Ten years ago tomorrow, The Dark Knight was unleashed into theaters. Looking back at the summer of 2008, you could argue that the two most important superhero pics in recent memory were released in that short time frame. Two months earlier in May of that year, Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe which now stands at 20 films strong. Yet it was The Dark Knight that set box office records and brought critical appreciation of the genre to new heights. In a genre that has exploded in the 21st century, many consider this to be the crown jewel. I believe it’s certainly up on the Mount Rushmore.
A decade prior to its release, Batman had run into some trouble at multiplexes with the deservedly derided Batman and Robin. It was a disappointment both commercially and with reviewers. Joel Schumacher’s two run experiment with the iconic character had dissolved into campy non-fun. In the new century, Christopher Nolan was brought in to resurrect the franchise after making Memento and Insomnia.
2005’s Batman Begins would achieve that goal, but that was not apparent immediately. Despite glowing reviews, Begins started with $48 million at the box office and $206 million overall domestically. Those are solid numbers but some context is needed. That’s nearly $50 million less than 1989’s Batman made 16 years earlier. In other words, it wasn’t obvious that the eventual sequel would turn into a phenomenon.
That’s what happened. The Dark Knight had the advantage of pitting Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader against his most known foe, The Joker. Many questioned whether Heath Ledger (coming off an Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain) had the goods to fill Jack Nicholson’s shoes. Early trailers indicated the answer was yes. And he nailed it with an unforgettable performance. As we know, Ledger never got to witness the acclaim. He died six months before the picture’s release and it added a tragic level of publicity leading up to the premiere.
Once Knight was released, expectations were sky-high and it earned $158 million out of the gate. That was an opening weekend record which has since been surpassed by 14 movies including its sequel The Dark Knight Rises and seven other comic book themed experiences.
The Dark Knight still stands as the 10th highest grossing movie of all time and fourth biggest superhero effort behind Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and The Avengers. It received eight Oscar nominations – something previously unheard of for something in its genre. That stands as another portion of its legacy. While Ledger would posthumously win Best Supporting Actor for his work, many figured The Dark Knight should and would nab a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t. And that caused the Academy to expand Best Picture from a finite five nominees to anywhere between five and ten (nine has been the major number most years in the decade following).
While no comic book film has managed a Best Picture nomination since then (Black Panther could change that this year), that rule change has perhaps allowed non-traditional awards material like District 9, Nolan’s own Inception, Gravity, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mad Max: Fury Road, Arrival, and Get Out to garner nods.
And The Dark Knight, for many moviegoers, proved what comic book lovers had known all along. This material, done right, could truly be a work of art.