Given my distaste for fanboys and the sycophants that gave this film ten stars before it even hit theaters, I was fully expecting to hate this film. Batman Begins was a respectable reboot of a dead franchise, but the ridiculous villainy of the League of Ninjas starting the Black Plague was a bit much to take. So how do they top that cartoonish bit of nonsense in the new film? As it turns out, the director had something bleaker in mind than the superhero genre – this is one of the most unpleasant films I have seen in some time, all the more so since it was supposed to be a fun action movie. Costuming aside, the good and bad guys have begun to blend, and the populace that Batman has sworn to protect appears to have suffered further decay. Gotham is pushed to the brink with some strategic murders by a terrorist figure, and then is toppled off the deep end with an anvil tied around one foot.
Christopher Nolan is not much of an action director, particularly in the way the laws of physics are routinely broken and the fight scenes contain cuts that may have been shot with a particle accelerator. Still, he was the right choice of director, as his focus remains psychological. In the first film, the theme was the power of fear to overrule the humanity or resolve in all of us. In this one, the theme is nothing less than the fragile concept of humanity itself. Consider this a moral play, albeit one with a fuckton of explosions, a war of attrition after which one must be forced to question not only the value of morality, but the price of same. As the Joker brings crime to a new level, what compromises will the police, or Batman make in order to preserve the order?
Much ink has been spilled already over Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, so I won’t add anything other than his statuette is already in the post. The Joker is psychotic, or at least he is intended to be. I have never dealt with a schizophrenic who was this well organized, and able to plan out an elaborate chess exchange to rival Anderssen’s ‘Immortal Game’, so the allusion of psychosis is bullshit. In reality he is quite sane, quite suicidal, but above all has come to an understanding about human nature. He commits some impressive homicides, but when his own hand is involved, you can see the boredom in his eyes. He only comes alive when he manipulates people into killing each other, which at times is all too easy. The killing is not a goal in itself, and he certainly is not interested in cash – he wishes to hold a mirror to everyone he sees, and convince the reflection that the better angels of our nature are a fabrication of our ego, the sort of thing to help us sleep at night. The way he sees it, he is only performing a public service, though one from which he derives great joy. In this way, his character resembles the corrupt police chief of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon – the murders are but the manifestations of human desires, and are all too easy to arrange. To thine own self be true, and so forth.
The Joker steps into a Gotham City on the verge of breaking the mafia with the help of Batman, who has applied a heavy hand to bring order. Disorder always pushes back, however, and the force required to do so unleashes a wave of terror that leaves the citizens, the cops, and the viewer reeling. The Joker has come to the realization that once you have no reason to hold back, anything is possible. With no fear of police, or Batman, or anything else, he can strike hard enough, and fast enough, to bring the panic to a critical mass, and achieve the chaos necessary to reveal true human character. Lock enough rats in a small enough cage, and they will eat one another to remain alive.
So how does one counter such an onslaught? Conventional police have no purpose here, so Batman must apply extraordinary rendition, torture, massive public surveillance, and war upon the police in order to apply justice. Though his character makes token gestures towards justifying his actions, and the nobility of sacrificing one’s moral code for the greater good, in the end the Joker wins in many different ways. Harvey Dent sings his tune, the people prepare to give in to this terrorist’s demands, and people are driven to commit murder with the greatest haste. Lastly, Batman – thick though he may be on the issue – is coming to realize that the humanity we have so grown to covet is but an artificial construct that we enjoy because it brings us comfort in our elevation above the animals. Deep down we are little more than animals with opposable thumbs (which come in handy with weaponry), and all it takes to reveal that aspect of ourselves is someone with the will to push us to that edge. In order to fight this battle, Batman must employ increasingly murky means to save him and others, and he is absolutely right to do so. That this only shows the Joker has it all figured out is immaterial.
Another interesting parallel in the film is the dichotomy between the Joker and Batman, in that they must both survive or they both shall perish. Someone as dangerous as the Joker requires Batman as a sufficiently dangerous response, and justifies his existence, while Batman is what allowed the Joker to be unleashed in the first place. Without one, the other need not exist. Despite some overtures made by Bruce Wayne’s character toward retirement, he seems way too masochistic to consider quitting. He is clearly enjoying himself, though he lacks the Joker’s smile. One can see a similar relationship between the Israeli government and Palestinians, the Lord’s Resistance Army and President Museveni of Uganda, and neoconservatives and the Muslim extremists against whom a crusade has been declared. The sworn enemies need each other to thrive, continually pushing against each other as they consolidate their power, as any conventional definitions of good and evil are left behind in the sandbox with the rest of the toys.
Given the chance to kill the Joker midway through the film, Batman yields, and allows him to be taken into custody. Time and again, he will grow to regret this decision, which was made more as an appeal to his own humanity rather than a lawful action. There was not a person in the theatre who would not have given the Joker two shots to the dome if given a chance, and that is precisely the point. We would have been less human for it, but certainly a great deal closer to an honest animal.
There is a moment near the end which seemed a pointless boost for Batman’s philosophy of the greater good and its potential to resist fear, but this rang hollow in light of the corruption of Dent’s character and Batman’s eventual admission of guilt. His closing monologue all but admits that breaking the law is necessary to preserve the law, and that a populace needs its idealized heroes and illusion of just and fair society, even if it is a steaming pile of lies. He doesn’t care, as long as that populace actually starts to believe it. Hence the artificial construct of morality referred to above.
In a way, this movie was only enjoyable when Ledger was on screen, and I was swept along by his call for chaos as a more natural order. Otherwise, this was death after death, explosion after threatened explosion, and a queasy thrill from watching an astonishing body count pile up, mostly of cops, civilians, a familiar character, and the Joker’s mentally ill army. The Joker’s use of school buses and targeting cops is meant to strike at the iconography of safety within our society, but there is another intention here. Nolan is rubbing our faces in some sickening action, as if to say, “You enjoying this? You like explosions and dead bodies? Here’s a fucking plateful.” Unlike most action films where a massive pile of corpses goes virtually unnoticed, in this one the people of the city are shaken to the core. The action seems an intentional blunt instrument, a parallel to the Joker’s ethos. This makes for deeply unpleasant viewing, which makes it all the more compelling and enjoyable.
I would advise loading up on coffee and ibuprofen prior to watching The Dark Knight, because it is loud and chaotic, and overall a philosophical mess. So much the better – it plays to Nolan’s strengths to have a mess of a film with characters that have murky motivations and belief systems. This way the viewer can see the qualities of the characters in themselves, which will undoubtedly produce a smile in the darkness.