In early 2008, The Dark Knight was well anticipated for its summer release when it encountered unexpected tragedy. On January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of a sleeping medication. Days before his death, I remember seeing teaser posters going up in the local theater, with Ledger’s Joker hazed and writing Why So Serious? in blood in the foreground. The weekend after Ledger’s death, those posters were gone. The premature end to a great, young actor was too serious for the film community to keep such an ironic image in the public eye. To further the sad irony, The Dark Knight deals with elements of chaos and tragedy that Ledger’s Joker unleashes across Gotham.
In The Dark Knight, Batman has become a well known vigilante, but not everyone agrees that what he is doing is good. While some criminals are running scared, others are larger than ever, seeming to act out of defiance. This leads some to believe that the Batman should be arrested. But with the arrival of a new kind of criminal, who doesn’t have any motive other than just to throw Gotham into pure chaos, Batman is necessary. Meanwhile, Bruce’s love interest, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is now dating Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s District Attorney. It’s only a matter of time before they become The Joker’s targets.
It takes an amazing amount of discipline to portray chaos in a manner that doesn’t leave the audience confused. In the film, Nolan has scene after scene of Gotham being thrown into The Joker’s insane plots to deal with and control. There’s an attempted assassination during a memorial service. Two ferries, one full of civilians, another full of prisoners, with the ability and choice to blow the other ferry up, or they will both be destroyed at midnight. Most nerve wracking, in my opinion, is the threat that The Joker will blow up a hospital (we can only guess which one) if a certain man is not dead in an hour. This puts all of Gotham in a frenzy to evacuate all the hospitals and protect a man that many citizens are trying to kill. With The Joker hatching new schemes and Batman, Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the rest of Gotham scrambling to keep up, there is never a dull moment in this film.
The Dark Knight was nominated for an astounding eight Academy Awards, mostly for technical aspects, but only won two Oscars. Heath Ledger posthumously won the award for best supporting actor with his daring and twisted portrayal of The Joker, and rightly so. Every scene he is in, he controls it and mesmerized the audience. His demeanor is so unsettling and raw that we are drawn in out of curiosity and cannot look away out of fear. Some of his moments are hilarious in his own menacing way. I love him visiting Harvey in a nurse’s uniform, complete with a red wig. Others are horrific and surprising. The magic pencil trick is a moment that shocks us and before we can even process what just happened, the scene is moving on with no remorse. The Joker is a role that could mess with anyone’s head, and Ledger pushed boundaries with his character to points where his audience was in awe, disbelief and admiration. He is an actor that is dearly missed.
Out of the trilogy, I hold The Dark Knight far above the other two films, and believe it is one of the biggest Oscar snubs in the past decade. In fact, I suspect the Academy began picking ten Best Picture nominees after 2008 because of the great error in not nominating this film. The story moves fast and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats. The sounds and visuals are amazing and immersive. And Nolan’s direction is only surpassed by Ledger’s acting. Though other films based on comic books have been good, none were great until The Dark Knight.
“You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.”