Christopher Nolan's first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), hit at a time when superhero movies were experiencing a downward slide. In the years just before and after, another Warner Bros. film, the DC/Vertigo property V for Vendetta, was the only other well-reviewed comic book film released. A few films, Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Superman Returns (2006), and even Ghost Rider (2007) brought in respectable totals worldwide, with Spider-Man 3 (2007) topping them all with $891 million, but none garnered very good reviews.
Batman Begins stood out as the most well-received comic book film since Spider-Man 2 in 2004, and it wouldn't be until 2008 when another crop of quality superhero films were released, including Iron Man, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Nolan's return to Gotham City, The Dark Knight.
Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, wrote the screenplay, based on a story idea by Nolan and David S. Goyer, building on the final scene of Batman Begins with the introduction of the Joker and the idea that things will have to get worse in Gotham before they get better. Jonathan Nolan suggested that their presentation of the Joker should be influenced by his first two appearances from 1940, avoiding an origin story and presenting him fully-formed as a foil for Batman.
Then, in July 2006, Warner Bros. announced the start of production and Heath Ledger was signed to play the Joker. Ledger's casting set off the obligatory flurry of internet complaints doubting his ability to pull off the role. The main complaints centered around him being too pretty, lacking charisma, and of course, for being best known for playing a gay cowboy. However, Ledger immersed himself in the role, holing up in a hotel alone for a month to develop the character's voice and movement, all the while keeping a diary in the voice of the Joker.
Fan reaction calmed over the next year as the marketing began releasing hints about Ledger's performance coupled with the news that Aaron Eckhart was going to play Harvey Dent. Dent's character arc would form the spine of the script, with the Joker weaving in and out of the story as a force of pure chaos, pushing the heroes into more and more difficult moral decisions. In the process, Batman kind of slipped into the background as a supporting character in his own film.
Ultimately, this was a smart move, given the energy and life that Ledger brought the film. Batman worked best here as a shadow of the Joker, defined in contrast to the chaos the Joker brings to Gotham. This, combined with Nolan's approach to this film – it is treated more like a semi-straight crime film rather than a comic book movie – make this one of the best received Batman films ever and pushed the commercial response through the roof.
Unfortunately, Ledger would not live to see the release of the film. On January 22, 2008, he was found dead of an accidental prescription drug overdose. His father, mother, and sister accepted his eventual Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role – his only Oscar – and he swept most of the awards ceremonies that year for his tour de force performance as the Joker.
If it weren't for Ledger's performance, I don't know if the rest of the film would have held together as well as it does. Visually, Nolan continues the realistic approach that marked Batman Begins, but this time out he actually allows scenes to play out without all the obsessive cutting back and forth. Instead we have a number of scenes where the camera circles the actors as they work their way through the action.
It's far more effective and demonstrates a level of trust in the actors that maybe wasn't there in the first film. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman continue to ground the film with their believable and effective interpretations of the characters, allowing us to cut some slack to the weaker, but not bad, performances of Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who takes over the role of Rachel Dawes for this outing).
It seems far more likely that any weaknesses were the result of directorial interference than anything the actors brought to the table. Eckhart's Harvey Dent suffers an abrupt and awkward shift into madness mainly because the script wouldn't work without it. Bale's Batman growl is absurdly silly, and once again, the emotional connection between Wayne and Dawes is skeletal at best. And while Gyllenhaal brings more life to the role than Katie Holmes did, she's still left without much to do besides die as a convenient plot point.
There was also some controversy over Batman's willingness to sacrifice the personal privacy of everyone in Gotham in order to stop the Joker. This compromise, while emphasized as a one-time-thing, does call into question the political morality behind the film. Luckily, in the film, we have a single man of conscience breaking the law in order to stop terrorism, rather than an entire department of the government pushing that boundary, so the metaphor is limited at best, but The Dark Knight eagerly joins other recent films and television works that emphasize the supposed need to illegally sacrifice our privacy, or engage in torture, in the name of defending ourselves from terror.
Interestingly, in all of these films and shows, it's only the good guys who break the law like this and there are, of course, never any negative repercussions.
Tying into this, the most impressive thing about the film is really the thematic exploration of corruptibility Nolan is trying to make. The Joker's main goal is to push both our heroes and eventually the citizens of Gotham into sacrificing their humanity in exchange for safety. Of course, in the end the Joker loses thanks to the goodness in us all – but not before pushing Gotham's White Knight, D.A. Harvey Dent into madness and murder.
Shockingly, the film ends with Batman sacrificing his own reputation, taking the blame for Dent's actions as Two-Face, so that Gotham will have a hero who doesn't skulk around in the shadows wearing an outlandish costume. This is a bold choice for the ending and really breaks with what should have been considered possible for the character and the franchise.
However, what we have here is a conscious decision to focus on these films first and foremost as an isolated (eventual) trilogy that tells one complete story. Unlike earlier incarnations, this Batman isn't intended to keep going and going.
The Dark Knight racked up box office records, earning an eventual $533 million in North America alone, and $469 million overseas, becoming the twelfth highest grossing film of all time worldwide – records that would stand until the 2012 release of Marvel Studio's The Avengers.