2018 Film Essays

Reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’

July 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight (2008), the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This film excited me upon first viewing, as it cinematically restores Batman’s pulp fiction detective roots. Nolan enhanced the Batman character mythos with an existential film noir philosophy, and when I revisit The Dark Knight, I am struck by the notion that it’s a Golden Age quality classic, with well-developed characters, captivating romance, an excellent screenplay and political relevance. I dare to say that it rivals and bears resemblance to Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and other acclaimed films from that era.

The Dark Knight, a crime thriller, and Casablanca, a romantic drama, belong to different genres, yet these films share romantic themes and sociopolitical messages, along with characters who struggle with internal conflict. Both have elements of noir in their plots and visuals, yet, in this regard, Casablanca is a cake made with romanticism as its batter and noir as the icing, while The Dark Knight is a super hero pastry with a dark chocolate noir filling and romantic sprinkles. Unrestricted by the censors facing Curtiz, Nolan had free reign to present a modern, cynical take on the old story of good versus evil.

My first comparison/contrast of characters between these films is Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), aka The Dark Knight, and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), owner of Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Both men like to keep to themselves, playing things close to the chest. In public, Wayne pretends to be a jaded playboy, who only shows empathy (on rare occasion) when he is actually using all of his resources and power to protect the people of Gotham and eradicate crime, whereas Blaine pretends to be cynical and coldly neutral on the subjects of politics and social ills. In private, however, Rick is a sentimentalist and always eager to help the underdog fight the good fight. Both men find themselves in an internal conflict between what they want and what must be done for the greater good.

Embodying the greater good in The Dark Knight and Casablanca are the well-known, revered political figures of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), respectively. Rick’s moral challenge is whether he should choose love and personal happiness (insuring Laszlo’s death) or give up his true love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), so that she may keep her husband, Victor, on his path for the good of the world. Bruce’s conflict is a bit more complicated. Following a year in his crime fighting career, Bruce questions whether he can hang up the mantle and put his faith and trust in Harvey to protect Gotham. Bruce is initially unsure of Harvey, and resents that he is dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), with whom Bruce is also enamored. Yet, Mr. Wayne cannot bring himself to marry her due to his commitments as Batman. Perhaps ignoring warning signs, Bruce eventually trusts Harvey, with the blind goal of freeing himself to be with Rachel. With an evil twist, the Joker forces Bruce to choose between the lives of Rachel and Harvey. Unlike Rick, Batman puts himself first and attempts to rescue Rachel, leaving to chance whether Harvey is saved by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Unfortunately for Batman, the Joker tricks him, gives him the wrong address, and Rachel dies. While one may assume that Laszlo carries out his commitment to political righteousness, Dent becomes a two-faced villain. Both directors resist a sugar-sweet ending, however Nolan’s tale is far darker.

In both Casablanca and The Dark Knight, women play a key role in the plot development and the manifestation of the lead male characters. Everyone acknowledges Laszlo’s dependency upon Ilsa, and Dent completely falls apart after Rachel’s death. Perhaps as a sign of the times, Ilsa does not have the power or freedom to live out her preference to stay with Rick, whereas Rachel freely chooses Harvey and her ultimate tragic fate.

There is political relevance in both Casablanca and The Dark Knight. Curtiz directly identifies the enemy as the Nazis, whereas Nolan more subtly infers the enemy. The chaotic, terroristic actions of the Joker are representative of Al-Qaeda. Laszlo’s departure from Casablanca with Ilsa is a sign of victory over the Nazis. That was a convincing sell by Curtiz to a patriotic America in 1942, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With a far more unsettling and unresolved ending in The Dark Knight, Nolan echoed the overwhelming fear and apprehension of the United States post 9-11.

Batman’s ability to resist killing the Joker, which would avenge Rachel’s death, is a strong demonstration of his allegiance to the Detective Code, first created by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Real-life member James Wright taught it to author Dashiell Hammett, who embedded the code in his novels such as The Maltese Falcon. In the simplest terms, the detective must remain secretive and anonymous. When dealing with evildoers, the detective may ignore normal conventions and break the rules himself. All the while, the detective must keep emotional distance and abide by his moral ethics. As a detective-vigilante, Batman works outside the laws of normal society which restrict his crusade against crime. He has no moral qualms with breaking and entering, spying and causing serious physical damage. That being said, he is able to keep an easy alliance with the police by remaining accountable for his actions like any good detective should. In the case of the film version for another Golden Age classic, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), like Batman, maintains stalwart ethics, in spite of his partner’s death and romantic failings. Neither Batman nor Sam commit murder to avenge the deaths of those close to them.

Characteristic of Golden Age noir, there are elements of existentialism in The Dark Knight. In a world losing order and succumbing to chaos, Batman cannot accept the current state of Gotham and has a lingering anguish over the murder of his parents. He creates his own order and justice. In contrast, the Joker’s reaction to the state of the world is nihilism. The Joker sees only nothingness and despair. He capitalizes upon it. The realist is Commissioner Gordon, who does not wear a mask, enforces conventional laws and lives within the mainstream of society.

The Dark Knight offers far more than a well-crafted comic book tale. Nolan provides a thoughtful film about love, sacrifice and the greater good; the underlying themes stand the test of time and merit celebration upon the classic’s 10th anniversary. It is a historical reflection on the state of America in a world unsure how to deal with the constant threat of terrorism. I am convinced it will be long regarded as one of the greatest American films, in the same class as the Golden Age masterpieces. Here’s looking at you, Batman.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.