Forget 'Aquaman's Billions, 'The Dark Knight' Will Always Be The Best DC Movie

Let's explore the many reasons the Heath Ledger-starring superhero film flies high above the rest.

Art by Rafael Hidalgo for Zimbio

In 2008, The Dark Knight legitimized superhero films. I didn't realize it then, but I do now. For me, it will always be the best DC movie. I'd take it a step farther and say it'll always be the best superhero movie in general, but comic book fans are not to be trifled with, and my inbox is questionable enough without death threats.

In my teenage years, the announcement of new superhero movies didn't mean much, but as a living, breathing human, I was familiar with well-known characters: Superman, The Hulk, Batman, etc. By then, Batman had been played by faces — Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale being just a few. Bale's 2005 performance in Batman Begins signaled a change in the character's previously lighthearted, campy portrayal — and then came The Dark Knight. It was the first superhero film with actors who embodied their characters so well they only needed two hours and thirty two minutes to sell me. Just over a decade later, some fans seem to think Aquaman, which recently became the highest-grossing DC film ever, rivals it. Those fans are wrong.

The Dark Knight starred Christian Bale as Batman, Aaron Eckhart as the dual-sided Harvey Dent, the legendary Michael Caine as Alfred,  Maggie Gyllenhaal as the ill-fated Rachel, Gary Oldman as good guy Gordon and, of course, Heath Ledger as the Joker. Rarely do diehard fans of source material and casual moviegoers agree a film is on another level, but The Dark Knight made it happen. More than a decade later, it remains IMDB's No. 3 top-rated movie of all time, bested only by The Godfather I and II and The Shawshank Redemption — films so iconic they have maintained their popularity nearly 45 years later. Briefly scroll through the film's Rotten Tomatoes page — it's rated 94 percent — and two negative reviews jump out at you: "Lacks a sense of humor and a notion about the essential silliness of this premise," wrote Jean Lowerison of the San Diego Metropolitan. "Too much psychology and not enough pop. It's possible to be too serious, you know," claimed Ryan Gilbey of New Statesman. But it was The Dark Knight's demand to be taken seriously that forced people like me to see superhero films in a new light. Before it, I assumed the perennially campy genre didn't even try for excellence, likely because directors knew it was near impossible to pull off what Christopher Nolan did: An entertaining, well-made superhero film people actually respected.

Why 'The Dark Knight' Will Probably Always Be The Best DC Movie — 'Aquaman' Be Damned
Warner Bros.

Like many viewers, Ledger's portrayal of a character we'd only ever seen in cheap '60s-era TV shows was what really grabbed my attention. After all, there's something to be said for an actor who embodied his role so deeply it made himself physically sick. The actor's "Joker Diary" became the subject of intense interest following his January 2008 passing, and is said to be stuffed with disturbing drawings, news stories, and other dark components that helped Ledger get in his Joker's head space. 

"I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month," Ledger said during the documentary series Too Young to Die, "locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown."

He went on to win a posthumous Oscar for his performance, an honor it pains me he wasn't alive to accept in person.

Why 'The Dark Knight' Will Probably Always Be The Best DC Movie — 'Aquaman' Be Damned
Warner Bros.

On July 18, 2008, about six months after Ledger was found dead of an accidental overdose in his New York apartment, The Dark Knight hit theaters. Reportedly haunted by the very performance that took The Dark Knight from good to great, he medicated himself with a cocktail of six painkillers, anti-anxiety meds, antihistamines, and sleeping pills. His heart gave out before he had the chance to see The Dark Knight gross over $1 billion worldwide. It was the highest-grossing film of 2008 and, as many outlets would report, only the fourth film in history to exceed the $1 billion mark.

At that time, The Dark Knight was DC's biggest film success and Warner Bros' second most financially successful film. The same year, Marvel released Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and four years later, it debuted the first film in the Avengers franchise, which solidified how wildly lucrative superhero films that take themselves "seriously" could be. The Dark Knight proved studios could throw real cash into characters like Batman, Superman, and The Hulk because, if done well, the payout could be worth it. Not only was Nolan's creation a financial game changer, as the first film of its kind, it paved the way for all the others. So you'll have to excuse me if I question tweets like the ones below.

Comments like these were fueled in late 2018 when Aquaman dethroned The Dark Knight as the most financially successful DC film in history. Often, financial success is equated with quality, and that's where I take issue. Although these numbers are not adjusted for inflation, the question "Which film is actually better: Aquaman or The Dark Knight?" was on many fans' minds, but to me, there's no comparison. Momoa's depiction of the angsty, foot-draggy Arthur Curry was... fun, but in truth, it was everything above Arthur's feet that fueled ticket sales. There are many benefits to appearing on Game of Thrones, which has been labeled "the greatest TV show of all time," and those benefits quadruple when your character has a tragic love story with the show's star. Khal Drogo the thirst trap's untimely demise catapulted Momoa's career. Before Game of Thrones, he was best known for Baywatch and Conan the Barbarian. Post-Game of Thrones (despite one truly terrible Stallone movie and an obscure sci-fi thriller) he was a household name. As Variety has pointed out, "stars are the locomotives behind some of the town’s biggest blockbusters, and expect to be paid accordingly." We're in an era that studios hire actors and actresses with established followings who are sure to drive ticket sales.

Aquaman's second biggest praise was its impressive special effects which, there's no doubt about it, made the movie. But even those weren't immune to the criticism of major filmmakers like James Cameron, who pointed out inconsistencies in the way humans moved through water.

"I think [Aquaman] is great fun," Cameron told EW. "I think its a movie I could have never made. Truthfully. I could have never made that film because it requires this total dreamlike disconnect from any sense of physics or reality. It exists somewhere between a Greek mythic landscape and a fairy tale landscape. And people just kind of zoom around underwater because… they propel themselves mentally? I guess? I don’t know. But it’s cool. You buy it on its own terms. But I’ve spent thousands of hours underwater. I’m very literal about my underwater. It needs to look like it’s real. And while I can enjoy that film I don’t resonate with it because it doesn’t look real."

Forget 'Aquaman's Billions, 'The Dark Knight' Will Always Be The Best DC Movie

In other words, Aquaman is all flash. Beyond its pretty faces, pulsating lights, and effects, it lacks the substance to be justifiably compared to The Dark Knight.

Putting Momoa front and center was pure strategy, and pouring millions into visuals made for a thrilling show. There's nothing wrong with good business, but Aquaman comes across more as a box office buster than a cinematic masterpiece. Let's not go as far as to compare Aquaman to The Dark Knight, which so clearly set the stage for movies like Aquaman to thrive in the first place.

If you're looking for frivolity, fine abs, and stunning colors, there's no question Aquaman is the film to watch, but The Dark Knight will always be the "best" DC movie.

Don't @ me.

Find me on Twitter @WellHelloCecily. Instagram @CecilyTrowbridge.