This is a new series I'm starting up where I'll talk about some of the most fascinating films of the last decade.
It's hard to underestimate what a pop culture phenomonon Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was back when it premiered in the summer of 2008. In an era where a film can make tons of money at the box office but leave no lasting impression on the audience, I think The Dark Knight really got under people's skins and in to their souls, and brought them back for multiple viewings. Nolan had already helped relaunch the Batman franchise with Batman Begins in 2005. it brought Batman back to his darker roots after the campy Batman & Robin. It's a very fine film but when this sequel came along, it seemed had done more than just make a good sequel, he tapped in to themes both relevant to our times and also to Batman's long history. It was the right super hero film at the right time.
We were nearing the end of a decade which saw the rise of the super hero film as a genre in of itself but by the time 2008 came by, both the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises had disappointed with their third installments and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, as well as Ang Lee's Hulk failed to both restart and start their title characters' respective franchises. The summer of 2008 had already brought us the promising franchise start up Iron Man and the return of the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, and Nolan's film completed the resurgence of excitement in superhero films. But more than that, The Dark Knight, for me, represents one the most, if not the most ambitious and intriguing superhero film of the last several years.
It's a little hard to talk about what The Dark Knight is about because it's about so many things. It's probably Christopher Nolan's most thematically dense film to date. In writing this retrospective I'm going to focus on some of the film's themes and issues one at a time
The city has always been important to the superhero. Superman has Metropolis, Spider-Man has New York- and of course Batman has Gotham City. The city is important to these characters because of the way in which its citizens react to these super-hero figures. The role of the city helps us relate as readers and/or viewers to these fictional worlds. How would I react if some one like Batman or Spider-Man started to fight crime in my city. Nolan has said he wanted The Dark Knight to be a "city movie" in the vein of Michael Mann's Heat, from which The Dark Knight draws inspiration- and The Dark Knight is one of the best representation of a city's relationship to a superhero- maybe the best.
One of the essential ideas in The Dark Knight is how Batman (Christian Bale) becomes such an integral a part of Gotham that he not only helps it but also brings upon it someone like the Joker. Batman, in many ways he helps shape the fate of the city. I'm largely thinking of the end of the film where he takes the fall for Harvey Dent's (Aaron Eckhart) crimes. It's Batman who sacrifices his reputation in order to save Harvey's. Batman feels Gotham deserves to have its faith rewarded rather than crushed.
You Either Die a Hero or You Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain
One of the central questions in The Dark Knight is what it means to be a hero. It also asks if heroism isn't enough, if you have to become something more than a hero to really change things. Batman's sacrifice at the end of the film is the culmination of what's been hinted at earlier in the film by Alfred (Michael Caine), who had told Rachel that Bruce Wayne, by not revealing himself as Batman to the Joker, was being more than a hero.
Batman becomes more than a hero by preserving Harvey's image as a hero. To be a true hero you s have to allow someone else to that iamge, even if you don't. Harvey, despite becoming a vengeful murderer, deserves to have his reputation intact.
The ending of the film makes me ask this: Even though people believe in Harvey Dent, what about the people who believe in Batman, who viewed him as their hero? I think that's one of ending's dilemmas. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) make a decision on the spot to go through with this plan, there's not much time to think.
The Dark Knight also acknowledges that even Bruce Wayne wants to hang up the cape and cowl, even though deep down, and emphasized later by Rachel's (Maggie Gyllenhall) letter, he'll always need to be Batman. When Harvey dies so does Bruce's chance at a normal life. Rachel's death also leaves a hole in his soul. Rachel was the one Bruce wanted to settle down with- though even if she had lived, she had chosen to be with Harvey. I think Bruce has to accept his place as Batman even if his orginal intentions are compromised by taking the blame for Harvey's murders.
Even before Batman has to take the fall for these murders, the film says that the line between Batman and his nemesis the Joker is very thin. The film implies that Joker (Heath Ledger), like Batman, has a troubled past, though due to Joker's conflicting backstories, we're not quite sure what from his past led this man to become the Joker. This is very much in line with the comics' representation of the Joker. The Joker's conflicting backstories in this film are in direct opposition to Batman's definitive, unchanging backstory, the murder of his parents- but essentially, Bruce Wayne' dawning of the bat suit and Batman persona is not exactly a sane choice and Bruce could have easily gone down a different path after his parents were killed- and still could if pushed too far. As the Joker says near the end of the film, "Madness is like gravity. All you need is a little push." Bruce could have easily become the Joker. This is what I think attracts the Joker to Batman, why he tells him "You complete me." The Joker needs a foil like him, someone who stands outside of society and outside of traditonal psychology.
Introduce a Little Anarchy
Coming back to Gotham City, The Dark Knight, at it's broadest, is about a city on the verge of destroying itself from within. Ultimately, it's not Batman who saves the city but the ability for humans, even at their most afraid, to do the right thing. I wouldn't call the man who wanted to blow up the ferry with the convicts on it noble but at the same time there's some decency in him because he can't go through with it. In an interesting twist, it's the convict who throws the detonator out the window on the other ship who comes across as the most noble.
The theme of anarchy extends from the Joker, who calls himself an agent of chaos. The Joker isn't looking for money or anything else material but I believe he does have motivation He wants to show how easily a city can descend in to madness and anarchy, how people aren't that different from him. The Joker is a mirror reflection of Gotham City and, like Batman, becomes a defining part of the city, another connection they share.
The Joker tells Harvey he doesn't have plans and it's interesting to ponder whether the Joker actually believes that or if he's trying to distance himself from Rachel's death. Either way, he's manipulating Harvey to, like him and Batman, stand outside of society. The Joker cannot corrupt Batman, maybe become Batman has become too scarred to be manipulated by the Joker but Harvey, the shining white knight of the city, who thought he, Batman and Gordon could be "decent men in an indecent time," was vulnerable to the Joker's manipulation.
Anarchy starts from within in The Dark Knight. All it takes is one bad day to send us over the edge. One man's fall can lead to an entire city's soul being crushed. The Joker knows this which is why Harvey is his "ace in the hole." And even at the end of the film, the city's soul may be saved and Harvey's image preserved but Harvey's soul is destroyed. The Dark Knight becomes the tragedy of Harvey Dent. It's one of the most interesting twists the film takes when a film we thought was going to be mainly about Batman and the Joker, becomes a Harvey Dent story. It's a lot fresher take than most superhero sequels which always seem to focus on the same character.
By Any Means Nescessary
The characterization of Batman throughout the years has asked the question about how far should we go to stop injustice in society. Batman's answer has always seemed to be that one has to sometimes stand outside of traditional justice in order to fight crime, particularly when their is so much corruption in the city, as we saw in Batman Begins. The Dark Knight takes things a step further and also closer to our own time by bringing up the issue of wire tapping. Bruce has created a sonar device in Wayne Enterprises that can pick up every phone in the city. For him this is the only way to catch the Joker at the end of the film. As Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) says, it is unethical. But the film asks, in the face someone as distanced from our normal view of sanity, is it possible to go to far?
When Batman uses this sonar device, it's reminesent of the sequence where he went to Hong Kong to bring back Lau. That sequence showed that Batman had no jurisdiction, being outside of the law. When Batman uses this sonar device, it's not the government or the police spying on people's phones- Batman hasn't had these kind of ethical rules enforced on him. He makes his own rules The film seems to want to have it both ways, having Batman use the machine but allow Lucius to destroy it after the job is done.
Batman does have one rule, which is that he doesn't kill. At the end of the film he saves Joker after pushing him to what would have been his death. While this scene is the last we'll see of Heath Ledger's Joker in the Nolan series, it''s a haunting thought that the Joker is alive at the end of The Dark Knight and still kill and terrorize if and when he gets out of Arkham. And from what we've seen in The Dark Knight, the Joker can arrange any kind of situation to get him out of Arkham.
Some Last Thoughts
I admire and like The Dark Knight very much. As I said at the beginning of this essay, I think it's one of the most ambitious superhero films in the last few years. Zach Synder's adaptat Watchmen would also be up there in terms of ambition. I like the film is an ensemble piece, not merely being about Batman and Joker but about Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordan, Alfred, Lucius Fox and Rachel Dawes.
Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is really stunning, the kind of performance where the line between actor and character disappears, with the actor fully embodying his or her character. Christian Bale does a fine job of playing three characters: Batman, the real Bruce Wayne, serious, focused, and the shallow playboy act Bruce puts on to make people think he could never be Batman. Gary Oldman makes earnestness compelling and he may be the only actor to make Gordon's final speech work. Aaron Eckhart makes Harvey's transformation in to Two Face believable and powerful. It's not a realistic transformation but in Eckhart's hands its a powerful one. Michael Caine lends Alfred a world weary wisdom and a devotion to Bruce and his cause. Morgan Freeman gives Lucius a professionalism and integrity, making us believe Bruce would trust him with his secret. I think Maggie Gyllenhall was a better fit for a hardened lawyer in Gotham City than Katie Holmes. She also has a sweetness and vulnerabiltity to her. He final scene was the most powerful sequence in the film for me the first few times I saw the film.
I don't know what long term effects The Dark Knight will have on the superhero genre and none of the superhero films since have seemed to be inspired by it- but I for a brief moment, this film, in many ways, became THE supehero film. I look forward to the last entry in this series, The Dark Knight Rises but I'm not sure if it'll be able to top this film. It can be more focused, have a tighter script, but will it have the impact of The Dark Knight? I don't know...but it doesn't have to. The Dark Knight made an impact, and that's what counts. For fans of the superhero genre, it completed us.