Marvel changed the game in 2012 with The Avengers. After introducing the novel idea of an interconnected cinematic universe in the MCU’s first five films, The Avengers assembled Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in a story that was a showcase for the ensemble (even Hawkeye got a pretty juicy part). Thanks to Joss Whedon’s deft plotting, his rich understanding of the characters, and the movie’s remarkable set pieces, The Avengers was a Hulk-sized smash; it not only finished its run as the third-highest grossing film of all-time, it created a new blueprint for movie serialization, one which other studios have been desperately mimicking since.
None of those imitators have looked as shoddy in comparison than the DCEU, the shared movie universe of Marvel’s longtime comic book rival, DC. The four films leading up to last year’s Justice League were inconsistent (at best), and the resulting ensemble was borderline embarrassing (the Superhero whisperer himself, Joss Whedon, was brought on for rewrites and reshoots, which ironically undermined the one thing the DCEU had going for it: tone).
Whether or not you enjoy the “dark and gritty” ethos of the DCEU, the style is at least rooted in something special, Christopher Nolan’s watershed “Dark Knight” trilogy (and to an extent, Tim Burton’s two Batman films). But DC executives seem to have learn the wrong lesson from The Dark Knight (which held the record as the highest-grossing superhero movie until The Avengers came along); it wasn’t just the movie’s aesthetic that made it so appealing, it was the stellar cast.
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight this week, that’s what resonates most potently. Every character in the film is important to its story, even the small supporting parts like crooked cop Anna Ramirez and too-clever accountant Coleman Reese. To make the film’s character-driven plotting work, Nolan needed a top-flight cast for The Dark Knight. He certainly got one. Even leaving aside multiple Oscar-winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (both of whom are great), the central cast of characters is loaded with talent. To wit:
Christian Bale as Batman/ Bruce Wayne – Bale would win an Oscar two years after The Dark Knight for his role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter and has subsequently earned two more nominations. His annoying BatVoice notwithstanding, Bale does a great job in the part, particularly as Bruce Wayne, whose aloofness provides excellent cover for his true identity.
Heath Ledger as The Joker – Because of Ledger’s tragic death the January before The Dark Knight’s release, there was a morbid curiosity about how he would tackle the most iconic villain in all of comics. Ledger’s performance was absolutely astonishing, as the Joker’s gleeful nihilism makes him far more formidable and terrifying than Jack Nicholson’s clownish iteration. Ledger deservedly nabbed a posthumous Academy Award for the part, and he’s still the only actor to win an Oscar for a superhero film.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/ Two-Face – At its core, The Dark Knight is really Harvey Dent’s story and it’s a deeply tragic tale about the perils and limitations of heroism. His rise and fall is a dramatic proxy for the ideological divide between Batman and The Joker and the film’s devastating ending underscores the theme of the entire trilogy: Heroism is only as effective as its ability to inspire. Although Eckhart’s career has been up-and-down since The Dark Knight, he capably anchors the all-star cast, playing Dent as a touch too fanatical in his thirst for justice and Two-Face as a righteously aggrieved vigilante who (depending on the results of a coin flip), has no problem crossing the one line that Batman won’t.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes – Katie Holmes was apparently considering reprising her Batman Begins role as Bruce Wayne’s lifelong friend turned prosecutor Rachel Dawes, before deciding to do the Queen Latifah/ Diane Keaton crime comedy Mad Money instead (in retrospect, oof). It’s hard to imagine her improving on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance, which is TDK’s emotional fulcrum. Unlike most comic book movies where a supporting character’s murder is used to score cheap emotional points, Dawes’ shocking death has a profound impact on the story and its characters. Given her talent and the types of roles she takes, it’s surprising that Gyllenhaal hasn’t even been nominated for an Oscar at this point in her career, but as one of the most grounded actresses of her generation, it only feels like a matter of time before she wins a major award.
Gary Oldman as James Gordon – Oldman’s Oscar win earlier this year for Darkest Hour felt somewhat like a lifetime achievement award. Oldman has been an incredibly versatile actor for three decades and his relatively subdued performance as official police liaison to Batman is beautifully calibrated. Gordon has a surprisingly rich story arc in TDK — he’s (fake) killed, becomes police commissioner and ultimately functions as the damsel in distress — and Oldman is great at conveying the wariness that comes with being one of the only honest cops in a crooked city.
Beyond the incredibly tight script he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan (TDK might be the most fleet two-and-a-half hour movie ever made), Christopher Nolan deserves great credit for getting such uniformly strong performances out of his cast. Even ignoring the context of the bungled DCEU (which debased Oscar-level talents like Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams and Russell Crowe), the ensemble here surpasses anything we’ve seen from the MCU (with its large cast, political themes and relatively serious tone, Black Panther is the closest analogue in the MCU, not any of the Avengers movies).
In fact, there’s an argument to be made that The Dark Knight was too good, because it’s left subsequent Batman movies — including the dour and flatly ridiculous The Dark Knight Rises — feeling low stakes and silly (with the exception being The Lego Batman Movie, which was supposed to be low stakes and silly). Still, greatness is always going to cast a long shadow and the brilliance of The Dark Knight was never going to be replicated, even if Ledger hadn’t died (the clever inversion of the Joker’s death scene from 1989’s Batman is the best of its many subtle callbacks).
Given the currently volume and variety of superhero cinema, it’s not hard to imagine a better all-around cast at some point. But for now, The Dark Knight remains The Avengers of acting showcases: A group of remarkable people coming together to become something more.