The first reaction you might have after watching The Dark Knight is: “But isn’t he (Robert Pattinson) just playing Batman?” At first glance, it seems like a pretty straightforward adaptation of the comic book series Batman Begins. But hold on before you jump to conclusions — this is a highly complex story that has numerous references and allusions to the comics, cartoons, movies, and other pop culture icons. It’s a shame that so many people didn’t get a chance to experience how amazing this story is because of Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) self-imposed retirement. Before that, Batman was involved in a serious struggle against the entire Gotham City underworld. He managed to triumph over all his enemies and emerge as a stronger and more influential leader of the superhero world. At least, this is how Director Christopher Nolan presents it in The Dark Knight. As you might have guessed, the film is named after the comic book series Batman, written by Bob Kane and illustrated by Bill Finger, which was first published in 1941. This story originally appeared in the pages of Detective Comics.
The Influences Behind The Film
One of the main reasons why The Dark Knight is such a fantastic piece of cinema is because it pays homage to so many disparate pop culture influences. It’s not simply a case of copying and pasting from one medium to another; Nolan’s choice to adapt this story means that he had to tailor a screenplay to fit the big-budget, mainstream Hollywood movie mold. But he still managed to find a way to transform the source material into something that feels unique and personal.
On that note, here are some of the key influences that helped make The Dark Knight the success that it is.
Anybody reading Batman comics back in the 1940s would immediately recognize the similarities between this version of the character and the animated series that premiered in the ’70s. Like the comics character, this version is a no-nonsense guy living in a gritty urban environment who spends most of his time chasing down criminals and keeping the peace. But while the character may be inspired by comics, this isn’t exactly a comic book movie. Director Nolan wanted to distance himself from the medium as much as possible, and part of that meant toning down the gory details and brutal violence that are so integral to traditional comic book stories. So while there are lots of similarities, this is definitely not your ordinary comic book movie.
This is a big one and it’s easy to see why. The Dark Knight is filled with cinematic references and allusions that draw direct inspiration from some of the greatest movies ever made. It’s been said that director Christopher Nolan chose to adapt this story because he wanted to do for film what the Batman comics have done for print. In other words, to put a cinematic face on the character. But it’s more than that. Nolan is a huge movie buff and he loves nothing more than re-imagining classic stories in a way that makes them accessible and interesting to a modern audience.
From the very first scene, where we see a series of car crashes that were all inspired by German expressionism, to the moment when Christian Bale’s character, Batman, appears on the big screen for the first time, the entire movie feels like a love letter to the greatest films of all time. It never lets up from there. The Dark Knight references everything from Alfred’s (Michael Caine) flat screen to Batman’s (Bale) rubber-banding of thugs in the streets to the introduction of Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) iconic face-lift (the same maneuver that appears in Vertigo, 1998). The point is that Nolan loves movies and he wants to bring that love and cinematic acuity to bear in his stunning re-imagining of The Batman.
Besides the obvious influence of comic books and mainstream movies, Nolan’s The Dark Knight also draws inspiration from some of the most respected and acclaimed English-language literature of the 20th century. It is rich in allusions to D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
If you love vampires and detective stories, then you’re in for a treat because the Dark Knight is awash with allusions to some of the greatest vampire stories ever told. When you add in the film’s brilliant red-and-black color scheme, the overall effect is akin to being sucked into the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928).
As mentioned, The Dark Knight is filled with allusions and influences from other sources. There’s an obvious nod to the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose story of human suffering and redemption, The Gambler, appears in the film. The basis for a casino scene in the story is also borrowed from another literary great, William Shakespeare, with his character of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (1596).
The Dark Knight is also peppered with cultural references that aren’t usually seen outside of big cities. For example, when Batman stumbles upon the thugs in the desert near the end of the film, it is because he heard them speaking Portuguese (a language that he learned from listening to Brazilian musicians). And when he encounters the Joker for the final time, the villain has a conversation with Batman about the merits of Italian culture (Gargiulo, 1966).
The Joker’s Motivations
Although he is not the most popular villain in the Batman universe, the Joker’s (Jared Leto) motives and behavior are among the most complex and interesting aspects of the film. As with many iconic comic book villains, the Joker is motivated by the desire to see Batman fail, and he does whatever it takes to make that wish come true. But dig deeper and you’ll discover that the psychopathic trickster’s goal is more complicated than it appears at first glance. Leto’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker is a tour de force, bringing a unique, living soul to the character that we have never really gotten the chance to see before.
The Evolution Of Batman
The Dark Knight opens with a quote from Batman creator Bob Kane: “You know what they say: Batman is a guy. They don’t know any better, but we do. Batman is _not_ a guy.” That sentiment comes back to haunt Kane’s creation in the form of Christian Bale’s Batman, who is no longer a guy but a masked crime fighter. It’s been over 40 years since the character first appeared in Detective Comics, so Christian Bale’s Batman is the culmination of everything that came before. Like all great superheroes, Batman has a remarkable set of abilities that enable him to fight crime.
But beyond his physical prowess, the Batman of Gotham is also a symbol of hope for the city’s residents. This is most evident in a speech that Batman delivers to the mob, during which he pleads with them to help rid the city of criminals. “If you want to call me a superhero, then I’ll wear the moniker proudly,” he boasts. “I am a man of this city, and it’s a man of the people. Maybe even a little bit more than just people.” The mob listens and vows to help.
As amazing as the majority of The Dark Knight is, without a doubt, the film’s ending is one of the most haunting and moving scenes in movie history. The sight and sound of Javier Bardem’s character, Raoul Silva, reciting Émile La Maudray’s “The Dance of Life” while portraying an angel of death is eerily reminiscent of the work of Russian author, Anna Akhmatova, whom La Maudray quotes in the poem.
Nolan closes the film with a shot of Christian Bale’s Batman as he walks towards the sunset. At first glance, this is mere window-dressing, but the camera lingers on the character’s back for just a moment before cutting away. We then see an American and an Indian standing in front of a burning Delhi street festival, holding each other as the camera pans across the two cultures. It’s a breathtaking moment that leaves you feeling exhilarated and inspired.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are, without a doubt, two of the greatest superhero movies ever made. And it’s not hard to see why. Not only do they pay homage to some of the most influential and beloved pop culture works of all time, but they also feature some of the greatest cinematic performances of all time. Batman might not be a traditional superhero movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining or satisfying experience. Or a more relevant one, for that matter.