On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
To craft a sequel to his “gritty” Batman reboot, Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan sought inspiration from Michael Mann’s compact, city thriller Heat. The Dark Knight would trap the action in one location, and suffocate the audience in tension. For fans of the comics, the premise created one major worry: would dropping the Joker into a grounded universe force Nolan to curb any Jokerisms that might threaten to derail his Very Serious Film?
Luckily, The Dark Knight was still a Batman movie, and Nolan a popcorn thrill-seeker at heart. He used what he took from Heat to build a true summer spectacle. As director of photography Wally Pfister recalls in the film’s DVD bonus material: “Chris Nolan kept challenging everybody to come up with ideas of how we could beef up these action sequences and do something no one had ever done before... this idea came up to flip this 18-wheeler over without use of CGI.”
Halfway through The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker is after Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent in a chase through the streets (and sub-streets) of Gotham. Dent has an armored police transport, but the Joker has a plan that involves multiple henchmen, big guns and an articulated 18-wheel truck. Batman is quick to respond to the assault on the transport in the Batmobile, which becomes damaged while fending off the Joker’s truck and goons, only to eject into an extreme motorcycle variant: the Batpod. The nimble vehicle allows the caped crusader to attach a tow cable to the front of the Joker’s truck. Weaving in and out of street lamps, the Batpod grounds the tow cable on the bullbar, sending the truck flipping end over cab down a Gotham street.
Chris Corbould, the special effects supervisor on The Dark Knight, was ultimately the person tasked with figuring out how to safely launch a truck down La Salle street in downtown Chicago. Corbould was skeptical that it could be done, but tasked two members of his special effects team with devising a way to flip a truck at a test site. The result was a truck rig built with a large steel piston that could blast out the back. Using TNT at the base, the piston could be triggered with a small explosion, shooting the back end of the truck up over the cab. Using more reinforced steel, they lined the cab of the truck so there could actually be a driver in the vehicle triggering the piston at speed.
”We did it twice,” Paul Jennings, the stunt coordinator on the film told IGN in 2010. “Once in a big area … a runway, because we had to check that when it got blown over that it stayed straight. Because obviously if it gets halfway up and falls to the side — we were [going to be] in the middle of the Chicago banking district — it would’ve gone through a bank’s window. So we had to flip it once in rehearsal to check the pressure on the ram.” Amazing Corbould, the truck flipped neatly and straight forward during the first test, and it was determined the giant piston could safely be used to flip the truck down the street.
Nolan’s choice of La Salle street as the location for the climax of the chase posed another problem for the stunt crew, as the sewers of the city below, and a series of underground structures for the banks on either side of the street, caused complications. “I kept looking at all these manhole covers all over the road,” recalls Corbould, “and I said to the surveyor, ‘What are these?’ and he said underground vaults for the banks there.”
There were only two places on the road where the piston could be fired in a way where the ram wouldn’t puncture the road or cause a minor collapse of a sewer, wire junction, or underground structure. If the stunt driver could hit one of those two spots, the hundred tons of pressure from the TNT would send the truck flipping, peaking at a nose to rear bumper height of 54 feet in the air.
”There’s a real guy driving that,” said Jennings. “Jim Wilkey. A great old stunt character from L.A. He’s always chewing tobacco and spits [it] on the ground. He’s walking up and down before he’s doing his stunt. He’s walking to the point where he’s going to press the button. [Makes spitting sound.] It’s just really cool to see him. He just got in the car... He just pressed the button and over he went.”
Wilkey expertly executed the stunt and did it without injury. Almost as amazing is the accuracy that Wilkey and the stunt crew was able to achieve in the placement of a flipping truck. The Dark Knight had several sequences shot and displayed in theaters in the larger 60mm IMAX format, which meant very expensive cameras being placed on the nighttime streets of Chicago where they could easily be squashed by a bus. All cameras, four IMAX and the rest otherwise, accounted for, Nolan suspects they shot five or six angles of the truck stunt, despite the director not being a fan of multi-camera setups.
The Dark Knight was released in 2008, the same year as Marvel’s MCU-launching Iron Man and a loosely connected The Incredible Hulk, both early examples of how modern superhero films would rely heavily on computer-generated imagery and character powers to provide thrills. Nolan restrained himself, with a few altered frames to take out the ramrod the only visual effect on the truck stunt. Nolan even wanted to extend the big action moment by cutting together multiple shots of repetitive action, a long-used technique in mainstream action movies. “When the truck flips for example, we’re using only two angles,” explains editor Lee Smith in the film’s special features, “back in the 80s, I probably would have used [them all].”
Settling on an IMAX camera on a car-mounted arm for the first angle, and a VisaVision 35mm camera on a stunt car driving towards the flip, the end result is the full grandeur of physics on display as the semi-trailer rises over fifty feet in the air, then comes crashing down.
Much like stuntman Jim Wilkey, the Joker survives the ordeal he challenges Batman to run him over with the Batpod. A minute later, The Joker is in custody where he apparently always planned to be. The Dark Knight moves ahead at a steady clip, never stopping long enough for anyone to feel silly about the clown and traumatized millionaire duking it out over sociological theory of Gothamites.
In the current era where Batman movies often feel like they’re taking place entirely against green-screen backgrounds or acting opposite digitally re-created upper-lips, it’s become increasingly easy to see The Dark Knight’s truck flip as the climax of practical superhero action. Now, practical stunts have devolved into a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible marketing tactic. The Joker had it slightly backwards: Why not serious?
Dave Gonzales is an entertainment writer and podcaster. Find him on Twitter @Da7e.