Editor’s Note: This essay contains discussion of plot details, including potential spoilers, from several Christopher Nolan films.
I remember the frenetic buzzing in my head on the way out of the midnight showing of The Dark Knight. I remember the way the theater seemed to heave after the final frame, all at once ringing with cheers, expletives, arguments, and the laughter of release. We went home and made all our friends see it. We watched the box office numbers climb like we had money on them.
As part of the millennial generation, I’ve seen my fair share of franchise mania—people always want to talk about the latest Spider-Man or Harry Potter—but people wanted to talk about The Dark Knight at a level I had never seen before. By the time the film opened, Christopher Nolan had already released five films as a director and cowriter—three noir-influenced crime dramas, his first Batman film, and a period thriller—to increasing acclaim and financial success. All were dark and philosophically bent. But none of those films had generated its own cultural moment.
Part of this fervor was related to the well-deserved hype concerning Heath Ledger’s final performance. Remember how gleeful we felt to meet Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow? Watching Ledger’s Joker took that feeling to dizzy, depraved heights. From the second he walked into the frame with his deadpan laugh and matted hair, we were rapt. By three lines in (“I’m gonna make this pencil … disappear”), the audience had lost it. It was the most literally I have ever sat on the edge of my seat—it was the first time I had laughed and gasped in the same breath. Ledger’s Joker made the film a ride.
Mere rides don’t linger, though, and The Dark Knight lingered….
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