There is no doubt that The Dark Knight is one of the greatest comic book films of all time. Some would even argue it’s one of the best ever films in general – the fact it’s stayed at number 4 on IMDb’s Top 250 Films of all time list for several years now would attest to that. However, whenever people talk about how good it is, the conversation always focuses around one key aspect of the film. That is, of course, Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the infamous villain, The Joker.
Films fans and comic fans alike consistently laud over Ledger for very good reason. The actor won a posthumous Oscar for the film, he’s still quoted continuously to this day and his take has inspired in some shape or form the two following live action Jokers. Sadly though, because Ledger is SO loved in the role, people seem to forget that the rest the film he’s in is just as good as his sole performance. This in turn means that all of the other fantastic performances that are in The Dark Knight are forgotten or overlooked.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. This is NOT a feature describing why Heath Ledger’s Joker is overrated. There are a lot of people out there that would have you believe that Ledger only got the Oscar because of his untimely death. Anyone who thinks that should consider re-watching The Dark Knight and looking at the performances that Ledger was up against that year. Yes, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was great in Doubt, but that film hasn’t been frequently talked about for the past decade, has it?
One of the most underrated actors in The Dark Knight is the man playing the Caped Crusader himself. Christian Bale is a very highly regarded actor, yet when people talk about his best performances, Batman often gets thrown aside in favour of characters like Patrick Bateman or Dicky Eklund. The most common complaint thrown toward the Welsh actor is his Batman voice. The gravelly, smoker’s voice that Bale uses to portray Gotham’s spirit of vengeance is often the source of parody. It has been mentioned time and again that Bruce Wayne is one of the most famous people in Gotham, if he went around talking how he normally does, someone at some point would undoubtedly recognise his voice. Ben Affleck’s Batman also doubled down on this fact by having Bruce Wayne modulate his voice, a lot like Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen in Arrow.
Whether or not you think Bale’s voice is terrifying or hilarious, the performance that accompanies it is still great. Just take a look at the scene that is often used to demonstrate Heath Ledger’s talent, the interrogation scene. Bale is phenomenal in this ground-breaking moment of superhero cinema and the scene wouldn’t be anywhere near as fondly remembered if he wasn’t. It’s very rare that you get to see protagonists, especially those of the comic hero variety, get this angry on screen. At the beginning, Bale is calm and collected, looking at Joker like he’s the same as Maroni or any of the other thugs he has to beat confessions out of. Joker’s making all his grandiose speeches about what the police think of him, et cetera, and you can see that Batman’s looking at him like he’s got a screw loose. Then Batman loses his patience and he visibly gets angrier and angrier as Joker still evades the questions of where Harvey Dent is. But the most brilliant part of Bale’s performance is when Ledger reveals he took Rachel too. In the moment where Bale says “Them?”, he looks the most frightened he’s ever looked up until that moment in the trilogy. A man who is meant to be the symbol all Gotham criminals fear is broken down into an angry, raging wreck. The very second Joker reveals the locations of Dent and Rachel, he’s out of there without even thinking that maybe this could be another trick. When Gordon asks him who he’s going to try and save, he bursts out “RACHEL!”, as if to say “I haven’t got time to explain, I’m saving the woman I love!”.
Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes’ relationship is also something very overlooked in The Dark Knight. Of course, without it, Rachel’s death wouldn’t have been anywhere near as heart-breaking. It’s also another way Christian Bale manages to shine not only as Batman but as Bruce Wayne as well. Truthfully, when you play Batman, you’re playing two parts: Bruce Wayne and Batman. They share the same body but they are not the same person. Batman is the real Bruce Wayne, a dark, broken man haunted by loss. Bruce Wayne is the playboy mask that Batman uses to disguise his pain. Bale portrays both outstandingly. One line where Bruce Wayne asks Rachel if she’ll wait for him to never need Batman anymore so they can be together is one of the most heartfelt of the film. In that moment, young Bruce Wayne comes out. The Bruce Wayne before Batman, with a bright future ahead of him. The Bruce that saw himself with Rachel as the new head of Wayne Enterprises. That one line speaks volumes about the character and is a testament not only to Christian Bale’s acting but Christopher Nolan’s stellar direction.
As underrated as Bale’s Batman can be, he’s a veritable Marlon Brando compared to The Dark Knight‘s true unsung hero, Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart’s take on Harvey Dent is very rarely spoken about in lists of best villain performances. This is mainly because he’s overshadowed by the film’s other more central villain, but without Dent, the film would be sorely lacking. The plot pretty much centres around the rise and fall of Harvey Dent as Gotham’s White Knight and yet he’s barely a footnote in video essays commemorating the film’s writing. Aaron Eckhart brings this character to life and though many people have their different favourite Jokers, Eckhart is the definitive Two-Face without question. Tommy Lee Jones is good for the style of comic book film that Batman Forever is going for but he’s just another cackling lunatic in a franchise filled with what are essentially several Joker clones.
In The Dark Knight you get to know the man, Harvey Dent, the honourable politician that’s going to clean up Gotham without violence. When the Joker starts to terrorise Gotham, you see the new, darker side of him come out. He gets angry with Batman when he decides he has to take off his mask, and he seems to be more than willing to murder a man in cold blood to get his way. It’s this side of him that Joker manipulates and eventually gets to take him over. This is all culminated in what could be the most underrated scene in The Dark Knight, the final one. When individual scenes in this film are spoken about, they will almost certainly be the ones that feature Heath Ledger. The two that will spring to mind as probably the most covered are the aforementioned interrogation scene and the gangsters’ meeting where Joker shows up and guides a man’s eye on to a pencil. This leads into the problem this feature is addressing – while those scenes are brilliant, the final scene of the film (that doesn’t have Joker in it at all) is just as brilliant if not even better and this is a lot to do with Aaron Eckhart’s phenomenal performance as Two-Face.
A broken Harvey Dent has taken James Gordon’s family to the place where his family died, the remnants of the building that was blown up with Rachel in it. It is in this scene that we see just how much damage the Joker has done to Dent, not only is half his face missing but he has lost all morals and leaves everything up to the flip of a coin. Before he was willing to kill a man, but that man was an Arkham inmate, a low life, now he holds the life of a child his hands. He’s more than willing to take that life if the coin says he should. Dent leaves Gotham’s newly appointed commissioner lying on his back, completely powerless and begging for him to take his life and not the life of his young son. Little James had nothing to do with any of what happened but this is what Two-Face sees as fairness. Two-Face flipping his coin to decide who lives and who dies out of who is responsible for Joker’s rampage is the tensest moment of the film. It’s the most personal and heart breaking moment. It’s not as large scale as the boat scene or the Bat-Pod chase, but it’s emotional stakes are through the roof.
The final scene of The Dark Knight is one of its absolute best not only because of Aaron Eckhart’s amazing portrayal but thanks to Gary Oldman doing the role he should have got the Oscar for, Christian Bale’s default high quality and, unsurprisingly, Hans Zimmer’s heartbreakingly tragic score. That scene epitomises the fact that you don’t hear The Dark Knight Trilogy‘s soundtrack, you feel it.
Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things that make The Dark Knight perfect. One could mention Michael Caine’s iconic Alfred, Gary Oldman’s definitive Jim Gordon or Morgan Freeman’s charming Lucius Fox, added with all of the crew that made everything as magnificent as it is. That would probably require another 3,000 words though.
The Dark Knight is a film that perfectly encapsulates what makes Batman’s rogues gallery the best of all superheroes. There’s both mysterious agents of chaos and relatable human beings whose worlds have forced them down the wrong path. The Dark Knight is the iconic and inspirational superhero film that is, in part, because of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. Let’s not let our love of that performance allow us to forget how brilliant everything else is. After all, Rami Malek was outstanding as Freddie Mercury and deserved his Oscar, but Bohemian Rhapsody won’t be remembered in ten years time.