From Tim Burton’s blockbuster that kickstarted the Batman series in 1989 to James McTeigue’s V For Vendetta, here are 12 movies like The Dark Knight for fans of the thriller genre.
Christopher Nolan redefined superhero movies with The Dark Knight. He singlehandedly changed the landscape of blockbuster storytelling by opting to choose the first 28 minutes of the film in IMAX. Nolan further explores the themes of chaos versus order by creating leads who’re essentially two faces of the same coin. The Joker, immortalized by Heath Ledger’s chilling performance is one of the most iconic antagonists of all time. His action while seemingly random is designed to uncover the hypocrisy of the sole protector of Gotham. In a rare moment in mainstream moviemaking, the film actually lets the villain win.
In this list, we take a look at some of the classics that influenced Nolan to make his masterpiece along with modern action films that borrowed Nolan’s template to mount their own stories successfully.
1. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
The Man Who Laughs is a silent film based on an 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name. This gothic romantic movie explores the lives of Gywnplaine, a disfigured son of a nobleman who rescues an infant, Dea from imminent danger. Scared that Dea might find him ugly because of his deformity, he never confesses his love for her. Can this story ever have a happy ending?
Upon release, it wasn’t very well received by some critics feeling that the subject matter was too morbid. It’s only recently that this small German film has found its audience with the great Roger Ebert calling it “one of the final treasures of the German silent Expressionism.” Legend has it that comic book artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson were heavily influenced by Gywnplaine, a character from this 1928 classic when they were creating The Joker. DC even released a graphic novel in 2005 titled Batman: The Man Who Laughs as a homage to this film.
2. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s blockbuster kickstarted the Batman series, providing the basis for the multiple full-length feature films, tv series, and video games that would follow. One of the biggest selling points of the film was its distinct visual style that was far ahead of its time. Michael Keaton effectively expresses the psychological torment behind Wayne, while transforming into a robotic figure when he dons the Batman suit. Jack Nicholson’s unhinged portrayal of The Joker is one for the ages. He intentionally goes over the edge acting as an interesting counterweight to Keaton’s take on the protagonist.
This movie was panned by film-goers who were expecting a campy cartoon but were instead shown a gritty tale featuring an elaborate battle between two freaks. But with time, it began to be embraced by critics and comic book aficionados alike. They seem to be in particular awe of the exquisite set design. Take a journey into Burton’s psychological world to truly understand where the fascination with the Caped Crusader started.
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3. Falling Down (1993)
Joel Schumacher attempts to tell the story of an average American infuriated with the injustices he has to face. Micheal Douglas plays William Forster, a stereotypical consumer who’s pragmatic and psychotic in equal measure. As fate would have it, he comes into the possession of a number of weapons capable of mass destruction. William’s sudden change in fate brings him closer to Martin Pendergast, a detective who’s going through a crisis of his own.
A large part of why Falling Down works is because we’re vicariously enjoying Michael Douglas’ character smash up the things around him and dish out punishment to the people that aggravate him. Robert Duvall’s Pendergast is also sharing similar feelings of angst. But unlike William, his aggression takes a more subdued course. Falling Down isn’t just your average shoot’em up film. It’s more of a scathing social commentary that reflects upon the impact of a person’s environment on their actions.
4. Heat (1995)
Micheal Mann’s Heat is, without a doubt, one of the greatest heist movies ever made. It features two of Hollywood’s biggest legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on opposite sides of the law. Al Pacino plays a hardened detective while De Niro takes up the role of a street-smart criminal. Like The Dark Knight, Heat features an iconic bank robbery scene and an unforgettable confrontation between the two leads.
Heat is one of those rare movies that delivers beyond its promises. Mann takes care to craft every scene meticulously and casts great actors for even the smallest of roles. The writing makes us care for every character which is rare for an action flick. This makes the movie go beyond the confines of the genre, making for a supremely entertaining watch. It may have been more than two decades since this film released, but there’s not a single scene that feels dated. Every action block still feels as fresh as it did all those years ago.
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5. Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State stars Will Smith as a Washington DC-based lawyer whose life is thrown for a toss when he finds incriminating proof against the government in the mysterious killing of a Congressman. Jon Voight plays the government official hellbent on making Smith’s life a nightmare. He plants sexual gossip in the paper, cancels his credit cards, and even attempts to pin a murder on him. The film tries to examine the unethical surveillance system used by governments that illegally track phone calls to look for trigger words. Voight wants a communication bill passed and is ready to destroy anything and anyone who comes in the way of his objective.
With nowhere left to go, the lawyer decides to turn to a shady former American spy named Brill for help. Brill, played by Gene Hackman lives in a rundown warehouse building and has withdrawn himself from the public eye. He explains to our supposedly fugitive lawyer how the government monitors personal conversation in the name of keeping the country safe from external threats.
Tony Scott of Top Gun fame gives us a fast-paced thriller that concludes with a shocker of a finale. Watch Enemy of the State for its frenetic pace and exhilarating chase sequences.
6. Collateral (2004)
The second Michael Mann movie on this list, Collateral is a tense thriller where the story mostly unfolds within the confines of a cab. Max (Jamie Foxx), a taxi driver is convinced by the suave, smooth-talking Vincent (Tom Cruise) to drive him around the city. Max is in for a shock of his life when he realizes that his passenger is a seasoned assassin and that the stops he’s making are all targets.
Mann gives us a glimpse of LA in all its glory, bathing the City of Angels in shades of blue, black, and brown. Tom Cruise effortlessly switches between charming and ruthless. On the other hand, Jamie Foxx’s wonderfully subtle performance captures the vulnerability of the character effectively. But, the script relies on too many coincidences to keep things moving. But, all in all, Collateral is one wild car ride that you need to hop on right away.
7. V for Vendetta (2005)
It’s hard to believe that the superbly staged V for Vendetta was James McTeigue’s debut feature. Based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, this movie narrates the story of a masked anarchist, voiced by a spectacular Hugo Weaving fighting against a corrupted, authoritative society. In this process, he rescues an employee of a state-sponsored television network. Evey (Natalie Portman) soon comes to realize that there might be some truth to his revolutionary statements.
Hugo Weaving’s charismatic portrayal of the masked anti-hero is a treat to watch. Portman holds her own and lends the film its emotional core. Like The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta features stretches of well-choreographed action, filmed by the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Visually, it’s a spectacle to behold and is further accentuated by Dario Marianell’s rousing score. V for Vendetta is a thrilling adventure that is also extremely relevant in today’s socio-political climate.
8. Watchmen (2009)
Zack Synder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name is a dark, absorbing thriller that like The Dark Knight tries to subvert genre conventions. The story takes place in an alternate universe teeming with masked warriors and superheroes. The government scared about the power they hold decides to outlaw their existence. But, the mysterious murder of a vigilante, The Comedian brings back the Watchmen. Rorschach who wears a mask with shifting inkblots believes that this might be part of a larger conspiracy. This investigation of his forces him to confront a truth that could alter the course of history as we know it.
Watchmen features an eclectic group of superheroes, each flawed in different ways. This allows us to get into their heads and truly understand the weight of their actions. It is a deeply visceral film that generates a feeling akin to flipping through a graphic novel.
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9. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw the Devil is a visceral thriller that is clearly not for the faint-hearted. The plot revolves around the thrilling cat and mouse game between its two leads, one a violent psychopath, other a cop. Their paths cross when Soo-Hyun’s girlfriend happens to be Kyung-Chul‘s latest victim. Will the honest cop get his shot at retribution or will the devilishly smart killer continue to evade him?
Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi are great in their roles and complement each other well. While Lee plays the calm and collected cop with restraint, Choi goes all out and is madly expressive. They’re both written to be neither completely black nor completely white. The viewer is left to form their opinions about the characters. The fight scenes have a brutal sense of realism with the leading men turning to hand-to-hand combat at one point in the film. If you’re looking for a visceral film that doesn’t hold back on violence, I Saw the Devil might be the one for you.
10. Skyfall (2012)
If there’s one villain from recent times who was carved directly from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, it has to be Raoul Silva from Skyfall. Silva, played by Javier Bardem is a cyber-terrorist who formerly worked for the Secret Intelligence Service. A suicide attempt gone wrong when he’s captured by the Chinese scars him psychologically. Years later, he’s left seeking revenge against the very organization that deserted him. He builds a criminal empire from the ground up by crippling economies with his improved hacking skills. By the time Bond squares off against him, Silva is drunk with power with a limitless reserve of money and resources.
Sam Mendes mimics Nolan’s approach to his protagonist by having Bond look inwards and confront the weight of his actions. Silva despises M believing that she’s the reason for all the suffering he had to endure. But, he can’t get himself to pull the trigger when he has her at the point of his gun. He may have been vanquished by Bond, but his plan ultimately succeeds as M collapses in Bond’s arms.
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11. John Wick (2014)
There are only a few action thrillers that have managed to gather a huge fan following as The Dark Knight. John Wick is certainly one of them. It breathes life into the tried and tested formula of an anti-hero getting dragged back into the world of crime after he loses something dear to him. In this case, it’s an adorable beagle named Daisy. John Wick reinvigorated Keanu Reeves’ career, cementing his position as an action star who’s here to stay. He appears calm and collected even in the most intense of scenes. It’s this Zen-like quality that lends him such a poised but brutal physicality.
Chad Stahelski and David Leitch put all their experience as stuntmen to good use giving us intricately choreographed set pieces. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s stylish visuals help create an immersive world populated by nefarious Russian mobs. John Wick has now transformed into an insanely popular franchise with a fourth movie reportedly in the works.
12. Joker (2019)
Todd Philip’s latest film, Joker is a deeply disturbing origin tale of one of DC’s crowing creations The Joker. It was always going to be a big ask to follow up Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the madman, but Joaquin Phoenix comes pretty darn close. It’s a performance of a lifetime that surely was Oscar-worthy in one of the best movies of 2019. Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a struggling comic who’s trying to make ends meet by dressing up as a clown. He’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown when a revelation about his past steers his further descent to madness.
Joker tries to humanize the antagonist by suggesting that it was the people around him that drove him to seize control and embrace chaos. Todd tries to highlight the importance of mental health, but I’m not sure how effective that was given that it’s been overshadowed by the debate about the film supposedly inciting violence. Putting that aside, Joker‘s a thoroughly engrossing film with an electrifying performance from its lead actor.
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So, there you have it. That’s my list of movies that I think you’ll enjoy if you liked Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I’ve included some classics along with modern action thrillers. I’d also recommend you to check out Batman: The Animated Series that features the great Mark Hamill as The Joker and Christopher McQuarrie’s brilliantly executed Jack Reacher.