The Dark Knight: Not the Best Superhero Movie Ever

Although I don’t spoil specific plot points, I do discuss in depth some themes of the movie that would give a lot away.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is not the best superhero movie ever.

The good superhero movies of recent years (Spider-Man 2, Iron Man) have followed a fairly standard plot structure: the superhero’s powers define not only his own moral code, but the framework of his nemesis. What takes place in the course of the story is the external projection of an internal struggle, until the superhero defeats his enemy in a fistfight symbolic of the overtaking of his own demons.

Batman Begins, in my opinion, was the best superhero movie of all time for this reason. Bruce Wayne’s “powers” come to him through his dedication to the greater cause of Justice. Alfred represents his own conscience, and Ra’s Al-Ghul articulates the thirst for vengeance that sleeps deep down inside Batman. Ultimately, Wayne’s moral code triumphs: that of justice, not born of vigilantism, but out of a real thirst for peace and harmony.

The Dark Knight has its own superhero: Harvey Dent. He is described throughout as the “white knight” of Gotham, while Batman’s “dark knight” moniker is only implied by contrast to it. The real dychotomy, the dialog that takes place in The Dark Knight is between Batman and Harvey Dent. Batman is initially rendered obsolete by Harvey Dent, who rallies Gotham under his leadership and banishes the ghosts of crime. Harvey Dent couldn’t have accomplished this without Batman, of course; but Batman likewise needs Harvey Dent to center his morals in a coherent frame. Dent, quite simply, is the pillar on which Batman’s moral code rests. Without Dent, there would be no justice in the way Batman envisions it.

And then the Joker comes in. He is not a villain in any traditional sense of the word. Even using the word “character” is rather inappropriate. The Joker’s role in The Dark Knight is closer to that of the Oracle in homerian tales, which announces the wrath of the gods. He is the Oracle, but also the god itself, striking chaos into the heart of Gotham. He is not a terrorist but Terror itself. He is Shiva, come to this world to test its mettle. To test Batman and Dent’s equilibrium.

The sense of gloom and despair seeping out of The Dark Knight comes from this very traditional device of the Oracle announcing impending doom, then the gods enacting it. The Joker never loses; he is never truly put to the test. All he does is carry out his plans, assaulting not only Gotham, but Batman and Harvey Dent’s own moral framework. The Joker puts it in sublime terms himself when he says to Dent, “I am just a mad dog chasing cars.”

Until the framework breaks.

What happens next is the deconstruction of the white knight: how Harvey Dent’s approach simply cannot work in the context of chaos and social frenzy brought on by the Joker. Dent holds on for the longest time, while Bruce Wayne doubts his own role, as he naively sees himself as a white knight lurking in shadows. Alfred is the first one to point out the need for a new approach, that of realism: “Endure. You can be the outcast. You can make the choice that no one else will face – the right choice.”

And so, as the white knight of Gotham falls and becomes a creature of pure chance, the Dark Knight rises from its shadow.

Batman, who will spy on the whole of Gotham to get at his enemies. Batman, whom cops fear and accuse of murder. Batman, who must take upon himself the pain and anger of others so the city will endure. Gordon says it himself: Batman is not a hero. He’s a guardian.

Batman rises from the corpse of Harvey Dent like a malevolent shadow, prepared not to do what’s right, but what’s necessary. The Joker never won, and never lost; he is above this contest. He defines it, rather than play a part in it. Chaos has come and gone, and the balance is broken.

The Dark Knight is a morality tale, a conflict between two men in balance who see their roles crushed by the arrival of fate. It is a moral tale of the post-9/11 era, where good and evil simply dissolve in the face of chaos, and we are left to wonder how to reframe the world.

And that is why The Dark Knight is not the best superhero movie ever. It is something entirely different, much darker, and much more satisfying.

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Update [2008-07-22 18:30]: I just want to point out that I’m not dismissive of the source material, or of the medium of comicbooks here. I’m fairly well-read in comics, and my point was more addressed to the existing conventions of superhero movies. Thing is, superhero movies, even when excellent, follow a fairly simple superhero formula. The Dark Knight, in my opinion, really transcends this formula, and offers a story that is set in the superhero genre, but well outside the superhero movie formula. The title of this post was specifically chosen to counter expectations, but loses in clarity. Hope that makes more sense.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, “The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life.”

40 comments

  1. I enjoyed your take on the theme and meaning of The Dark Knight. I too saw it as a morality tale and something much more than a superhero movie. Your discussion is well written and makes some good points.

  2. Excellent take on the entire thing, you had some vision that I lacked on it as well.

    You may be right that it’s not entirely a superhero movie, but to me, it’s even better than Batman Begins, which was my favorite for a long time.

    Very good analysis…you highlighted a lot of the reasons why this film was so great.

    But is Harvey really dead?

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys! I’m glad you got something out of it.

    I have to agree that The Dark Knight is better than Batman Begins. It’s not the best superhero movie ever because IMO it’s not a superhero movie… But it’s still better than every superhero movie I’ve seen. 🙂

    I have to admit I found Dent’s death abrupt. I would have loved for him to be the main bad guy of the next movie. I find the character fascinating, and the way he was built in this movie is more awesome than any Two-Face story I had previously seen.

  4. You are confusing movie and comics.. “Bruce Wayne’s “powers” come to him through his dedication to the greater cause of Justice. Alfred represents his own conscience” thats the comics thing.. movie is good or bad because of scenario, director.. in all of these, BB fails as it fails in fulfiting demands of Batman fans;-) I can tell you thousends of reasons why Dark Knight will be even worse.. sorry for my bad english

  5. You thought BB failed to give Batman fans what they wanted? That’s not the impression I get from everyone I speak to, and certainly not the case for The Dark Knight…

    I *would* be interested in knowing why you think DK is potentially “even worse” than BB.

  6. Splendid article, well written, etc. However, the article’s headline is a little misleading. Perhaps it would be better to say: “The Dark Knight: Not the Best Superhero Movie Ever, But Something Entirely Different” Then again, the original headline does capture the readers attention and makes them read the entire article. Maybe I’m not the best person to offer criticism right now. For you see… I’m drunk. Cheers.

  7. This article really doesn’t show a new insight into this movie, as much as it shows Hollywood’s (and the movie-going public’s) continued lack of understanding of the depth of character and storyline prominent in comic books and graphic novels for a very long time now. Comics are thick with examples of deep characters and stories, DK is just the first “comic book superhero movie” to make good use of what is available.

    A side note…unless I missed something (I’ve only seen DK once at this point) there was no final proclamation that Dent was dead. Batman and Commissioner Gordon could have very easily faked his death and memorial service while covertly stashing the wounded Two-Face in the depths of Arkham Asylum. 🙂

  8. Hey Joel,

    I take exception to you classifying me in the ‘movie-going public’. I’m a well-read comic book enthusiast. I think you’re confusing the terms ‘superhero’ with ‘comics’, and you think because I contrast the typical “Marvel Hollywood superhero formula”, it means I’m amazed that a comic book-based movie can be so deep.

    I’m not amazed that this depth can come from a comic source… I’m amazed that a Hollywood blockbuster can pull it off. (And on a related note, reading Watchmen for the third time, I still can’t believe they can make something decent with it.)

  9. Well said. To be honest, I didn’t like BB. I thought it strained to be serious with a character that inherently wasn’t. But then, when I watched it the first time, I also had watched the Tim Burton film the night before and was waiting like a little kid for the new bat mobile. Watching it again, I still I’m not a fan of BB, I didn’t like the change from James Bond meets sherlock to an almost Schwarzenegger batman, I mean, a tank car? Come on. HOWEVER, the dark knight blew away my expectations, the moral dilemmas were well played out, and it was never, not for a second cheesy. Which is to say, exactly what I always wanted for a batman movie.

    Though I have to say, I think the real pillar was the Rachel and Gordon as well as the inmate/hostage scene, functioning as a very human chorus, to the bombastic main players.

  10. Daniel, my apologies for the confusion, I think that my intentions didn’t translate in my comment as I intended. I didn’t mean to disparage you or your article. I think your words “I’m not amazed that this depth can come from a comic source… I’m amazed that a Hollywood blockbuster can pull it off.” better say what I was trying to.

  11. Hey, no worries, Joel… I was not trying to be belligerent. Thanks for your comments!

  12. Great movie, but not the greatest Super Hero flick ever in my opinion. I think Iron Man captured the fun and energy that the non brooding comics provide, which in my opinion are the best super hero comics.

  13. The main reason that it breaks the formula and forms something even better is the reason why it should be consider the best superhero movie.

    I understand the point you made of it being more of the morality tale rather than simple superhero movie as we usually see/get, but it is a crime movie set in superhero world, which essentially makes it a superhero movie

  14. Superhero -> Hero with super powers.

    No wonder TDK wasn’t the best superhero movie.

  15. the only flaw, well its not really a flaw (more like me just being picky), is that they didnt show any blood, not a drop, especially when it should have been there (the interrogation scene? come on.. didnt even see a scratch). it kinda took me out of the experience a little bit. that is all. i know its a superhero movie and they thought of the kiddies but if they made it this dark they shouldve just bumped it up a notch, because even as it is, this still isnt something i would take my children to see. oh yeah, best movie ive seen all year btw 😀

  16. Thanks for your excellent analysis. It just makes the film that more worthwhile watching for those of us who wouldn’t have thought nearly that much into it.

  17. In response to anon’s comment, I believe the lack of blood made the movie much more satisfying. People generally are more afraid of what their mind’s conjure up than the actual darkness itself, if you know what I mean. So when I see the Joker take a knife to Gamble’s face, I am left a series of pondering questions that peer deep. Did Gamble simply faint or did he have his face carved wide open from the inside out?

  18. You got me with the title. Really had me going that you actually didn’t like the film; though, you are entitled to your opinion, obviously. I was just curious as to what it was.

    I don’t think I’m really in a position to completely agree at the moment. The first viewing satisfied the hype. When I see it again it’ll be easier to delve deeper into it.

    Very good and intriguing analysis of TDK, and I do agree on many point. I have a good feeling I’ll probably completely agree after seeing it again.

  19. Phantom6612: Haha, sorry. I meant the title to be a little bit inflammatory, I guess I’m getting what I had coming to me. 🙂

    Andrew & Anon: I’m with Andrew on this one. I thought the “magic disappearing pen”, or the stories of how the Joker got his smile, were absolutely gruesome BECAUSE they didn’t show any gore. As a matter of fact, the pen moment was just masterfully executed, IMO. The slam into the table was so sudden and unexpected that I was left for a fraction of a second to wonder what had happened… and then it dawned on me and shocked me. If it had been a gory scene, it would not have had this impact.

  20. Love the analysis here. Gotta be one of my favorite movies right now. but i did want to point out for me the problem with naming iron man versus TDK as best superhero movie is that they come from 2 very different styles of character development. Iron Man, for me, was really an introduction to a character. This being fueled mostly by the lack of “true” antagonist until late in the movie. A battle within himself was I guess the goal for me but really I think it felt more like a battle with the expectations of people around him and what he wanted for himself, so battle with himself becomes battle with the environment, something that is a very Marvel ideal. Thus mutants, freaks, outcasts. The Dark Knight is a to be honest more of an established character so it didn’t spend so much time building the lead role. Plus its a DC comic so its villain was a lot more of a conflicting ideal as opposed to a character. As you sort of put it Joker was a catalyst and not so much the antagonist. Something that DC IMO does a better job of. I am new to comics but having read a few random things from Marvel (deadpool) and DC (batman). this is my interpretation of the problem with a judging scale for superhero movies. You have 2 VERY different styles of villians. Marvel’s are environment shaping the internal conflict, where as DC has more of an internal conflict that reshapes the environment.

    Sorry for the run-on-paragraph

  21. Dude, It was just a movie. Stop trying to make it more than that. Entertainment, watch, enjoy and move on.

  22. Dude, it was just a blog post. Stop trying to make it more than that. I watched a movie, I enjoyed it, and I took 15 minutes to share my thoughts on it before moving on.

  23. That was more masturbational than informational

  24. how can you say that, its pure opinion..

  25. Yeah man, I agree completely. I’m not gonna lie your title got me confused and I thought you were gonna talk about how it just wasn’t good at all. But you hit the nail right on the head.

  26. Someone on another site has stolen this and passed it off as his own work to try and profit from this other site (linked). Just thought you should know. (http://uk.toluna.com/opinions/152471/What_do_you_think_of_The_Dark_Knight)

  27. Thanks for spotting that one magnius. I appreciate it.

  28. I read you title and decided to tell you that you needed to have your head examined. Then I read the entire article and I decided to commend you instead 😉 Great job!

  29. Its funny that you mentioned that the dark night is a not a superhero movie, at least in the normal sense, but more a take on the morality and the complexities exist now more then ever in our post 911/era. I thought the same thing. To me superheros have always reminded me a the Nietzschean concept of the overman (i know no surprise) but i feel this movie showcases that theme the best. We see batman truly transcend the boundaries of good and evil, and do what is necessary for the sake of people in Gotham. It’s not hard to see the philosophical references to good in evil in this movie, as well as Rousseau’s social contract. Batman being the gatekeeper who won’t let you pass on the bridge because he knows it will collapse, or better put the man, who listens to your calls in search for a mad man bent on disorder and chaos.

    I really liked and hated this movie at the same time because it does really dive into the problems we are facing today. The many freedoms we lost for the sake of “security”. But of course I did admire the ending when the surveillance system was destroyed. unfortunately, I fear we won’t see the same type of moral conduct from our “great” leaders. Movies have the luxury of making the ending work our in the end. Our story however doesn’t involve a white night but men with to much power and everything to lose, the loss of civil liberties, a dubious war that may go on for decades against a faceless entity. Hell this was a great movie the more I think about it, what great movie wouldn’t invoke such great conversations?

    Nice little read you got here man. really enjoyed it.

  30. Well done sir. I was duped. I admit it. I saw the title and was enraged. I read through the article with a growing sense of homicidal tendencies. How dare you try to denounce this spectacular film. And then you made the rabbit disappear. Yes well done sir. You had me fooled.

  31. Just like most of these others, I was misguided by the title.

    Truly well written message.

  32. I will not lie, I first was outraged when I started reading this, but am glad I did! Brilliant look into the film and I completely agree. Thank you!

  33. Thanks for the comments, guys. I’m glad you liked it. To be frank, I *did* set out with a controversial title, but I didn’t expect so many people to read my essay… This was meant to worry friends of mine who knew my tastes and would expect me to like TDK, not piss off total strangers. Hehe.

  34. You had be really riled up at first but I see where you are going when you say it’s not a superhero movie. Personally I think more superhero Movies should be like the Dark Knight, and not the normal Hollywood crap we are given, Well I guess it does depend on the comic the movie is based off of too. don’t get me wrong I like the nice superhero movies but I prefer the realistic one where you don’t see the end coming like most hero flicks that all end the same way. espically when the comics don’t all in the same way.

    by the way great points on the Dark Knight.

  35. The only flaw I found with the movie is in the scene where the Joker holds up Bruce’s fundraiser for Dent. After Batman jumps out of the building to save the girl we end the scene. But the Joker is still up there will a lot of Gotham’s richest, not to mention Harvey stuffed in a closet. Are we to believe he just walked out? Possible, but the scene really needed some closure. It sort of dies on the vine. Really, just a simple shot of the Joker leaving or whatever and the hole is gone. Oh well. Still, one of my favorite movies.

  36. theory about morale, accepted. opinion about movie, pathetic.
    author certainly not thought this entirely through and kept focusing on his one idea and theme (at least this was done properly).
    it may not be the best superhero movie, but it’s damn close.
    better luck next time.

  37. Said author thinks you missed the point; but thanks for the comment all the same.

  38. Perhaps the reason why it is not ‘the best superhero movie ever’ is because it was not intended to be a superhero movie at all and it seems Christopher Nolen went out of his way to insure this. The Dark Knight isn’t even suppose to be about Batman aka your superhero figure, its about Harvey Dent and salvation in a corrupt society, Batman played a key role but he’s not suppose to the lead character: “Harvey Dent is my main focus and is a tragic figure, and his story is the backbone of this film. The Joker, he sort of cuts through the film — he’s got no story arc; he’s just a force of nature tearing through…” (Christopher Nolen 2008). You make a fantastic point and yes, its not the greatest film ever ever but it’s in my own personal top 10 as for the whole superhero genre, well just look at it’s codes and conventions, it falls in to very few of them and i’d class it more as a crime thriller then a superhero movie. And Superhero movies don’t get nominated for Oscars

  39. (which is a shame btw)

  40. I think youve just over thought a good film

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