[Note: This was written a couple of days after The Dark Knight first hit theaters in 2008.]
If you look at the most successful movies from the past eight years you’ll see they’re all superhero movies. They capture peoples’ imaginations like no other genre, a genre I’m keen to focus on with dopey articles because each new superhero flick carries with it a certain amount of weight, hype, and expectation due to familiarity with decades of comic book continuity, and because many of the movies, despite their overwhelming success, are so lousy they deserve a proper skewering. For some perspective as to where The Dark Knight sits on the superhero movie scale, it was only two years ago when X-Men 3: The Last Stand made a killing. Now, people are rewarding a good movie. And it’s not a feel-good movie. This is a feel-bad movie with one of the saddest endings I’ve seen in a mainstream movie. I’ve heard comparisons to movies as stark and cheerless as Se7en and Requiem for a Dream. I think it’s those hyperbolic statements that created a perfect storm of reasons for people to go see the movie, and go again, and again and again: to see if it lived up to the impossible amount of hype, to see the final full-on performance of Heath Ledger, and because the movie’s been in the public conscience in the past two or so years thanks to an ambitious viral marketing campaign.
Chances are you’ve seen it, most likely twice, in IMAX, and from here on I’m going to assume you did.
Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan, crafted a complex, swift two-and-a-half hour crime epic that’s been compared to Heat, L.A. Confidential, and Zodiac. All valid picks for varied reasons, but its tone has a lot more in common with last year’s No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, as well as this year’s Funny Games. Has there ever been a comic book movie so cruel and intense as those three movies before? The movie is basically “No Country for Batman,” a noir western about three men who unite to save the city they love only to fail horribly against an unstoppable evil, and the evil in themselves.
The three men — Bruce Wayne/now-almost-entirely-Batman-for-the-duration-of-the-movie, James Gordon and Harvey Dent — form a triumvirate pact, as they do in the Tim Sale/Jeph Loeb comic The Long Halloween, to bring down the mob using Dent as their shining symbol of hope for a beleaguered Gotham City. Batman, doubtful he’s made a difference, places his complete confidence in Dent to be the hero Gotham deserves. To ensure Dent’s victory as the White Knight of Gotham, Batman flexes his vigilante muscles and bends the rules in all sorts of ways to help Gordon and Dent’s case. He extracts the mob’s money handler, Lau, in a stunning (especially in IMAX), high-flying Hong Kong action sequence and things seem peachy for Dent and his crew, including girlfriend Rachel Dawes. But the mob turns to the Joker, a new self-styled criminal who shows up out of nowhere, to defeat the Batman and the do-gooders at his call. In amazingly edited pieces of suspense, the Joker targets the commissioner, a judge, and Dent himself. At the commissioner’s funeral, the Joker, sans make-up, targets the Mayor, but ends up shooting Gordon instead. When Dent turns himself in as Batman, the Joker throws together an insane amount of vehicular carnage only to get imprisoned by a still-alive Gordon, interrogated by Batman in a way that would make Jack Bauer flinch, and escapes using a cell phone sewn under the skin of an obese guy (recalling grotesque imagery from Se7en). Meanwhile, crooked cops kidnap Dent and Rachel so they can die in simultaneous explosions set by the Joker. Rachel dies. Harvey survives with half his face blown off, gets unleashed by the Joker as Harvey “Two-Face,” goes on a killing spree against the corrupt police in Gordon’s employ, and finally dies at the hands of Batman, who just thwarted the Joker’s plot to coerce two boat loads of people to blow each other up.
God, I hope I got that right. Like L.A. Confidential, The Dark Knight packs every single minute to the brim with detail and dialogue that doesn’t stop to wait for you. It’s a movie that demands several viewings just to understand what exactly is going on. Each time I was more and more impressed with the film’s construction even if there are individual links in the chain that raise questions. What happens to the party-goers after Batman rescues Rachel from her fall? Isn’t the Joker still up there with them? How does Bruce know the Joker’s on his way for Dent? How does Gordon so convincingly fake his death? How does the Joker execute every one of his plans so flawlessly, especially getting caught, intentionally, after the truck chase? Planting a cell phone bomb in an insane guy’s stomach?! How can he be sure Batman would get to Harvey Dent in time, but Gordon wouldn’t get to Rachel? That Harvey Dent wouldn’t pull the trigger on him? …Why didn’t the ferry workers check for bombs before they departed?! The Jokers’ Xanatos gambits are so out there he could give Light Yagami a run for his money, though it’s never so bad to ruin the suspension of disbelief required. The movie barely gives you time to ruminate. It grabs you, shakes you around and never lets you go, even after it’s over.
The Dark Knight‘s haunting and unsettling nature owes itself largely to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Seemingly conjured out of thin air in that first IMAX shot on the street before he boards the mob van, he falls in the same category as recent screen villains Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview. He has no past. He just is. If he does have a past, it’s a multiple choice past as he offers in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which Ledger reportedly read in preparation for the role. Is the Joker a victim of child abuse? Or marital trauma? Does it matter? Very similar to Peter and Paul from Funny Games, the Joker pokes fun at the supposed need for a villain’s complicated origin. He offers typical tales of woe and mean-spirited lies meant to be laughed off as sick jokes. To the Joker, life, society and normalcy are the biggest jokes of all and similar to Jack’s 1989 version of the villain, he wants to tear down the happy image of a working society and expose the hypocrisy around him. “These, uh, civilized people, they’ll eat each other,” Joker says during his interrogation. “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
The Joker proves his chilling theory by turning Harvey Dent into a new monster. He destroys Dent’s good looks, the love of his life and the trust he held in Gordon, Batman, the police and, well, the world. In the hospital meeting scene, he gives Dent a new purpose — the revenge killings of Gordon’s corrupt cops — mocking him all the while wearing a nurse’s uniform and a “I Believe in Harvey Dent” badge. The Joker puts a twist on what is commonly deemed innocent or harmless — a stalwart D.A.’s campaign slogan, a nurse uniform, school buses, hospitals, a No. 2 pencil … he’s a sadistic kid and Gotham is his playground. He mixes the truth with lies. He says he doesn’t have a plan or a goal, though by the end it’s clear he has big plans. The ferry climax is meant to be his big hurrah, a social experiment in the same vein as the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War. He wants to expose humanity’s ugliness by forcing it to kill each other on a grand scale. It’s harrowing at first because it could go anywhere. I really thought the movie was going to go into wrist-slitting territory and both boats were going to blow up. That they don’t is the movie’s single ray of hope. Redemption is possible and maybe the city “is full of people ready to believe in good” as Batman grumbles in his last scene with Joker.
In each iteration of the Batman canon, the Joker chooses one of Batman’s allies and ruins them — Gordon in The Killing Joke, Robin in the animated Return of the Joker, and Dent in The Dark Knight. The Joker wants to kill everybody until it’s just him and Batman left, and the Joker’s laughter in the air. In their last scene together, dangling upside-down, Joker reveals he can’t kill Batman because they complete each other, and though Batman can’t be corrupted Dent can. The last we see of him, wavering in mid-air, the laughter more and more intense, the truth hits like a ton of bricks: That this is the last time we’ll ever see the Joker done like this on film, and a whole other layer of tragedy is added.
The Joker — and the whole movie — is designed to be dreadful. When he has Rachel in his grasp, knife between her teeth, telling his sad story, the camera swirls around them, and camera shots cut erratically. The dominant musical note in the movie sounds like a long air raid siren noise that plays whenever something awful is about to happen. And it plays often. The body count is lower than most movies, but each grisly death counts. Like Funny Games, Dark Knight‘s violence is offscreen or suggested, with the exception of Harvey Two-Face’s amazing make-up. One death is horrific, but so subtle it seems some people miss it — Lau still sits at the top of the money pile when the Joker torches it.
In the same scene, Joker threatens to cut up a mob boss and feed him to his dogs. The same mob boss bellows in the beginning of the movie “My dogs are hungryyyy” as if he regularly feeds them his own victims. Those same dogs attack Batman, prompting his change to a new, more versatile suit. Harvey Two-Face calls Joker “a mad dog.” Also, Batman tells Gordon at the end to “set the dogs on me.” And during the Joker’s beautiful squad car escape, his head wags out the window — like a dog. There are dogs everywhere in Dark Knight, in the dialogue, whether as metaphor or actual, and I’m not entirely sure why, but it sure as hell is deliberate. (In Batman Begins, Falcone says Bruce Wayne’s father “begged like a dog.”)
Similar to Begins, the movie is weakest in its big climax. Almost completely free of dumb CG spectacle the whole time suddenly Batman has a vast “sonar wiretapping” network at his command. The explanation that every cell phone in Gotham was converted to such technology is implausible, almost laughable. It’s a good thing Dark Knight is still a comic book movie otherwise this plot development most likely wouldn’t have received such a pass. Though it’s not entirely without precedent! Batman pulls similar ethic-shattering stunts in the comic books and cartoon often. He keeps tabs on everybody, friend and foe alike, and he knows how to take down every member of the Justice League if the need were to ever arise. He’s famous for contingency plans and for going too far. The Dark Knight asks how far is too far, and how many lines can you cross to stop evil?
The great thing about Dark Knight, besides everything else, is how the Nolan Bros. left it open to interpretation. The wiretapping, the taking down of terrorism, doing wrong to make right … seems like a terribly obvious analogy for the Bush administration. Like, Batman is Bush. That’s an easy one. Batman can be Jesus, too. Or Judas, as this article suggests. The ending of Dark Knight did strike me as oddly religious the first time I saw it. It must be the line about people’s faith being rewarded, that Gordon and Batman make Dent a messianic savior as part of a tremendous conspiracy, a lie, an opiate to perpetuate hope for the people of Gotham. Batman becomes the pariah, the fall guy. The Joker plays the Satanic role, a tongue-flicking serpent, a madman who mixes truth with lies, who comes seemingly out of nowhere but is actually quite sane. He even commands a loyal following of murderers and sociopaths. But Batman is the one made out to be the villain in the end.
The biggest debate the movie fueled this past summer, in real life conversation and among the Internet nerd zones alike, is whether or not Harvey Two-Face died — rather, whether or not Batman killed him. As one IMDB user rages:
The final scene with the Joker illustrates one of the movie’s major themes: Batman CANNOT kill. Even a ruthless murderer, who laughs as he’s plummeting to certain death because he thinks he’s won, Batman CATCHES AND SAVES. The Joker even says as much in his last few lines of dialogue, lamenting that Bruce is truly incorruptable. So why, why in the fuck, would Batman just a few scenes later allow Harvey Dent to fall to his death — which, by the way, is a lame fucking way to go and the same exact fate Tommy Lee Jones’ “Harvey Two Face” met at the hands of one Chris O’Donnell!? Speculating that Dent was transported under cover of darkness to Arkham, while holding a memorial for his public image, is the only ending that makes sense thematically. What. The. Hell.
Then Chris Nolan confirmed, through a conversation with Aaron Eckhart, that, yes, Dent is dead. But dead Dent is better. In the other movies it pissed me off when Batman killed. In Dark Knight it feels right. This is what Batman would be like in the real world. In the end the movie becomes about what it takes to kill someone. It was leading up to that point since the Joker’s interrogation — he promised Batman would break his one rule. Batman saves the Joker because he has a chance, while Harvey pays the price because he’s going to kill Gordon’s innocent son. It feels like an ending. Batman broke his rule. He’s broken, more than before. Dent made his choice and he knew he wasn’t going to walk away from it. He was on a suicide trip since the Joker set him loose from the hospital. Maybe Dent’s death isn’t murder so much as it is euthanasia — Bruce set him up as the white knight, it feels right for him to put him down now that he’s a monster. Dent’s reputation lives on and Batman ascends into the light, a silent guardian, a watchful protector.
Do I wish Dent to be alive for the inevitable sequel? Sure. Heath may be gone, but they got a perfectly good Eckhart lying around. I almost wish they split Dark Knight into two movies so we could get more of Two-Face in his own film instead of one single act, and so bladders across the world wouldn’t have to undergo so much pressure through one single epic. But what an epic. The bar has been raised so high, how do you top this? The Dark Knight feels like a conclusion more than an Empire Strikes Back or Two Towers-style bridge movie. The Nolans and the cast and crew are left with an unenviable challenge. After all that’s happened with the filming and aftermath of the movie — two deaths and a surprising amount of tabloid stories — would they be so eager to return to such morose material? If Heath garners an Oscar nod, why not Aaron Eckhart? Christopher Nolan wasn’t kidding in interviews, Dent is the emotional core of the film and Eckhart plays the role beautifully. After each screening I saw tears and sullen faces. It’s surprising a comic book movie, one that marries art and entertainment so well, can pull this much feeling from people.
“I can’t blame them. Some people would prefer if we watched movies with our eyes open and our mouths – and minds – firmly shut. They don’t want us to think about the fact that most movies are made by and for men, that many are steeped in violence and that more than a few cost more than the gross national incomes of some poor countries. But whether we like to admit it or not, a movie can be an ideological minefield, a welter of contradictions, a lollapalooza of unintentional meaning. On occasion it can also be a work of art or an evening’s entertainment; on rare occasion, it’s both. Movies are one of the most important ways by which we tell one another stories, share our myths, values and dreams. And while sometimes a movie is just a movie – sometimes it isn’t.” – Mahnola Dargis, NY Times critic