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Opinion: Why The Dark Knight Is Still the Best Superhero Movie Ever

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Ten years later, Christopher Nolan’s epic has yet to be topped despite a deluge of superhero contenders.

The Dark Knight is, gun to my head, my favorite film ever. I rewatch it at least once per year, and every time I do I get sucked right back in. From the tone-setting opening bank robbery scene that establishes the stakes of the movie – that this Joker, wryly hinted at in the closing moments of Batman Begins, was more anarchist than over-the-top cackling clown – to Christian Bale and Heath Ledger’s intense showdown inside the Gotham PD interrogation room, it grabs onto you and never lets go, despite being two-and-a-half hours long.

Sure, it’s not perfect (*cough* “No more dead cops!”), but it remains a gripping, beautifully acted film even after dozens of viewings. And it is still the world’s finest superhero movie, despite a deluge of costume-clad contenders that have taken to the big screen in the decade since its release.

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“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Alfred Pennyworth’s sage counsel to Bruce Wayne about the evolving and enigmatic threat that is The Joker is one of dozens of quotable lines from The Dark Knight, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week. It’s also the bit of dialogue that best sums up Ledger’s iconic and instantly unforgettable take on the Clown Prince of Crime, for which he (very deservedly) won a posthumous Oscar.

Indeed, Ledger is at the center of the hub of the wheel that is The Dark Knight, with everyone and everything else – Bale’s weary Batman/Wayne, director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s drum-tight script, Aaron Eckhart’s haunted Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, the tense violin-shrieked score looming over almost every scene, fantastic supporting turns by Michael Caine (Pennyworth) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) – serving as the spokes. But Ledger did more than just lift this entire film. He elevated the entire superhero movie genre, despite that peak having yet to be reached again, let alone exceeded, in my humble opinion.

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If you remember – and thank goodness this was pre-Twitter, when the outrage was a fraction of what it would’ve been now – fans were, to put it mildly, not happy about the casting of Ledger. Bat-fans had gotten their Batman one film before as the day on Nolan’s trilogy dawned with Batman Begins. Bale was the popular choice, and he lived up to fans’ hopes – but Ledger’s last big role before shooting The Dark Knight was Brokeback Mountain. In these two films, which couldn’t be more different, Ledger’s genius is forever cemented.

But it goes beyond Ledger. Bale’s Dark Knight is truly haunted by his own compulsion, this obligation – the weight that he feels he must bear. He wants to have a normal life but he knows he can’t, and the film explores what happens when Batman becomes as bad as the monsters he seeks to stop. Monsters, it should be noted, that Batman helped create. “Escalation,” as hinted at in that same foreshadowing final scene of Batman Begins.

Wayne’s dual identities each manage to strain the relationships with those he cares about most: Rachel, Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius. It is that tension that is perhaps the thread that runs through the entire film. Heroism, The Dark Knight suggests, is not without consequences, and no matter what there are no happy endings. Not for Bruce, Rachel, Harvey, The Joker, Jim, Jim’s family, Lucius, Maroni and all of the gangsters, Lau, Ramirez, or even the would-be blackmailer, Wayne Enterprises money guy Reese.

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Heath Ledger as Joker and Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight

Even if you don’t want to connect the darkness of the movie with the bleakness of 2008 and the Great Recession, there are simply a ton of great scenes in the film. The aforementioned bank robbery and Batman’s interrogation of The Joker at GCPD, Joker introducing himself to the crime bosses, Batman “extraditing” Lau, the Batpod sequence, Batman vs. GCPD SWAT, etc. The Dark Knight is eminently rewatchable, its performances are as strong as ever, and it remains not only the best movie that Nolan – a world-class filmmaker – has ever made, but it’s also still the best superhero movie, 10 years after its theatrical debut. Come to think of it, we still don’t know how the Joker really got those scars...

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Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s Executive Editor of Previews and Xbox Guru-in-Chief. Follow him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan, catch him on Unlocked, and drop-ship him Taylor Ham sandwiches from New Jersey whenever possible.