WHY SO SERIOUS?
Following the huge success of Batman Begins, audiences were hungry for a sequel. With one strike, Christopher Nolan had all but completely eradicated the memory of the Schumacher debacle and restored hope in the Batman films by putting the Dark back in the Dark Knight. Of course, now that the groundwork was done, the task was even greater - he had to outdo himself. Nolan was understandably hesitant about returning to Gotham, much like Burton was after his first Batman film. However, the main thing that brought him back was the chance to look at and reinterpret a particular character from the Rogue’s Gallery: the Joker, arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest villain in the comic book world. Amidst near constant fan speculation, hype and the kind of expectations that would instantly cripple any other film, in 2008, Christopher Nolan released The Dark Knight.
Six months into his crime-fighting career, Batman (Christian Bale) is close to ending organised crime in Gotham, with help from Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). In a last attempt to stop this from happening, the mob turns to the Joker (Heath Ledger), a dangerous psychopath intent on engulfing Gotham in chaos and violence. Batman’s struggle against the Joker becomes very personal as the villain pushes everyone to the very brink of madness and moral collapse.
At the end of Batman Begins, Jim Gordon delivers a monologue on the nature of escalation in the fight against crime. He tells Batman, “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armour-piercing rounds. And you’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.” It’s a simple, elegant, positively Newtonian way of addressing how one thing begets another. And from this comes the root of conflict within The Dark Knight, where Batman is confronted with the first direct reaction to his method of fighting crime. By employing some extreme means of restoring order, his nemesis is one who would be even more extreme in order to create chaos. And that last word is very important: Chaos.
The Joker describes himself as an agent of Chaos, with no real plan other than to destroy everyone else’s plan. He looks at the other people in Gotham - the police, the criminals, the politicians, even Batman - and sees how weak and pathetic their plans are. They all want some kind of order, an order that benefits them, and one that rests in contradiction to the others. Not only does this provide a great deal of enjoyment for the Joker, but it gives him the chance to ask his questions of these people: If you’re going to reorder society, what makes one person’s plans any better than the others?… What’s the point of trying to instil order with rules that can’t stand up to real strain?… Why not just do away with all the rules and let chaos reign?… Why so serious? To this end, the Joker has a fondness for games, particularly those that force the players to break their own rules of conduct and morality, like having three rival henchmen fight to the death to which of them can join his crew, or the infamous ferry boat game. His games are never particularly fair, but then they don’t have to be, and that’s the point. In a scene where Batman interrogates him, the Joker delivers his view of the world.
Joker: You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first
sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show
you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each
other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Not only is this an utterly chilling monologue, but it’s also unnervingly convincing as a stance on societal morality. For all of the influences behind the Joker on a level of design and performance, it would seem that the horrifying mix of intelligence and murderous nihilism that makes up the root of his persona is akin to that of Charles Manson, and that makes him goddamn terrifying. On the two occasions when someone seeks to “teach him some manners,” the Joker easily turns things around on his would-be teacher, likely because the mere fact that they have tried to beat their rules into him means that they have already lost the fight.
Batman isn’t exactly very far from this guy, and they both know it. As I talked about in my Batman Begins review, his weapons are generally the same as those of the city’s criminals, like fear and brutality. The only difference is that he uses them on those same criminals. He’s a hero seemingly only by virtue of his targets. And it’s precisely because of these methods that they create someone like the Joker. When Batman finds Harvey trying to extract information from one of the Joker’s henchmen, he tells him that it’s useless, that the henchman in question is a paranoid schizophrenic from Arkham Asylum, “the kind of mind the Joker attracts.” Of course, the corollary of that is to acknowledge that Batman attracts minds like the Joker’s. Batman never had problems fighting the mob or the more common criminal element of the city before, because they had rules. Batman only had one rule so could fight them because he was, to some degree, much worse than them, which is why they were so scared of him. In the Joker, the Dark Knight has found someone without identity, loyalty, rules, empathy or limits. Make no mistake, Batman is scared of the Joker. In order to fight someone like him, Batman would have to break his own rule and become something worse, which is what the Joker has wanted all along. In that purple-suited nutcase, he is shown just how fine that line between them really is and the seeming inevitability that he will cross it.
The darkness in The Dark Knight is prominent, but hope isn’t ignored in all of this. Indeed, without hope, the Joker would have nothing to try and break down. Hope in this world is represented not by Batman, but by Harvey Dent, referred to so regularly as Gotham’s White Knight. Harvey is such an important figure for so many reasons. He’s smart and courageous, standing resolutely against corruption and crime, even if he does it alone, and he does it all without wearing a mask. He’s not just the ray of light for the city, but for Bruce Wayne, too. Wayne sees in him a way out, someone to accept the challenge of cleaning up the streets the right way, and allowing him the chance to hang up his cape for good. Harvey knows this and seems willing and able to do it. Batman calls Harvey “the best of us,” specifically relating to himself, Harvey and Gordon, but also in a more general sense. Harvey is the best of society, decent, capable and with great integrity… and that’s exactly why the Joker goes after him. As we’ve learned, the Joker wants to break down society, with its rules and codes and laws that are only as good as those that make them. To prove this point, he chooses to make an example of Harvey Dent, making him twisted and ugly and a hideous living embodiment of a society at war with itself. He becomes someone like Bruce Wayne: consumed by anger and pain, driven to act on it. As such, he becomes a corrupted agent, not of chaos or anarchy, but of chance, a warped instrument of fate that leaves a trail of death up to the flip of a coin. He becomes Two-Face.
Beyond the direct implications of chaos and morality, Nolan has managed to work in a sort of tragic love story, too. Bruce Wayne still holds onto the hope that, should he be able to give up being the Batman, he and Rachel Dawes will finally be able to be together. After all, she did make a promise to this effect in Batman Begins. However, in the time that Wayne has been fighting crime, Rachel has found that she can’t wait around for Bruce to give up his alter ego. She has fallen for Harvey Dent, which would really have to sting. Not only is Harvey capable of taking on the criminal world of Gotham himself without gadgets or a mask, but in doing so he is also able to win the affections of Rachel. On some level, this would perhaps act as an extra push for Bruce to give up his crime-fighting ways, passing the torch to Harvey, or rather saddling him with the burden, and thereby freeing himself up to pursue a relationship with Rachel. However, Rachel has already made up her mind. The Batman will always be inside Bruce, and she knows that there will never be room for another in his life, even after he quits. The darkness, the psychosis will always be there. Harvey is clearly the better choice because he is really is the better man. That these modest hopes end so badly for all of them just plunges them all into despair.
The supporting players become so much more in all of this, too. Alfred, having been established as a guiding light to Bruce Wayne, continues to act in a way that makes him more than just a butler. He protects Bruce from the things that would hurt him, threaten his already questionable mental stability. It’s perhaps precisely because he has Alfred that Bruce is able to hold onto that last remaining sliver of decency and faith, that he never succumbs to the Joker’s efforts of corruption and destruction. And it’s never done in a way that amounts to directly telling him what to do, but more advising him in a way that allows Bruce to make his own decision. Jim Gordon becomes a more prominent figure, not just professionally (he finally attains his status as Commissioner), but in the grand scheme. He acts as the midway point between Harvey and Batman. He’s a decent man trying to do good, but by working with the corrupt and dishonest, he’s somewhat tainted by them. He’s the most direct and relatable version of us onscreen. He tries to make the best he can with the means at his disposal, but sometimes that just isn’t good enough. Is it a bit much to say that when he tells Harvey he’s sorry for allowing what happened that it’s metaphorically us telling the corrupted and ugly face of society that we’re sorry? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not without basis. Lucius Fox also serves as another good example of decency within the film, but a decency that knows when lines must be crossed (he continues to assist and protect Wayne as Batman) and when they shouldn’t be (his horror upon being presented with Batman’s new sonar computer system). Even Sal Maroni, the new head of the Falcone crime family, has his place as both bad guy and good guy.
On a production level, The Dark Knight is near flawless. As I’ve more or less said, the script for the film is superb. Really, really superb. The story was conceived by David S. Goyer around about the time he was coming up with Batman Begins, though the actual scripting duties fell to Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the script for Memento back in 2000. Nolan’s vision of Gotham is noticeably different from the previous film. It’s a bit of a cleaner look, less infused with that griminess, which is probably an allusion to the effect Batman has had on the city, cleaning it up, as it were. The design of the characters is equally great (I’m rapidly running out of positive adjectives here). Batman has been redesigned to be more agile, freer in movement, but still effective in combat. Also, he’s been given a new vehicle, the Bat-pod. It’s a cool bike, though it did pain me that it came at the cost of the Tumbler. Then there’s the Joker, who looks genuinely maniacal, from his punk-influenced clothes to his make-up, which has the occasional effect of making him look somehow infected.
The performances themselves are a gallery of fine work. Christian Bale continues to do a damn good job as Bruce Wayne/Batman. In the same way that Bruce would be a bit more comfortable as Batman, Bale is a bit more comfortable in the performance. A lot of people actually found this to be a little flatter than he previous turn, but the emotion of Batman Begins was more raw, he was a character still struggling with how to channel his anguish. The Bruce of The Dark Knight has had some time to get used to it, and more importantly has found an outlet for his aggression, even if it is “beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands.” Something else a lot of people found off about the performance was the voice, which was different from that of the previous film, where the vocal change was more subtle. Here, he growls much more. Honestly, I’m fine with this voice for a few reasons: 1) Fear - Batman is supposed to be scary, and regardless of what many people say, if someone started threatening and snarling at you in that voice, you’d be scared; 2) Practicality - You certainly can’t say that Batman’s voice and Bruce Wayne’s voice are similar under these circumstances, so it’s not as easy for people to link the two; 3) Persona - It’s a mark of Bruce’s psychosis that he keeps doing the voice, even when just talking to Lucius, who knows who he is; and 4) Post-production - Though Bale did do the voice, it was Nolan who amped it up in the edit, so it was a conscious decision on the part of the director and, goddamn it, in Nolan we trust.
Aaron Eckhart is superb as Harvey Dent. He holds himself with the great poise and stature throughout. From the get-go, Eckhart looks like someone you can have confidence in, that you can place your trust in. His political slogan was ‘I Believe in Harvey Dent’, and Eckhart makes a damn sure that the audience can do just that. And he handles the shift to Two-Face with great skill. It’s not a complete break of character, as if making the transition from Henry Jekyll to Edward Hyde. This is still the same man, but defeated, broken, torn apart by the machinations of a lunatic. Eckhart plays these two sides so well, in contrast and parallel, that it’s so easy to be convinced by the character. And the horrifying design of the look of Two-Face made this even easier. It’s grotesque, almost painful to look at. Any potential for it to be regarded as darkly amusing is removed by Eckhart’s anguished conviction behind it all. He’s a man angered and hurting, inside and out, and he’s looking to take that out on the people responsible.
Then… there’s Heath Ledger. When Ledger was announced as the choice to take on the role of the Joker, many were not convinced about the decision. Most were incredulous that the guy who once played some gay cowboy could hope to play a part that was last done by Jack Nicholson, and to great and lasting effect. Even the film writer Philip French (of whom I am a great admirer) said in his review of Batman Begins, “[N]o one would be foolish enough to compete with Jack Nicholson’s 1989 Joker.” What in the hell made Nolan think this would work? When asked, his response was simple: “Because Heath is fearless.” I don’t care who says it, that’s a good answer, and he sure wasn’t wrong. Ledger is unbeatable in this film. As strong as the other performances are (and they are), Ledger utterly destroys everyone else. It’s a performance so wholly conceived and convincing that you find yourself longing for him to be onscreen because he’s so damn electric. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a malevolent lunatic, but there was still something fun about him; Ledger’s Joker is a full-blown psychotic, murderous, sadistic, and just scary as hell. Just watch the scene where he films his tormenting of a “Son of Batman”, listen to the viciousness in his voice and that laugh… shudder. And it’s as complete and committed a performance as Ledger ever gave, and he had some great roles in CV (that gay cowboy one was one them). Just listen to the voice, watch the mannerisms, the genuine glee in his campaign of chaos. So completely caught up in his character and the film was I that it wasn’t until his final scene that I remembered that Ledger had already passed away by the time the film was released. It occurred to me just as the Joker and Batman were having their final words of the film, and it made the moment he says, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” so much harder to take. I knew that not only would we never get to have Ledger around for what would have been an awesome career, but we’d never even get the chance to see this Joker again. And as much as people would be hard-pressed to follow Nicholson’s performance as the Joker, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to follow Ledger.
Rachel Dawes came with a casting change, going from Katie Holmes (who I maintain did a fair job in the last film) to Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is one of the bravest actresses of her generation). Contrary to popular belief, it was Holmes that turned the role down, leaving it open for recasting. And Gyllenhaal does give the role what Holmes tried to do. Rachel seems more capable, more mature, better equipped to handle the stresses of her life in the hands of Gyllenhaal. Given the pull of the job and being torn between Harvey and Bruce (another of the film’s relationship triangles), I get the feeling that this would have proved too much for Holmes. However, Gyllenhaal carries this off wonderfully. She’s a strong and capable actress, and this shines through very well, but still holding a degree of vulnerability. It’s a great show.
Gary Oldman typically does a really great job as Gordon, giving a performance that’s understated and naturalistic and solid as a rock. Oldman has always been one of the best at doing a lot with very little, so when he’s given a more prominent part to play in all this, he is able to do some excellent work. Michael Caine continues to bring a solid air of class and dignity to it all, with a dry delivery and warmth. And Morgan Freeman continues to be a presence of great stature and really funny. Just watch how he handles the employee who looks to blackmail Bruce Wayne when he discovers his secret. It’s absolute gold.
There are a couple of holes in proceedings again, though most people (again, including me) didn’t notice them the first time round… or second time… or seventh. One comes from the prisoner transport scene, when the vehicles taking Harvey Dent to jail after he claims to be Batman are forced to take the underground route. They get diverted when a burning fire engine (typical Joker humour) is placed in their path and they need to find an alternate route. Strictly speaking, they could have just gone along the other side of the road. Traffic was clear and there was no obvious obstruction that way, so why not avoid the way that is so clearly a trap? Perhaps the cop that made the call was on the Joker’s side, or there were other minions waiting to force the convoy that way, but it's not made clear. Either way, it’s kind of odd. The bigger hole that doesn’t strike you at the time (which is generally how Nolan gets away with some of these things) comes from the party scene, after the Joker has just pitched Rachel out the window and Batman leaps out to save her. We follow them down to their rough landing, and then cut to the next scene. But wait, what happened with the Joker? Did he just leave the party after that? Wasn’t that a bit awkward? Now, to this, there is the potential explanation that the Joker initially believed that Harvey was Batman (he alludes to this later in the interrogation scene), or at least got that impression at the party. As such, when Batman jumped out the window, it seemed that the man he’d come to find (i.e. Harvey Dent) was now no longer in the building and a bit more dangerous than first anticipated, leading him to temporarily retreat and regroup. This does hold up, though it still holds a couple of awkward minutes in the reality of the film. Finally, there are some basic editing issues in the film. An example would be the scene where Alfred helps patch up Bruce near the beginning of the film, where there’s a couple of times when someone is being heard, though not actually speaking onscreen. It’s blink-and-you-miss-it stuff, but it’s still there. However, I can overlook these, because the rest of the film is so damn good.
The Dark Knight contains so much that it’s really kind of hard to do it justice when talking about it. Honestly, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what a proper in-depth look at this film can do. Its thematic concerns are timeless and woven together in such a fantastically intricate way that creates a tremendous sense of depth to the whole. It’s a tragedy of almost operatic scale, with the rise of Chaos, the fall of Hope and the wrenching pull to act without knowing the best course to take. It’s a sort of psychoanalysis on what makes society function on some of its most basic levels, with the Freudian conception of the Id, Ego and Superego represented in a manner that’s accessible and natural. It’s an excellent character drama, and a downright superb action film. I’m not kidding when I say that when I first saw this two-and-a-half hour film, I could’ve stayed for as long as it wanted to continue. Batman Begins was the film that we needed; The Dark Knight was the film we deserved.
And so, with that, Batman Week, which has managed to last nearly three weeks, comes to an end. I’ll be moving out of the Gotham City limits to look at other films from here on. Hope you enjoyed the ride.