Jeremy Cropf gives tribute to the game-changing The Dark Knight and how fit into the making of a low-budget film during his young college years.
There are some films that are so integral to your youth that they take on an almost mythic quality. They ascend to the same rarefied place where true “classics” reside. Ingrained so deep into your memory and coated in such nostalgia that it becomes more than a movie. We’ve all got at least one. Some can trace it back to the undisputed game changers like Jaws, Star Wars, and the one-two Zemeckis punch of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. For other, younger generations it’s Steven Spielberg’s first entry into the now behemoth Jurassic Park series or even, to a lesser extent, his critically reviled but still seminal Hook. My two films came a little later in life but their impact was equally seismic: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the latter of which is celebrating its 10th anniversary today. In watching it again for 10 Years Ago, I wondered if the film could possibly live up to the legendary status it occupied in my mind. It had been a few years but between 2008 and 2011, this was probably one of my most-watched “DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital Downloads.” In order to answer that question, we have to first go back and look at where my life was one decade ago.
Batman has always been my favorite superhero. He was the earliest one I encountered as a child, the first comic book I ever read, and the first I saw in theatres (the unfortunate clusterfuck that was Batman & Robin). I watched the animated FOX series religiously and the show continues to hold a special place in my heart. When I played out little movies with my action figures, the Caped Crusader always had a prominent starring role—Batman Meets Aladdin was a standout one. And as I matured, so too did the Batman franchise. What was campy and over-the-top during my formative elementary school years became dark and gritty as I entered high school. Batman Begins was a revelation for 16-year-old Jeremy. An example of an “auteur” filmmaker taking the character seriously, giving it a dramatic heft that was absent from even Tim Burton’s beloved original.
A perfect storm of events took place to make The Dark Knight an all-timer for me. It was released smack dab in between my freshman and sophomore year at NYU—an interesting time for me. While I was incredibly naïve and inexperienced, I had just enough film projects under my belt to have a boundless enthusiasm and false confidence to match. Having previously directed The Disk, an ultra-shoestring budget Bourne-style action film the prior year, I was itching to get behind the camera and show my friends back home how much had progressed as a filmmaker; how much more “serious” I was. So naturally, my next film (a direct sequel titled The Disk: Code Zero) was a darker, more meaningful and artistic that explored more mature themes. At least, that was how my creative partners and I envisioned it. It was to be our Godfather Pt II. Our Empire Strikes Back. It was no coincidence that these were all traits shared with my number one most-anticipated film for the summer of 2008.
My expectations for The Dark Knight were sky-high, fueled by stellar advanced reviews and buzz among the film community that this was a sequel to rival the very best of them. It’s also important to remember that 2008 was a very different film landscape than the one we occupy now. Superhero films were not as ubiquitous as they are now. With the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk earlier that summer, the MCU still in its infancy and the industry had yet to discover the lucrativeness of shared cinematic universes. It’s mid-July release date coincided with the final weeks of production for Code Zero. I was in a near delirious state of anticipation, no doubt a product of being exhausted and overworked from juggling a summer job as a GIS lab assistant at St. Louis University and producing a feature film in the rest of my spare time. The GIS lab work was simple—I would overlay old hand-drawn maps from the early 1900s with modern-day aerial photographs of different geographic coordinates across Missouri. My dad, a public policy professor at SLU, had landed me the gig and it could not have been more tedious. The software I used to match the two images was ancient, leading to numerous hours spent watching a render bar crawl across the screen as my eyes slowly glazed over. Eventually, I used the render time to edit Code Zero on my laptop, plan our next production shoot, and gorge myself on all things Dark Knight-related. The film’s score, composed by the dream team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, had been leaked online early and played on a constant loop in the background. I pored over every article, behind-the-scenes photo, and IMDb comment thread in order to hype myself up. And then there was the acclaim around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker and the tragic circumstances that surrounded it. The apartment where Ledger’s body was found dead from accidental drug overdose was mere blocks from my dorm and I distinctly remembered walking past the ambulances and police cars on my way back from class that day. For all these reasons, the film really carried a high degree of personal importance to me. I didn’t just want it to be great. I needed it to be great.
And I wasn’t the only one.
Hype for The Dark Knight reached ridiculous levels in the final weeks leading up to its release. With official reviews hitting the street a full week and a half before release, there was ample time for the rave reviews to make the rounds and with just a few days to go before the film unspooled across the country, the Rotten Tomato score was sitting at a jaw-dropping 95%. Word spread of theatres across the country having to open more screenings to accommodate intensely high demand and box office prognosticators questioned whether the film could steal the crown of biggest opening weekend from the previous year’s Spider-Man 3. For once, it seemed like the rest of the American public was excited for, and talking about, the same thing I was. On the Code Zero set, it was no different. I talked the film up. A lot. To the point where I was rallying the entire cast and crew together to go see the movie at the earliest midnight screening available.
When the night of the premiere finally came, it was epic. I mean truly epic. I saw the film at my favorite theatre in my hometown of St. Louis—the Moolah Theatre, a renovated Moolah Shriners temple that featured bowling alleys, oversized couches, and in-theatre food and drink delivery. The line to enter the theatre was the longest I had ever seen, but because my buddy Alex Shirley (always the practical one) had arrived hours early, our group had a prime spot near the very front of the line. Hell, one of my cast members knew a theatre employee and was able to hook our entire crew up with free parking. When we finally entered the theatre, our group took up two full rows, seated in big comfy couches right up next to the screen. I was already in movie heaven.
If I were to name a film-going experience that exemplified the benefits of theatrical viewing, The Dark Knight at the Moolah would most certainly be it. Parts of the film were famously shot in 70mm, and the aspect ratio would adjust at pivotal scenes, filling the entire screen with Wally Pfister’s rich creamy cinematography to audible gasps from the audience. Every scene with the Joker landed. I remember looking at my friends in disbelief during his infamous “pencil-trick scene.” Even with all the pre-release hype, the nuance and unpredictability of Ledger’s performance was jaw dropping. The batpod/truck-flip scene led to multiple bouts of spontaneous applause, but for the most part, the audience was dead-silent, completely enraptured by the events unfolding on screen. When it was all over, the standing ovation extended long into the credits. I was in a euphoric daze. Despite my ridiculously high expectations, the film managed to not only match but surpass them. As the entire Code Zero cast talked excitedly about their favorite scenes, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to get behind a camera again. Christopher Nolan had thrown down the gauntlet, making a film that was everything I had hoped for and, perhaps more importantly, represented everything I wanted my own work to be.
The following morning, my Facebook news feed was littered with friends raving about the film. I was fielding numerous texts from college friends asking if I had seen the film and what I thought. The movie had already topped my Best of 2008 list and was inching its way up my best of all-time. It would take a few more viewings to get there but I was sure it would place high. I rode a post-Dark Knight high for days afterwards, and I’m ashamed to admit that it directly impacted my approach to filming Code Zero for the duration of production. I wasn’t alone in this. My best friend and co-director Alex was pulling triple duty as a lead actor and stuntman in the film and I could see some Joker-mannerisms start to creep into his performance. We were impressionable film geeks at the time and the film had us hook, line, and sinker. But it was a true cultural moment. The film broke opening weekend records and I distinctly remember listening to interviews and think pieces about the film on NPR for weeks afterwards. I saw the film three more times in theatres: once while on vacation with my family, and when I was back in college at a theatre by my NYU dorm, and again in IMAX at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.
It cannot be overstated what an integral role the making of Code Zero had in my appreciation of what Nolan accomplished with The Dark Knight. TDK was a film of exceptional ambition, a post-9/11 allegory that also addressed the role of heroes and symbols in our society, raising challenging moral questions for viewers that lingered long after the credits rolled. It was, in short, the exact type of film I wanted Code Zero to be. There was, of course, no way our little low-budget film could hope to compare, but Nolan’s film had tapped the cultural zeitgeist and it inspired us. There was no going back.
Code Zero was ultimately a mixed bag of a film. After badly botching the film’s first world premiere that following winter (it’s a funny story—ask me about it sometime), it took at least six months and two re-edits to finally finish it. At that point everyone had moved on. But the experience of making the film remains a highlight of my college years, one I continue to look back fondly upon and cherish to this day. Some of my closest friendships were made while working on that film, and I still keep in touch with many of them to this day. I will forever link The Dark Knight to this stand-out summer defined by pure unbridled creativity. With the 10th anniversary looming on July 18th, a re-view was in order. I hadn’t seen the film in a few years and I was eager to see how it would hold up.
I’m a big Batfan, so I must stress that my opinion is not unbiased. I love the character and I love Christopher Nolan’s take on him. Even after a few years collecting dust, I still have most of the film memorized and can recite many lines by heart. But it’s remarkable how well this movie holds up after repeat viewings. More so than some of Nolan’s other films, and I say that as a major fan.
The plot is complex, charting the efforts of Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and Gotham DA Harvey Dent to bring down organized crime in Gotham City once and for all. Standing in their way is the sadistic Joker. Hired as an enforcer by the mob, the Joker is determined to reveal the identity of Batman and destroy him. He promises to kill one person a day unless Batman removes his mask and turns himself in. The plot is elevated to near Shakespearean levels in its telling of the rise and fall of Harvey Dent. One of the film’s most iconic lines, going all the way back to the trailers, is Aaron Eckhart’s proclamation that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and this becomes a running theme throughout the film. Dent, Gordon and Batman are all decent men, attempting to do the right thing in an indecent time but none are immune to the Joker’s unrelenting attacks.
Here is where The Dark Knight trumps every other superhero movie for me—the events of the film have major consequences for every single major character, and the ripple effects are startling. For the amount of fun that a majority of the MCU films undeniably are, there are no stakes. Even when the entire city of New York is under attack, there’s never any doubt that the Avengers will come out on top. And before you start throwing the ending of Infinity War as proof to the contrary, I’m still unconvinced. All I’ll say is that Infinity War writes a very big check that I doubt Avengers 4 will be able to cash. That’s not the case here. Batman is fallible. People suffer as a result of his actions, and the lack of predictability in the outcome makes the film that much more engaging.
Watching the film again, the story is as captivating as ever, even if some of the plot holes are more obvious. For example, when Batman and the Joker clash for the first time at a fundraising event for Harvey, the scene ends with the breathtaking rescue of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role originated by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins). What happens to the Joker and the hundreds of guests in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse? And there’s no denying that the Joker’s plan hinges on more than a few coincidences. Make no mistake, critiques of these and similar plot holes are valid. But unlike some of other Nolan’s other screenplays, the plot holes don’t detract from the story’s overall impact. They exist as more of an afterthought. Suspension of disbelief is required for every superhero movie, no matter how gritty and realistic they may be. In his analysis of The Dark Knight for IGN, William Bibbiani summed it up perfectly when he wrote:
“…thematically, Batman needs an arch-nemesis who represents extreme chaos, as a counterpoint to the hero’s extreme order. So the villain’s schemes have to appear unpredictably random, but they also have to work out in the Joker’s favor for most of the film, because he wouldn’t have been a formidable opponent for Batman.”
It was also one of the first films to tackle America post-9/11 in a way that didn’t feel cheap or exploitative. While films like War of the Worlds and Cloverfield traded heavily in evocative 9/11 imagery, The Dark Knight dug deeper. Batman’s decision to use highly unethical mass surveillance on Gotham’s citizen’s in order to track down the Joker spoke directly to the tactics employed by the Bush and Obama administrations to combat terrorist forces like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The idea of giving up certain essential liberties to protect our democracy is nothing new, but in centering this ethical quandary around a noble comic-book hero like Batman, Nolan forced audiences to confront tough questions around how much our American principles of justice and civil liberties have been compromised in the quest to make us safer.
In addition to the film’s power as political allegory and powerful storytelling, it’s also a showcase for some stellar performances from an ensemble cast at the top of their game. When it was first released, much hoopla was made about Heath Ledger’s legendary take on the Joker. And make no mistake—it was legendary, earning universal acclaim, pop culture prominence, and a posthumous Oscar win for Ledger. Everyone expected great things from Ledger, and the tragedy of his loss was only highlighted by how gigantic this performance was. But in focusing on Ledger, it’s easy to overlook how good everyone else was. Christian Bale is, to me, the definitive cinematic Batman, effectively capturing the duality of Bruce Wayne’s millionaire playboy and his Caper Crusader alter ego. Eckhart’s performance as Harvey Dent/Two-Face is equally memorable. It’s a performance he’s never been able to top. Before this film, his most notable work was Thank You for Smoking. After this, it was…not much. I’ll say Rabbit Hole because I just can’t bring myself to say Olympus Has Fallen. The shadow of Two-Face looms large over his filmography. The aforementioned Gyllenhaal and Oldman provide typically solid support, as do Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine as Batman’s closest confidants—the scientist Lucius Fox and steadfast butler Alfred, respectively.
The film’s technical elements are also astounding. There have been a lot of great looking comic book movies over the years, but nothing has quite matched what Nolan and Pfister achieved here. When the film first opens on a full-format shot of the Gotham City skyline (with Chicago doubling for the fictional city), it’s awe-inspiring. While shooting in IMAX has become en vogue over the past decade—it’s been used in numerous Hollywood blockbusters like Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Avengers: Infinity War—it’s easy to forget that The Dark Knight was the very first narrative feature to employ the format. And unlike some of those other films I mentioned, shooting in large format wasn’t just a gimmick to make audiences pay higher ticket prices. Nolan’s expressed desire was to create a more grounded comic book film that was rooted as much as possible in the real world. The film’s visual design immerses the viewer in a believable world that looks and feels very much like our own. I’d also be remiss not to mention the various other technical masters whose work on The Dark Knight was groundbreaking. From Lee Smith’s impeccable editing, seamlessly intercutting between numerous storylines and locations without missing a beat, to Nathan Crowley’s production design and Lindy Hemming’s costume design, The Dark Knight still stands as one of the most beautifully mounted summer films of all time.
When The Dark Knight hit theatres ten years ago, it was a game changer. Critics and audiences fell head over heels for the film and even now, it’s considered the gold standard of the genre. It’s impact on the industry is without question. For better and for worse, we have it to thank for the stripped down, somber tone adopted by many of the blockbusters that were produced in its wake—from hits like Skyfall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Godzilla to wannabe grimdark tales like Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and just about everything that the DCEU has done since. But even without considering its larger impact, The Dark Knight offered cinemagoers of all ages a truly entertaining time at the movies. In his initial review, Roger Ebert wrote:
“Batman isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This film…redefines the possibilities of the ‘comic-book movie.’”
He was right. More than almost any other film released in the past decade, The Dark Knight paved the way for the future of big-budget Hollywood storytelling. It cemented Christopher Nolan one of the most bankable directors in the world and a cinematic force to boot. It elevated superhero movies to an art form and while there have been huge successes, both critical and financial, to come out of the genre since…few have had as much lasting influence.
But for me, The Dark Knight represents something even more important.
It represented the power of genre cinema to transcend its narrative confines and speak to people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. It showed that big budget blockbusters didn’t just have to aim at the lowest common denominator and settle. And for a 19-year-old kid just starting out on his filmmaking journey, it was a call to action—to be ambitious, to be fearless. For ten years, The Dark Knight has been my guiding star. It changed things…forever. There’s no going back.