Sign of the Times

'The Dark Knight' dominated the year in mainstream movies

Movies as cultural events are rapidly becoming relics of the past. It’s rare when a new movie can even come close to generating the enthusiasm that greeted old-school epics like Gone with the Wind or relatively new-school blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars.

There are many reasons for this shift — most prominently the demystification of movies via the rise of home viewing and increased competition from other media in our rapidly evolving age — but know that I yearn for the days when a movie (or a book or an album) had the ability to penetrate more than a fraction of our cultural consciousness.

The other night I asked a friend about her favorite movie of 2008.

“Hmm, I liked that documentary about the guy who lived with bears in Alaska,” she said.

“You mean Grizzly Man?” I asked.

“Yeah, that was good.”

“Uh, that came out three years ago.”

“Really? I saw it on DVD a few months ago,” she said, clearly oblivious of the contextual importance of my initial question.

While not the most scientific of investigations, this brief anecdote perfectly encapsulates the fractured, often fleeting nature of modern film culture. Home viewing has forever changed the way we watch movies. The essential, deeply immersive big-screen theatrical experience has been compromised for the comforts of the couch or the portability of an iPod. (Of course, it could be argued that she might not have even known of Grizzly Man’s existence if not for DVD.)

But just as alarming is the demise of the communal experience, an aspect of movie-going that can often be as integral as the film itself. Just ask those who reveled in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the lone movie in recent memory to have a pervasive impact on the culture at large.

Internet message boards and blogs dissected and debated every aspect of The Dark Knight’s pre- and post-production. Opening-night screenings, which sold out weeks in advance, featured fans bedecked in Batman gear and garish Joker face paint. I vividly recall riding the El train in Chicago during The Dark Knight’s opening weekend and hearing dozens of teens point out where certain scenes were shot and the fact that Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was “like, totally better than the ridiculous Jack Nicholson version.”

But why did it strike such a deep chord? While Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) sufficiently resurrected a moribund franchise, its success (both critically and commercially) didn’t seem to warrant an opening weekend box office of $158 million — the largest ever — for The Dark Knight. (It has now earned more than $530 million in the U.S., which makes it the second-highest grossing film of all time.) Psychologically complex, mondo dark and often cynical about the state of the world today — Ledger’s chaos-loving Joker can be seen as a stand-in for terrorism — The Dark Knight is anything but a shallow summer blockbuster. This is Batman as Hamlet.

The wild card, of course, was Ledger’s untimely death, a fact that added another layer of foreboding and intrigue to an already bleak, highly anticipated picture. While I’m slightly surprised by the film’s massive success, one thing is crystal clear: The Dark Knight is a product of our unsettling, post-9/11 era. (Even relatively lighter popcorn fare like Iron Man and WALL-E were informed by the darker aspects of life in America today.)

Yes, it seems audiences were ready for a summer season that actually addressed our anxieties rather than denied them.

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