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.
Poor billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne and his wife Martha, dressing up for a night on the town, only to be gunned down in front of their son Bruce, over and over again, in the crime-ridden streets of Gotham. Since Detective Comics #27 (May, 1939), they’ve been stuck in a pop culture Sisyphean hell, Batman’s brutal origin story rehashed on the page, then reprocessed on the screen in Batman (1989), Batman Begins (2005), and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
That’s not the only origin story in the Batman mythos that continues to linger. After The Dark Knight’s 2008 blockbuster bonfire, the Academy Awards — Hollywood’s biggest night for prestige material — re-emerged from the ashes. Though often host to period dramas and A-listers going for broke, the Oscars couldn’t ignore Christopher Nolan’s comic-book movie. The Joker just wanted to watch Gotham burn, but the fire raged so bright it reached the West Coast.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known for hosting The Oscars, was born in 1927, 12 years before Batman. For its first 17 years, the Oscars experimented with size and types of categories and different ways of honoring filmmakers and actors. You might think of it as their adolescent training years, discovering who they were and what they meant in their significantly less private Bat Cave.
By the 1944 Oscar race, The Academy had settled into a then mostly permanent way of doing things: five nominees in almost every category as a strict rule. By the arrival of the first televised broadcast (March 19th, 1953) their patterns were well established. They would remain so for the next fifty-five years.
As with Batman, the Academy’s own popular mythology was built from decades of repetition. Minor cosmetic changes occur, yes — a pointier cowl here, a different Oscar host there — but the innate character remains the same. Then came The Dark Knight.
Heath Ledger’s tragic accidental death on Jan. 22, six months before The Dark Knight was due in theaters, lifted the sequel from the summer’s most anticipated release to a seminal cinematic event. Director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the character in Batman Begins (2005) had already rescued the superhero from his return descent into camp in the late ‘90s, but with The Dark Knight, Nolan’s ‘why so serious?’ approach reached its apotheosis.
The grandeur of the film wasn’t wholly derived from Ledger’s eery, funny, frightening, slippery, and altogether genius take on Batman’s most famous foe, but his contribution was the key to its immortality. A cynic might say that Ledger never would never won the Oscar for his work as The Joker had he lived; no other actor before or since has even been nominated for a superhero movie and it’s not for lack of another worthy candidate (“meow”). It’s a terrible price to pay for Oscar glory, but glorious he was, all the same.
The Dark Knight played with a kind of soulful grim majesty onscreen, all of it amplified by the tragic loss of Ledger offscreen. The film completely seized the imagination of moviegoers, and wouldn’t let go, becoming the second biggest hit of the entire decade (bested only by Avatar, the following year). Inspired by the success, Warner Bros. Pictures launched a “For Your Consideration” campaign worthy of their most down-the-middle “Oscar bait.” Everyone loved The Dark Knight. Even Academy members — if not quite enough of them.
On nomination morning, in a shock that wasn’t entirely shocking, the Academy remained in their comfort zone. Though Batman had always been Oscar’s favorite superhero with four previous Batman films receiving an art nomination or three (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman Begins.) they weren’t quite ready to embrace The Dark Knight as “Best Picture” material the way they would a biopic or a war drama. The Dark Knight was nominated for an historic eight Academy Awards, and yet was conspicuously absent from Best Picture and Best Director races.
Kate Winslet’s Oscar vehicle The Reader (2008), released late that same year, was presumed to have taken The Dark Knight’s place in the lineup. In what could only be described as a prescient gag that turned into a perfect firestorm of a coincidence, Kate had lampooned her own Oscar-hunger on an particularly famous episode of Ricky Gervais series “Extras” in 2005 (the same year as Batman Begins). In the episode she played a horribly narcissistic ‘Kate Winslet’ playing a nun in a World War II picture. “I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust, “ the actress deadpanned, “—guaranteed an Oscar!”
Three years later the real Kate Winslet would do a film about the Holocaust and win. The perpetually snubbed Christopher Nolan finally wised up and made his own World War II picture, Dunkirk (2017). Bingo! He received his first nomination for Best Director during the 2017-’18 Oscar season after three previous, high-profile misses with genre pictures (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception).
The uproar over The Dark Knight’s snub set off a panic within the newly octogenarian Academy. The very next year, their 82nd, the governing body significantly changed the rules for Best Picture. There would now be 10 rather than five nominees.
The Academy never mentioned The Dark Knight in its official statement. Instead this shocking break with tradition was introduced as a nostalgic return to the golden age of Hollywood. “After more than six decades,” the press release began, with its sleight-of-hand, “The Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year.”
Nostalgia wasn’t at the root of it. The Awards had been, by then, under fire for at least a decade for ignoring blockbusters. The entertainment media had been whining that the Academy should nominate mainstream blockbusters instead of critically acclaimed films “no one has heard of” for more than a decade before The Dark Knight snub. The war between Big and Small really took strong root in 1996, a historic year when Jerry Maguire (a huge hit, the fourth highest grosser in its year) was the only major studio release to receive a Best Picture nomination. The English Patient, which became a sizable sleeper hit despite being an “indie,” won. This annual complaint grew louder for years, and by 2008, was as predictable as Oscar night itself.
The Academy got closer to the probable truth of the matter later in the press release when they added “Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.” That’s code for franchise hits and blockbusters, folks.
The message was clear: War pictures, tearjerking dramas, biopics, and message movies were on notice; they’d now have to share the room with action blockbusters, superhero films, sci-fi flicks, animated features and comedies. Or so the expectations went.
That abrupt 2009 decision broke something in the Academy. And fixed something, too. It all depends on how you look at it. In the years since The Dark Knight, they’ve either been a newly panicked geriatric, perpetually insecure and worried for their legacy, or a forward-thinking organization that’s unafraid of change and seeking new ways to re energize their purpose and place in a changing showbiz landscape. Perhaps it’s been a little of both. Not a year goes by now when they aren’t madly tinkering, like Lucius Fox in the R&D department of Wayne Enterprises, developing new gadgetry and vehicles for his employer.
Since The Dark Knight debacle the Oscars have continued to make adjustments to the voting process for Best Picture. Two years after introducing the mandatory 10 nominees, the Academy dropped it in favor of a flexible total. Best Picture is now made up of a varying amount of nominees depending on voting percentages, though the new math has only seen years in which eight or nine films have been nominated.
Other categories have undergone revisions, too. Various plans to diversify their membership, widely judged (and not unfairly) as too white, too old and too male, had been in place prior to the social media backlash of #OscarsSoWhite a few years ago, but were significantly ramped up in its aftermath. For decades the Academy’s membership hovered around 6,000 people. With a record amount of invites in the past few years – 928 this year alone – their members now number about 9,300.
Though the reasons for historic institutional changes are always multifaceted, 2008 was a breakpoint. The Dark Knight was undoubtedly the primary “agent of chaos” in the Academy’s subsequent evolution. The Joker would be proud.
Nathaniel Rogers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the creator of the long running awards-obsessed website The Film Experience. He has served on film festival juries and as an Oscar pundit on CNNi. His writing has also appeared at Towleroad, Vanity Fair, Show-Score, Slate, Esquire, and Tribeca Film.