This month marks the tenth anniversary of one of the best films of the 21st Century, and easily the best Batman film ever made, The Dark Knight. It's hard to believe ten years have passed since that summer, when blockbusters, superhero films and action cinema were all changed forever with the lightning-in-a-bottle combination of a killer screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, the former's assured direction, and a top team of professionals both in front of (Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Heath Ledger) and behind the camera (legendary cinematographer Wally Pfister, longtime Nolan editor Lee Smith, composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard).
Dark Knight set out to cement Nolan's unique vision of Batman, and upend notions of what a superhero movie could be. We know it succeeded on both counts, because we're still talking about it ten years later, even though it came out two months after Iron Man birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kickstarted the modern, culture-enveloping wave of superhero movies that Batman Begins birthed three years prior, and even though some of the film's most ardent fans proved themselves the forerunners of Gamergate and the alt-right with their harassment and death threats towards critics ambivalent towards The Dark Knight Rises four years later.
But why The Dark Knight? Why did this film set such a high watermark that no DC Comics film (except for Wonder Woman) has ever been able to live up to?
To answer that, let's talk about the 1978 Superman for a second. Now, that movie didn't arrive in a vacuum; Superman was already a longstanding cultural icon by then, after all. But the movie's genius (and it is a form of genius) is that it synthesizes not only just about every archetype of Superman, it also synthesizes decades of popular cinema in service of said archetypes (the Silent Running-ish Krypton stuff, the Bringing Up Baby banter of Clark and Lois, etc.).
Similarly, The Dark Knight arrived in a world where everyone already knew and loved Batman. Its own predecessor had succeeded by marrying Nolan's personal aesthetics to a screenplay that's probably the most note-for-note adaptation of a comic to the screen outside of the pilot for The Walking Dead (seriously, go back and reread Batman: Year One then go back to Batman Begins; the similarities astound). But rather than absorb all kinds of movie genres, Nolan and co. doubled down on just one: the crime movie.
As an example, the opening bank heist scene brings to mind movies like Inside Man and Heat. (If you're a gamer, you might also note that this essentially served as reference for a lot of the stuff in Payday 2.) Like those, the opening to Dark Knight is tense, filled with swerves, and just goes nonstop on action as a way of defining character. It's all brisk, well-paced stuff. And that's before we get to the Joker's iconic reveal.