The Dark Knight (4/5)
By now we’ve been trained to expect a franchise’s second film to be its darkest. This precedent was arguably set by Empire Strikes Back, which managed to end on a surprisingly bleak note for a blockbuster film. This trend continued with Back to the Future Part 2, which brought us the terrifying Biff controlled Hill Valley, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, which introduced a heart collecting Thuggee cult, and D2: The Mighty Ducks, which placed our pee wee hockey team in the middle of geopolitical turmoil. In this sense, The Dark Knight does not disappoint. If in the first movie Batman struggled against questions of retribution and revenge, in The Dark Knight he confronts untethered chaos as embodied in Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The movie begins in media res, as the Joker’s men rip off a bank housing the unjust enrichments of Gotham’s mob. The heist’s “punch line” happens to be the fact that the Joker has told each thief that he should kill the others in order to cut down on the number of people who will eventually split the money. The only thief who survives happens to be the Joker in disguise. This is one of many robberies the Joker has committed, all of which targeted the holdings of Gotham’s organized crime, a move so brazen that one of the bank’s guards even asks “Do you know who you’re stealing from?” I think it is safe to say that the Joker does in fact know who he’s stealing from.
This string of robberies stretches back to Batman Begins where Gordon tells Batman that a bank was ripped off by a lunatic who left a joker card as his calling, which means that the heist that opens the sequel does a nice job of connecting both films. The Dark Knight further maintains the global scope of its predecessor. Gotham’s mob community (who have sorts of inter-familial meetings along the lines of the Algonquin round table) are involved in an international money laundering scheme that stretches across the globe to China. In one of the film’s best sequences, Batman decides to forcibly extradite Lau, the head of a Chinese corporation that is in league with Gotham’s underworld. Not only does Batman glide from one Hong Kong skyscraper to another, but he also devises a way for to hitch a ride with an in-flight airplane with Lau in tow.
The series of decisions that lead up to this abduction lend the world of Gotham some real life weight. Like an episode of Law and Order, the district attorney Harvey Dent confers with Lieutenant Gordon in order to determine how best to take down Gotham’s mobsters. The two then decide to rely on Batman’s ability to perform an extra-legal extradition. The police procedural aspect to the film accomplishes something that we rarely see in the comic books which are often concerned with flitting from one action panel to another: presenting the Gotham as a living, breathing city. It is certainly in-keeping with Christopher Nolan’s goal of grounding the superhero film in reality, an objective that is often achieved on the level of aesthetics, if not often on the level of plot.
The Joker pulls off a series of criminal acts that look more like thought experiments than traditional crimes. He threatens to continue killing Gotham’s citizens until Batman reveals his identity to the public, and when Harvey Dent turns himself in as Batman in order to calm an agitated public, the Joker attacks Dent’s SWAT team convoy in a dazzling set piece. Later the Joker will make Batman choose between the life of Gotham’s one true hero, the law abiding Harvey Dent, and Wayne’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, graciously recast from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal. And in the film’s climax two ferries, one containing everyday citizens and the other criminals, must decide whether or not they want to blow the other up in order to save their own lives.
All of these Sophie’s choices could have easily come across as the product of a freshman college student’s philosophy 101 term paper, if not for the byzantine, contorted, and scene stealing performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. Despite the fact that Ledger’s Joker only appears for a grand total of ten and a half minutes in the entire two and a half hour movie, he successfully hijacks the film. I think it is safe to say that Ledger’s performance would have received the same accolades even if it weren’t for his untimely death. Ledger frequently smacks his distended lips as if he is never quite satiated, and at times he moves in a waddle in what is some unknowable inside joke. Perhaps the film’s most iconic scene occurs when Joker swerves down a street in a stolen police car, stretching his head out of the window and enjoying the wind on his face. It is in this moment that the Joker seduces the audience to his point of view. For just a second we get to see the joy and absolute freedom of anarchic will. I have always felt that a great portrayal of the Joker lies not in his body count (although there’s plenty of that here), but in his ability to convince an audience that his form of freewheeling violence might be just a little enjoyable.
As a villain, the Joker poses a problem that’s distinct from the League of Shadows. Where the League of Shadows was an ideological terrorist group bent on refashioning the world in their own image, the Joker is pure bedlam. His reasoning is inscrutable and thus unpredictable. Like in the best horror movies, a genre from which Nolan also borrows, the Joker is scary because he defies traditional Enlightenment notions of reason. Where half of Batman Begins was dedicated to the origins of its title character, Joker is distinct because we are denied an origin story. He does provide a shifting narrative of his scarred face, but he’s an unreliable narrator switching out his traumatic beginning whenever he feels like it.
If the League of Shadows represented Al Qaeda, then the Joker represents the anthrax attacks that followed. Where the Twin Towers attack was a sickening spectacle, the anthrax attacks only furthered America’s belief that violence could strike any one of us at any time and was arguably just as influential in convincing Americans that it was a good idea to invade Iraq as the 9/11 attack. To this day, it is still entirely unclear who was involved in the anthrax attack and for what reason. As the Joker tells a mentally and physically scarred Harvey Dent, “If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan.” Likewise, Americans seemed perfectly comfortable with the idea of civilian and military deaths within a war zone half a world away, but the moment that our own sense of security comes under attack, then we readily sacrifice hundreds of thousands of innocent foreigners and thousands of our own soldiers just so we can open our mail in peace.
The central idea of The Dark Knight, that we are willing to cross ethical lines when the personal safety of ourselves and loved ones is broached, is embodied in the character of Harvey Dent. While we see shadows in the corners of Dent’s personality early on—he is surprisingly tolerant of Batman for a DA—the film explicitly positions him as the opposite of the caped crusader, as a man who works within the system and still manages to put criminals behind bars. At one point he is referred to as Gotham’s “white knight.” But over the course of the film Dent becomes tarnished. He begins bending rules, even threatening to shoot a suspect in order to garner more information. When the Joker blows up half of Dent’s face, then he goes into full on Inigo Montoya revenge mode.
Any fan of Batman knows that Dent is playing the role of Two-Face, one of Batman’s most complex villains. While I’m sure most moviegoers were happy with Two-Face’s appearance, as a longtime fan of the comics I was a little disappointed in his inclusion as a second tier villain. The character also got short shrift in the campfest Batman Forever (again, playing second fiddle). Even at two and a half hours, The Dark Knight feels increasingly overstuffed (I haven’t even touched upon the subplot of the Wayne employee who uncovers his dual identity), and tacking on Two-Face feels like there are too many balls in the air. Besides, when will this great character get the full spotlight he deserves?
In some ways The Dark Knight is a messier film than its predecessor, but it more than makes up for it by being a much more ambitious film as well. Arguably the greatest improvement between the first film and the second is Nolan’s increased comfort shooting action scenes. This is apparent in a showdown between the Joker brandishing a machine gun and Batman on a high tech motorcycle. The scene becomes a clash of wills, the Joker employing Batman to break his code against killing, willing to sacrifice himself to prove man’s infallibility.
The Dark Knight ends on a note of nihilism. Batman must become the villain in order to maintain Dent’s role as a hero, because otherwise the masses would lose faith in social and government systems. In Nolan’s world there’s a deep distrust of the people. And while he does suggest that at times everyday people might surprise us and make the moral decision, ultimately this is overshadowed by the central characters who give in to a code of no code. It is this anti-democratic point of view that not only makes the film an intriguing in its own right, but also makes it a unique blockbuster. What other multi-million dollar success stories are as critical of the type of widespread populism that makes the summer blockbuster possible in the first place? I may not agree with The Dark Knight’s view of the world, and at times its theorizing can be incredibly thin, but it is a rare big budgeted film that makes us question our own moral fortitude.