Ten years ago The Dark Knight was released in theaters to huge critical and popular acclaim.
The film shot to number 1 at the box office where it remained for four weeks, eventually leaving the top ten eleven weeks after its release. It was the highest-rated superhero movie on Rotten Tomatoes until the release of Logan and Wonder Woman, both in 2017.
The film changed the media landscape and the discourse around superhero movies.
The film is being subjected to fresh scrutiny on its anniversary with many accusing the film of being sloppy, dour and cold. Re-watching the film, however, it remains one of the most exhilarating, inventive and provocative action movies ever made.
Here are the top ten scenes that prove The Dark Knight is unsurpassed as the greatest superhero film.
“How about a magic trick?”
The Joker (Heath Ledger) is introduced to the audience twice. In the thrilling opening sequence he is an otherworldly presence whose identity is revealed only at the end; a terrifying punchline to a twisted joke. In his first scene proper, he intrudes upon a meeting of gangsters and their money-laundering accountant Lau (Chin Han).
Prison rules would dictate that he must take out the largest man present to earn the respect of the villains. His method of dispatching Gambol’s (Michael Jai White) henchmen is deeply unsettling. Very much like John Wick, The Joker can work wonders with just a pencil.
This moment announces the Joker as a dangerous and unpredictable presence. The remarkably understated act of brutal violence is darkly comic and upsettingly creative. It’s everything you want the Joker to be.
Heath Ledger’s joker is a masterpiece of villainy, with the brothers Nolan’s writing and Heath Ledger’s deservedly Oscar-winning performance combining to create something truly iconic. The Pencil sequence illustrates his theatricality and charisma. His bizarre, Tom-Waits inflected speech is another disarming weapon in his arsenal that also includes a jacket full of grenades that he employs to make his exit from the scene.
Despite the film’s darkness, Nolan isn’t above including genuine laughs in the film, The Joker’s casual “yeah” being a particular highlight.
“I blow up a hospital”
The sequence that Mark Kermode suggested might have been excised to improve the pacing of the film is a self-contained masterpiece of tension. After the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital unless Coleman Reese (Joshua Harto) is murdered, a tense chase ensues.
Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) must discover which hospital has been rigged to blow whilst also preserving the life of the man who threatens to expose him. This represents the Joker’s first attempt to make the general public complicit in his crimes, an important step in his goal of proving that people are only as good as they can afford to be and that no one is ever more than one good push away from becoming him.
Meanwhile, Batman works against his own interests to preserve the life of a man who threatens to take everything from him. The importance of Batman’s code is challenged throughout the film with The Joker finding new ways to corrupt the Dark Knight and his allies.
As Bruce races to find the hospital, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), finds himself in a tense stand-off (sit-off?) with a member of his SWAT team torn between duty and fear. The entire scheme forces the citizens of Gotham, and Batman himself, to weigh the life of one man against many. It’s an intelligent concept at the centre of a very tense sequence.
“Tonight you’re all gonna be part of a social experiment”
The next phase of The Joker’s plan involves hijacking two boats full of Gotham citizens, one of which is a prison ship. He provides each boat with a means of blowing up the other boat, fuelling their fears and exposing a great many prejudices.
The Dark Knight frequently investigates how regular people react under extraordinary circumstances and although it’s very dispiriting to see seemingly decent people genuinely argue in favour of mass murder in the name of self-preservation, ultimately the film represents the victory of basic decency.
Interestingly the civilian boat decides to take a poll to decide what to do and the poll fails. An anonymous democratic election allows self-interest to prevail at the expense of compassion. It is only when one person must take personal responsibility for pressing the button that they find themselves unable to commit this act of evil. The group fails to do the right thing but each individual in that group succeeds. An interesting, if cynical, view of mass mentality but a tantalising predicament for the audience.
Would you be able to press the button? Would you trust the other boat not to press theirs? All intercut with Batman gloriously and beautifully taking down a building full of terrorists. The prisoner’s dilemma intercut with Die Hard.
“Now that’s more like it, Mr. Wayne.”
The Hong Kong action set-piece comes near the end of the first act before the conflict between Batman and The Joker really begins.
Bruce has chased the mafia’s money to a sleazy accountant who is now escaping arrest in non-extradition Hong Kong. Batman must enter the building, capture Lau and escape. What follows closely resembles a set piece from Mission Impossible. After a breathtaking establishing shot of Batman overlooking the building atop a skyscraper (Nolan and Pfister have an uncanny ability to inspire awe with the scope of his settings), he begins to deploy clever gadgets and commences his plan.
Many accused Batman Begins of having incomprehensible action sequences due to the shaky cam and frenetic editing. Whilst I feel that these problems are not as severe as some may remember, it is certainly true that Nolan locks down the camera for The Dark Knight. The intricate fight choreography is much easier to appreciate in Nolan’s latter two Batman movies.
Batman steps even further outside of his authority in kidnapping a foreign national and illegally returning him to the states against his will. Earlier in the film, we learn that Batman is surveying his love interest Rachel Dawes and later will use even more intrusive technology to find The Joker. Already Batman is breaking rules to pursue justice or his own personal desires.
The film charts Bruce Wayne’s failure in his mission. Initially hoping that Batman would become a symbol of hope for Gotham’s residence and a deterrent to criminals, he instead ends the film a wanted criminal whose legacy is in ashes around him.
The darkest truth of The Dark Knight is that The Joker wins this war for the soul of Gotham, but this sequence exposes the cracks in Batman’s façade.
A police convoy nervously rolls through the dark city. The soundtrack is near silent, but the dull whir of The Joker’s theme remains menacingly in the background. An aerial shot sees the tiny line of cars approach something bright. We see their reaction as they become unnerved and divert the convoy into harm’s way in the unprotected lower highways of Gotham. As they enter the tunnel the glowing obstruction is revealed to be a flaming fire engine.
The opening to The Dark Knight’s central action set piece is deeply menacing. Nolan stretches the moments of anticipation before the first dramatic action bursts onto the screen. Nolan has always preferred practical effects and real stunts and here he blends the two perfectly. This all culminates in the heart-stopping flipping of The Joker’s truck, which is utterly implausible but undeniably impressive. Wally Pfister’s cinematography captures the city streets with slick realism. You feel the weight of the dump truck when it slams into the SWAT car.
What’s most remarkable about the chase sequence is that almost every argument that YouTuber Jim Emerson makes in his video about the chase is true. He argues that the sequence is sloppy due to continuity errors and basic failures in the language of editing. His arguments are compelling and it’s hard not to acknowledge the problems he has found. I had similar issues with the street-level gunfight in Inception.
Yet the chase scene remains one of the most exhilarating sequences in action cinema. The sequence may be a little hard to follow, but it’s visceral and utterly compelling.
Rachel Dawes was never the most compelling character in The Dark Knight Trilogy, through no fault of the committed performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Katie Holmes.
In Batman Begins she represented perhaps what Bruce may have become had he not chosen the way of the vigilante crime fighter. She is a good person trying to solve the system from within, and therefore an important counterpoint for Bruce Wayne’s mission.
Come The Dark Knight she represents Bruce’s hopes for a normal life. He somewhat naively hopes that he can swap places with Harvey Dent, with him serving as Gotham’s hero, whilst Bruce makes off with her. Although Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the part with great charm, we are offered little insight into her own desires or character beyond her significance to the two male characters. None of this robs her death scene of its impact.
After a very conventional chase sequence through the streets of Gotham, Nolan once again allows the music and sound to drop out of the film to realise the full impact of The Joker’s deception. He reversed the addresses, sending Bruce in the wrong direction, guaranteeing Rachel’s death. Doing so forces Bruce to acknowledge his own selfishness in rushing after his love interest instead of Gotham’s white knight, ultimately failing to save either of them.
As Dent’s anguished cries continue to transmit over the radio, Rachel seems to come to terms with her fate. Her final words are brutally cut off by The Joker’s explosion. It’s a powerfully acted and flawlessly staged sequence that begins a long period of melancholy in the film before the next set piece The Joker’s next scheme unfolds.
“We burned the forest down”
The relationship between Bruce and Alfred is very much the heart of The Dark Knight. As the faithful family servant, Alfred casts a caustic and wearied eye over Bruce’s dangerous endeavours. He sorrowfully offers support when Bruce is disheartened by his quixotic mission.
In these scenes, we gain insight into Alfred’s past as he recalls encounters in Burma whilst working for the Local Government. It’s a chance for the audience to see Bruce without the cowl or his other disguise, the tuxedo. Though the dialogue is weighty and alludes very heavily to the principal themes of the film, there is still a great deal of affection evident between the two men, and Michael Caine and Christian Bale achieve an easy chemistry.
Nolan ends many of these scenes with a striking transition. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Alfred portentously says as the camera cuts to a close up on The Joker’s face, Zimmer’s whine growing ominously. “Accomplice? I’m gonna tell them the whole thing was your idea,” Bruce quips as the lights shut off in the Batcave, seemingly marking an end to their crime-fighting days.
The most powerful of these is the last scene we see between the two men. Rachel is dead, Bruce has shed his armour and is now just as helpless as he was after his parents died. Having offered Bruce advice on how best to deal with the forces of chaos besetting him, Bruce finally asks Alfred how he and his friends dealt with the anarchic thief in Belgium. He solemnly replies that “we burned the forest down”, hard cut to the disfigured Harvey Dent.
The forest is already burning, the extreme measures already are undertaken, and no one will escape unscathed in the battle against evil.
“Wanna know how I got these scars?”
The Joker twice holds a captive at knifepoint and reveals how he got his scars. Both stories are lies.
The first encounter ends with the savage execution of a mob boss, and so when Rachel becomes the second victim of Joker’s storytime antics, there is a heightened sense of tension. Hans Zimmer’s score has been flawless throughout the film but this is the moment that sends chills down my spine.
The discordant hum of the Joker’s theme gradually grows more intense as The Joker becomes more aggressive in his handling of his hostage. Rachel squirms and resists as he continues to grasp at her, pressing the knife against her face. The camera circles the two until it abruptly halts at the line “one day they carve her face”. Now favouring a claustrophobic shot over the shoulder shot/reverse shot, the scene grows in intensity until a kick to the groin finally puts space between them. It’s definitely the most frightening sequence in a surprisingly scary action blockbuster.
It cannot be understated how important Heath Ledger’s performance is to the success of these sequences and the film. His quirky mannerisms and sudden mood swings create an unpredictable villain with enormous screen presence. This is his most impactful moment in the film, save one…
“Whatever doesn’t kill you…”
The Dark Knight’s opening bank heist is one of the best action sequences ever filmed. It achieves this not with big explosions, dangerous stunts (though that zip line is pretty spectacular), elaborate gunplay, or carefully choreographed fistfights.
It is simply one of the most tightly would sequences of tension and peril constructed. A group of thugs in masks rob a bank, apparently under the orders of a mysterious “Joker”. As they undergo the manifold steps of their plan they sequentially kill each other, increasing each person’s share in the loot. The Joker manages to make use of the men’s self-interest whilst also using it against them. It’s a crime sequence that is also a darkly comic game. It’s a perfect introduction to the twisted mind games of The Joker and sets the tone for the coming film.
Everything from the establishing shot of the city to the school bus effortlessly disappearing into traffic bespeaks this film’s commitment to real imagery, an authentic but terrifying world, and theatrics that are very much grounded in the believable.
The camera glides smoothly, tracking the dynamic action of the characters. William Fichtner’s cameo confirms the debt owed to the style of Michael Mann’s Heat. It’s a sequence every bit as stunning as that movie’s gunfight, if a little less audacious. The final reveal of The Joker is nothing short of iconic.
This sequence was shown in isolation to promote the film in IMAX ahead of the film’s release. There is surely no better showcase for the extravagance of IMAX format than this sequence.
“You complete me”
The best scene of The Dark Knight sees Batman and The Joker face off in an interrogation room.
Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes have gone missing. Joker uses the opportunity to explain his worldview to Batman before Batman loses his patience and starts punching him. There’s a horrible feeling of helplessness as the situation escalates. The harsh lighting and claustrophobic echoing of their voices in the tiny room build a sense of hopelessness.
Bruce’s powerlessness, when confronted with pure madness, is terrifying. Every weapon that Batman has fails him and he is forced to play The Joker’s depraved game. A game he is destined to lose.
The Joker is the perfect antagonist because he exists solely to challenge Batman’s biggest hypocrisy. He fights for the law, outside of the law. He wants to inspire people, but his actions are criminal. He is frequently confronted with imitators, both the vigilantes at the beginning of the film and Harvey Dent as he interrogates one of Joker’s men.
The only thing that separates him from his imitators is his resources and training, the only thing that separates him from the criminals he pursues is his one rule, not to kill. This sequence perfectly encapsulates this dilemma and the fascinating dynamic between Batman and his greatest villain.
Honourable Mention: “We tried to be decent men…”
The Joker dominates so much of the film’s narrative that many felt Two-Face was short-changed.
However, his fall from grace is fully realised and Aaron Eckhart’s performance perfectly captures the duality of the man. He is a decent man who is stripped of everything he loves; his beliefs, his girl and his face. He becomes an agent of chaos, and ultimately is killed and transformed into a false hero whose flawed legacy is explored in The Dark Knight Rises.
Although I love the sequence in which The Joker confronts Harvey in hospital, the best sequence of Two Face’s arc is the finale of the film. Dent has become a snarling monster who holds Commissioner Gordon’s family at gunpoint. As his two former friends attempt to reason with him, he proves beyond reach and in the ensuing struggle, he dies. It’s a very poignant note to conclude the film on.
The death of Harvey Dent is the ultimate failure for Bruce, who must now flee the society he just saved from anarchy.
If you haven’t watched The Dark Knight in a while and are beginning to buy in to the articles calling it over-rated or soulless, I urge you to revisit the film. It’s every bit as exciting, subversive and daring as it was when it was released ten years ago.
Return here in four years so we can once again go over why The Dark Knight Rises is also brilliant.
Until then, read here for a review of the 2019 Joker.