, only we actually like it.
Of course, one can’t really talk about the buildup to The Dark Knight without talking about Heath Ledger’s Joker, not to mention the elephant in the room. While it certainly drew attention to his last completed role, it was already getting the kind of buzz reserved for year-end award contenders before his death. From the first unsettling image of his Glasgow grin, to the teaser trailer scored by his maniacal laughter, to news of Michael Caine being so terrified of him that he forgot his lines, it was all part of this anomalous anticipation wherein people wanted to watch a massive studio film primarily for a performance. Some even speculated that the dark nature of the role contributed to his overdose, which while highly unlikely, was an unavoidable sentiment at the time. The film was on the radars of a whole lot of us who weren’t accustomed to thinking about a movie before we’d seen any footage, and once we had, lines like “Let’s put a smile on that face” and “Why so serious?” started being repeated ad nauseam in impression videos on YouTube.
The hype continued long after its release as well, as it climbed box-office charts quicker than any film before it, amidst glowing reviews that couldn’t quite seem to grasp the fact that a superhero movie could be something more. Perhaps the film was even a victim of its own success, with the constant stream of references and awful parodies growing tiresome before long (looking at you, CollegeHumor) not to mention the fact that other properties subsequently being “Nolanized” became somewhat of an annoyance, but it hasn’t really left the larger movie conversation. It was an intense experience after all, spawning memes before memes were really a thing, and its success kick-started the use of 70mm IMAX in studio features, thus allowing the corporation to expand even further, creating everything from new cameras, to new screens, to new projection and sounds systems, and it gave Nolan the kind of pull with the studios that’s helping keep film photography alive today.
For me personally, it was the first film where I actively took part in the buildup, the first film I watched in theatres more than twice, and the first film I ever considered my favourite. Months later, I went on to talk about it during a class discussion about modern stories influenced by Shakespeare, The Joker being the Iago/Cassius/Lady Macbeth to Harvey Dent’s Othello/Brutus/Macbeth, with the film’s moral turning point being a major death in Act III (of V), and while that comparison might seem rather base retrospect, it was probably the first time I ever sat down to think about a movie with a slightly more critical eye. For a lot of people my age, it was a turning point when it came to possibilities; what was possible on film, the experience leading up to it, and the scope of the ensuing discussion. It felt like people were finally taking comic books seriously, and truth be told, it’s one of the reasons I even considered moving to the United States to begin with. Fancy that.
Several years later, once I’d lived here for a little while, and had partaken in numerous discussions about how the film was received around the world, my roommate and I were talking about its political implications and moral quandaries when he said something I found a bit jarring. Granted, he didn’t know why at the time, because he had no idea the kind of place the film had for the people of Mumbai, something many of you reading this might not be aware of either. While we argued about Batman’s illegal surveillance network, and whether or not we’d use it if we could, he tried to give himself a doorway out of the debate by saying a situation like The Joker taking over an entire city is something that would never come to pass, so it didn’t really matter.
Only it did matter, because it was something that had come to pass just four months after The Dark Knight.
On November 26th 2008, now infamously known as 26/11, the city of Mumbai was brought to a standstill. Ten gunmen from Pakistan had taken a boat into the harbour, appearing as if out of nowhere, and had opened fire in several locations across the city. A train station. A hospital. My favourite restaurant. They then paired off and headed towards crowded areas where they could target the city’s elite. Two were stopped on their way to the Chief Minister’s residence just down the road from me (one killed, one captured) while the others infiltrated a residential building and two major hotels – one where my family and I had been dining exactly a month earlier on the holiday known as Diwali, the festival of lights and the day the attacks were originally supposed to take place. For the next three days, the gunmen holed themselves up in these buildings, setting them ablaze and shooting and killing hundreds. For almost 72 hours, they made no demands. They simply killed, and killed, and killed, throwing grenades in the path of any armed forced approached them, plunging the city into chaos in the process
Even before the attack was over, online debates raged about corruption, accountability, the death penalty, and how we needed to implement systemic overhaul, but amidst all this, something strange began to happen. People began to point out the terrifying resemblance the incident bore to a film we had all just seen. A film where a force representing 21st century terrorism entered an already politically volatile city and began to tear it apart. Mumbai had seen terrorist attacks before, coordinated bomb blasts in 1993, 2003 and 2006, but none like this. None where we spent days on end glued to our television screens for the latest developments, while also being able to see burning buildings in the distance. None where we had to cut the phone lines city-wide in a last ditch attempt to sabotage the terrorists (turns out they came prepared with satellite phones, so it didn’t matter) and none where the intent was more than just death. It was fear. Mass fear. The kind of controlled fear that seeps under your skin and makes you question not just your own safety, but the safety of everyone around you. The safety of an entire city whose government and police forces were failing to protect them. There’s no doubt in my mind this was the same fear felt by the citizens of Gotham during the events of The Dark Knight, and there was one very specific Facebook status someone posted during the attacks that I still remember clear as day. A classmate who, like everybody else, was helpless to do anything about the situation, using the same social media platform we had all been using to talk about this one movie for months on end.
“Mumbai needs its Batman.”
While it seems almost facile to compare a fictional film to real events where people lost their lives, that debate with my roommate years later made me realize that if we had the kind of technology seen in the film, we would have probably used it to track down the exact locations of the terrorists instead of having to cut the phone lines and make people fear for their families’ safety. If any of us had the means to go around the law and do a better job than the police (who, mind you, acted heroically), we would’ve absolutely done it if it meant saving lives. I’ve been reading and watching Batman stories for as long as I can remember, and he’s always been a fun fantasy character, but in that moment, his entire outlook finally made sense to me, especially the version of him we saw in The Dark Knight. If there was anyone who had the ability to go around Government bureaucracy and take out the Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Pakistan-based terrorist group who claimed responsibility for the attack) in the weeks that followed, in that moment, they would’ve probably done what Batman did to get Lau back from Hong Kong. Without hesitation. It may have had terrible repercussions in the long run (were it even a remote possibility), but any one of us would’ve done it. It was a momentary feeling of anger backed by loss, the same kind of anger that had taken a hold of Bruce Wayne when his parents were killed, and hadn’t let him go since. If we could, we would’ve been willing to cross any and all moral and ethical boundaries to save people, perhaps even the ones Batman was forced to cross in order to save Gordon’s son.
As much as the film is about The Joker and Harvey Dent, it’s about Bruce Wayne trying to let go of Batman, trying to let go of the things holding him back, the things keeping him trapped in this place of festering rage and preventing him from living. It’s about him trying to find a replacement for vigilantism. Granted, a necessary vigilantism to help a city that had no other recourse, but at the end of the day, it’s a solution that couldn’t possibly work in the long run, especially in the face of all the escalating destruction it brought. In a way, the film is the ultimate condemnation of Batman, but it simultaneously understands the need for him to exist.
The film is somewhat open ended, with Batman painting a target on his back so the people could band together against him and see Harvey Dent as a hero. The Dark Knight Rises opens several years later, after the city has already cleaned itself up, so we never get to see the immediate outcome of Batman’s decision. Not in fiction anyway. In the real world, once the dust had settled and Mumbai had a figure to focus its hatred on (the one surviving terrorist) as well as martyrs to rally behind (Officers Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar), people across the city began marches and campaigns, some led by youth activists organizations started by high school students in the wake of the tragedy, and while I wouldn’t dare go as far as saying the film had anything to do with it, what I will say is that its history is somewhat intertwined with that of Mumbai now. Call it life imitating art, or vice versa, but the line between the two begins to blur when we talk about that specific time period. After all, it was still in theatres while all this was happening.
Of course, that doesn’t stop any of us from enjoying the film, or from talking about how for a brief period, Heath Ledger’s murderous psychopath was the coolest damn thing on the planet. It certainly didn’t stop us from cosplaying The Joker at any given opportunity. Dressing up as movie characters may be commonplace this side of the planet, but back home, my brother and I wearing Joker makeup on opening night was out of the ordinary to the point of laughs and jeers. However, people were so taken with the movie that they ended up congratulating us afterwards. We never really had the opportunity to do anything like that since we don’t celebrate Halloween, so several of us even took it upon ourselves to dress up as The Joker for our school Social (the equivalent of Prom), right after Ledger won his posthumous Oscar. That year, three of the four House plays (think Hogwarts, only with the magic of theatre!) used bits of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score, and the one I directed even opened with a bank robbery and featured interrogation scenes! We may not have known it at the time, or understood why it worked as well as it did, but it was now part of our collective consciousness, and a major artistic influence as well. (It was also that very same play that convinced my parents to let me move here to pursue the arts, so I owe a pretty huge debt to this movie about a man in a rubber suit and his clown friend.)
The chasm between fun, goofy entertainment and serious, thought-provoking art had begun to close, that too on a pretty massive scale. It changed the way studios approached action movies for a number of years, and because of its success at both the box office and he Oscars, it helped legitimize the idea of the superhero in the eyes of the mainstream. It’s part of why comic book movies are as big as they are today, and hell, it’s even a major reason we have more than five Best Picture nominees. Sure, it all seems a bit excessive now, and we don’t quite crave the same ‘dark & gritty’ stuff that we did back then, but for a moment in time, The Joker was as big as Darth Vader. He and Batman were the ultimate rebellious teens, opposing the system in their own unique ways and striking a chord with every teenager I knew in the process. Most importantly, The Dark Knight was one of the biggest things to happen to global cinema at the time, because it helped change the way the world engaged with movies.