Some events in your life you’ll always remember exactly where you were when they happened. The tragic circumstances of 9/11 are an often cited example. A happier and more pop culture-y example is when you first saw Christopher Nolan‘s superhero/organized crime/drama genre-bending sequel classic: THE DARK KNIGHT. It was the Batman flick we deserved, albeit the one we didn’t know we needed at the time. Now, I don’t have to write a piece about how great TDK is (it’s great). I don’t need to comment on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the clown prince of crime (it’s legendary). I won’t mention the movie’s many flaws (it’s far from perfect). But I WILL take you through a narrative trip down my personal memory lane.
TDK directly followed 2005’s Batman Begins, an early example of how pop corn-y superhero movies could transcend the genre and become drama mainstays standing on their own. As soon as the telltale Joker card was teased at the end of Begins, Batman fanboys everywhere (including myself) lost their minds at the prospect of Nolan’s “grittier” take on the most popular villain of all time. Early internet message boards caught on fire with the same questions. Which actor would be cast? Would the Joker’s acid-washed white skin and red smile still be a part of the origin in Nolan’s realistic universe? Most importantly, would anyone be able to top Jack Nicholson’s classic performance as the character in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989)? We collectively wondered: isn’t the very notion of trying to follow Jack’s performance a fool’s errand?
In or around August 2006 — towards the beginning of online news — it broke that Australian actor Heath Ledger — then most famous for his spurs and saddle in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN — would portray Batman’s arch-nemesis. Other now-defunct rumors ran rampant as well: Phillip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) as The Penguin? We’ll never know. Thankfully, however, Twitter didn’t exist at the time, because the fan base’s reaction to the casting has aged the worst, and, in fact, there were online petitions opposing Ledger in the role. My favorite element of the casting was borne from a passing interview with writer/director Christopher Nolan. When asked, “why Heath Ledger?” Nolan famously replied: “because he’s fearless.” Wow. That is the epitome of an ominously epic quote, the meaning of which no one would understand until actually seeing Ledger’s performance years later.
Soon after the casting news, a viral marketing campaign (launched by 42 Entertainment) for the film began. A series of websites cropped up initiating fan involvement. The first website was IBelieveInHarveyDent.com which showed a campaign banner for Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent.
The second website, IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com sported the same campaign banner, but defaced by the Joker’s absurd graffiti with an e-mail submission form, painstakingly revealing one pixel each time someone signed up. After endless work and the spread of the site over the internet, the photo was revealed on May 20th, 2007:
“Makeup and scars??” fans screamed. “That’s not the Joker!!” What fans couldn’t deny, though, was the disarming and snide grin on Ledger’s face. One that would soon be so etched into pop culture that the word “movie villain” is nearly synonymous with Heath’s performance.
The viral campaign continued, and real people were recruited to be the Joker’s “minions” on the internet, scrambling around various U.S. cities in scavenger hunts. Cell phones were hidden in cakes for “imprisoned” Joker henchmen to find. The campaign was unreal and the entire country — BEFORE the emergence of the social media generation — was keyed into a movie that wouldn’t be released for a full year. This level of film marketing was truly unprecedented. For more detailed information about the campaign, here’s a great recap. In Fall 2007, the campaign culminated in the release of the first chill-inducing trailer (in its original non-HD glory):
And with the first nasal-y hint of Ledger’s now infamous (and too often horribly imitated) Joker voice: “you’ve changed things… forever,” fans around the world were silenced. “Why so serious!” the Joker growled at the audience, and resulting images of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (both cited by Ledger as influences) immediately came to mind. Gone was Nicholson’s goofy deranged uncle, and unleashed was a homicidal, sociopathic, mass-murdering clown. The trailer was attached to the 2007 Will Smith vehicle I AM LEGEND, itself an underrated movie, and I remember many fans [not me] bought a ticket to LEGEND just to watch TDK trailer and walk out. Some special IMAX showings of LEGEND even featured the Joker bank robbery prologue in its entirety. Sadly, the long-closed Peabody Place IMAX failed to obtain the full prologue (don’t worry, I checked), but I enjoyed the trailer regardless.
As fate would have it, the movie was released on July 18th, 2008, the day after my nineteenth birthday. I purchased my tickets for the midnight showing (remember those?) weeks in advance on the extremely glitchy Memphis-based Malco Theaters website. I excitedly stood in line in front of the Paradiso wearing my Target Joker shirt with spray-painted green hair — ironically one of the least ridiculously dressed folks there. My hype levels were asininely high. Finally, the screen went dark and we watched. To date, I still cite TDK as one of the few times my sky-high expectations were fully satisfied. All told, I saw the film five times in theaters, going with different groups of friends who had yet to see it and relishing in their awe-struck first-time reactions to the movie and Ledger’s performance.
In August 2008, a friend and I traveled to Chicago for the Lollapalooza music festival. During our down time, we walked around the city, and happened upon many of the places the movie was filmed the summer before. We saw Wayne Tower — the site of the semi-truck flip — and Lower Wacker drive — where the “sitting ducks” bazooka chase scene takes place. Seeing the locations in real life, mere days after seeing the movie for the first time, brought everything full circle and was a truly surreal experience. For good measure, we screened TDK for the fourth time at the Navy Pier in IMAX.
The rest is history. The film grossed an absurd ONE BILLION worldwide box office, making it the #1 movie (though eventually surpassed) at that time and toppling TITANIC, then the fiscal juggernaut. Nolan was immediately vaulted up as one of the premier filmmakers of our time, and TDK is credited with revolutionizing the superhero film genre, paving the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s momentous success. TDK also turned the clocks back to the period of non-CGI practical effects (that truck flip is real), and Nolan established himself as one of the best action set piece directors of the 21st Century.
Happy 10th Birthday, The Dark Knight. I look forward to watching you many more times to come, eventually with my children and grandchildren. I’ll never forget DP Wally Pfister‘s iconic shots (only a few of which are pictured here). I know you’ll entrance the next generation of movie-goers and make us all continuously ask ourselves: why so serious?
[banner image: Warner Bros.]