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Why THE DARK KNIGHT Will Always Be the Standard for Superhero Movies

Some comic book heroes hold a higher place in our culture’s standing because they’ve been a part of the social consciousness at a level that far exceeds the comic book pages on which they started. It doesn’t make them better or worse, and I have no interest in debating which is the best because that’s an eternal argument to have over a few drinks while everyone insists they’re right. However, saying that a few are just a little bit more famous or transcendent probably isn’t really all that controversial. Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, and the Hulk get movies made about them all the time because they appeal to a much broader base, one that extends well past comic book readers. Of course, the two biggest are no-brainers – Superman and Batman. They’ll make movies about those two long after superhero movies become passé, because those two are as ingrained in our culture as the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Fourth of July.

Well, they can make those movies for another hundred years, but they’ll never surpass the heights reached by the best superhero movie ever made–The Dark Knight.

There have been lots of great superhero movies with mass appeal: Spider-Man 2, X2, Superman 2, The Avengers, etc. Hell, even Batman Begins and the first two Tim Burton-directed Batmans are phenomenal. It’s just that The Dark Knight trumps them all.

Like Superman, Batman starts with an advantage in terms of appeal because he is simply older and more well-known than all of the other super guys and gals, though that isn’t always a good thing. We know these characters so well, and everyone has an opinion on how to do them “right,” that when Superman is fighting Zod and he starts destroying an entire city without much concern, it suddenly doesn’t feel like a Superman movie and the film loses the authenticity that it requires to work. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my all-time favorite movies, but the amount of people that have an informed opinion on whether or not Peter Quill or Drax were played right is pretty small. You make a movie about Batman you have to get Batman right before you even worry about whether or not the film tells an interesting story and looks great. Here, this is Batman and this gritty world he lives in are what we need it to be.

Of course, you can get Batman right, but that’s just step one in an arduous process. Superman Returns got Superman right, but that film isn’t very good.

Everything about The Dark Knight is great.

The movie is relentless, and I mean that in the best way, the way an action movie should be pulsating with energy, anticipation, and a feeling that everything is important. The opening scene, where a bunch of masked clowns rob a bank while heartlessly offing one another, should be taught in film schools forever. It is easily one of the best opening sequences in cinema history, and then somehow, impossibly, the entire movie lives up to it.

Every action scene works. They are grand, wide, completely realized scenes where the audience watches like a resident of Gotham standing on a street corner. By the time they got to the hospital sequence I couldn’t breathe. I was already devastated for Harvey Dent at that point, and then that amazing score started, and the sense of importance that permeates every scene kicked in, and it feels like we need to help start evacuating these people onto buses ourselves. Everything matters, the stakes are high, people are going to live or die, and goddammit, we need Batman to save the day.

Of course, a great superhero needs a great villain, and The Dark Knight has the best ever, both in character and in performance. For as famous as Batman is, his greatest foil also holds a higher place in our culture. People might not remember this, but people weren’t happy when Heath Ledger was cast in that role, nor were they happy when the first photos were released and his hair “wasn’t right.” These characters just matter more. Well, obviously all of those complaints were foolish, because Ledger managed to take one of the greatest villains of all-time and make him realistically fit into this hyper-real world of a masked-vigilante, all while being a Joker we’ll accept. Even when the movie makes you think they missed by giving back-story on the Joker we don’t want (“Want to know how I got these scars?), it turns around and let’s you know it has it all under control (oh, all of these scar stories are just nonsense).

You could write a column just about the great acting throughout this movie: Michael CaineMorgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, even Maggie Gyllenhaal is an infinite upgrade over Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. At the end, when Gary Oldman screams to Harvey, “I’m sorry! For everything!” you know you just watched something special. For a movie that you expected to be amazed by, it somehow exceeds even those expectations. You care about these people, and you care when things go wrong for them, and that’s all you want from any movie. Throw in a perfectly paced, exhilarating action movie with some of the best sequences ever filmed, about a character we all know and matters to us, and what you end up with is the pinnacle of superhero movies.

It might seem like it isn’t that hard to make a Batman movie this good: cast some great actors, get a great script, hire a great director, give him all the resources he needs, and watch what happens. Of course, then the disappointment that is The Dark Knight Rises occurs and you realize these truly amazing movies are incredibly hard to pull off, even when you use a formula that works.

The Dark Knight is the pinnacle, and while we can all hope for our superhero films to reach that level, don’t expect them to surpass it. You can’t top perfect.

Is The Dark Knight the peak of superhero movies, or are we way off? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

Image: Warner Brothers

Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Media

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