The Dark Knight: Why So Successful?


It’s only the second movie to ever pass the $500 million mark, with Dan Fellman, Warner Brothers’ head of distribution, predicting that it will end up taking in somewhere between $530 and $550 million.

Critics trying to figure out why The Dark Knight has been so successful have come up with a series of rational, and seemingly plausible reasons why the movie is so popular. But, frankly, I don’t buy any rationalization I’ve seen.

Some claim it has to with the fact that it was Heath Ledger’s last movie. But, Ledger was never a box office superstar. The Dark Knight has made more money than all of Ledger’s other movies combined. And, it’s not even his last film. He has a role in next year’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and I’ll bet that film won’t be a box office smash.

Some claim it has to do with Heath Ledger’s performance. But when have great performances translated into big box office money?

Some claim it has to do with director Chris Nolan reinvigorating the Batman franchise. But, Batman Begins grossed less than Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.

Some claim a combination of these factors is responsible. That’s reasonable, but I think something much more interesting lurks below the blockbuster surface: The Dark Knight taps into the power of archetypes in a very accessible way—a combination I’ve yet to see as clearly demonstrated in any other film. It was even evident in the trailers.

And, I have no doubt that the heavy archetypal atmosphere was intended by Nolan: in Batman Begins Jonathan Crane, a Jungian analyst and the alter ego of the villain Scarecrow, explains that people often externalize their inner demons, in his case in the form of the scarecrow.

It’s hard to imagine a supervillain that is a closer manifestation of evil chaos than the Joker. The Joker, in Jungian terms, is Batman’s shadow. The shadow is irrational, and is the repressed side of a persona, containing things that, if they became conscious, contradict the way an individual believes himself to be.

The Joker is chaotic, acting without rationality, he embodies the forces that Batman tries to repress. If Batman were to let them manifest, he could easily become as evil as any villain. In trying to take down the Joker, Batman is afraid of becoming too much like the Joker, not willing to let the shadow through as conquering the shadow impulses and falling prey to them are equally likely.

This struggle between Batman and the Joker, two sides of one personality, is at the heart of the movie, and at the heart of all the trailers.

In the end, Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face shows what happens when one gives in and becomes the victim of the shadow’s impulses. He has two faces, one is his normal persona and the other is the shadow. He is the synthesis of Batman and the Joker, were Batman not able to confront the irrational evil inside. After Two-Face dies, Batman must allow himself to embody some of the evil aspects without giving into them, to lift the burden from Harvey Dent, who couldn’t contain his shadow impulses, and save Gotham’s soul.

And what does this have to do with marketing? If you’ve read my article on Archetypal Branding, you know I’m a big proponent of discovering the archetype inside your brand. The Dark Knight embraced the idea of the shadow archetype, and in doing so depicted the internal struggle all humans experience with their darker side. It spoke to a deep, undeniable aspect of the human condition. This is what all great archetypes do.

Archetypes energize your brand and tap deep into your customers’ relationship with your brand. They pass beyond a rational, surface level, and get to the heart of the emotional relationship with your brand. They speak subconsciously to your customers about what it means to be human—about what it means to be them.

And yes, as The Dark Knight shows, embracing archetypes and delivering them in a way that can be easily understood by your customers can be profitable.

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