Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Second in British-American director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with “Batman Begins” (2005) and will finish with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, this movie represents Hollywood at its best and worst over the decade 2000 – 2010: blockbuster entertainment with big-name actors, some of whom deliver fine performances, as mostly one-dimensional characters in search of a clear and straightforward plot to justify the rollercoaster ride of tension build-up, peak, ride-down and repeat along with numerous exploding glass windows, transport vehicles, various deserted buildings and a growing body count. The only things missing are the product placements, the busty luscious babes and Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song. There’s a message about the age-old struggle between good and evil which even Hollywood knows is an old-fashioned idea that needs frequent tweaking to appear fresh and vital so the variation that appears in “The Dark Knight” is one in which, at the level of certain individuals, evil defeats good; and on a collective level, for goodness to prevail over evil, good people often have to bend the rules, engage in unethical practices, even copy what bad people do. Some individuals’ reputations have to be preserved and a network of lies spun to maintain the confidence and faith of the citizens of Gotham City in the law. Everyone in the film, good and bad, comes out looking as grubby as everyone else and no-one learns any valuable lessons after the rollercoaster ride ends other than “the end justifies the means”. This ensures that the cycle of violent crime in Gotham City will continue.
What passes for a plot in “The Dark Knight” is a string of sketches, most of which form a series of “tests” conducted by the criminal mastermind calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) on the city residents and in particular on Batman (Christian Bale) to test their moral breaking points and if Batman himself can be corrupted. Entwined with the Joker’s ever more elaborately staged and vicious pranks is the complementary rise and fall of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from heralded “white knight” hero supposedly busting organised crime networks to vengeful twisted nutcase intent on taking various people down with him. Although Dent’s transformation from good guy to bad guy is sudden, the film makes clear from the start his moral fallibility: he flippantly tosses coins to make important decisions, punches a guy in fury in court and relies on Batman risking his own life to make him look good so his sudden downfall, pushed along by the Joker, is plausible. Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldfield) who becomes Police Commissioner during the film, confirms Dent’s true nature beneath the squeaky-clean facade by remembering the attorney’s nickname Two-Face from an earlier encounter that took place long before the movie’s events.
Dent could have been the movie’s focus as an essentially well-meaning but flawed character who descends into the pit of evil, egged on by the Joker, and a set-up that enables him to redeem himself by recognising that he, not his coin, is solely responsible for “[making] his own luck” and to flummox the Joker into acknowledging that however hard mortals fall, they still have the potential to rise again, morally if not materially, would have made “The Dark Knight” a grander and more interesting, more thoughtful work. Batman and the Joker would play their good angel / bad angel routine and their battle for Dent’s “soul” might at least lead Batman to learn something about himself and his quest to rid Gotham City of crime and evil. The Joker might learn something too if only to make himself a more formidable enemy for Batman. They are indeed complementary if weird and polarised soul-mates.
The actors are all capable in their roles most of which are one-note anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal as lawyer Rachel Dawes, over whom Dent and Batman as Bruce Wayne are love rivals, has nothing to do and the movie disposes of her halfway through without resolving the love triangle, Dent not even realising he has competition. Bale, recognising Batman’s essential straight-man role to counter the florid villains, plays his dual role in a minimal and blank way. That’s some achievement: playing a character with two highly opposed personalities with next-to-no acting. Eckhart as Dent has the hardest task turning a flawed would-be hero into a dangerous killer and he pulls it off well though the coin-flipping habit is excessive and tiresome. Of the minor roles, Morgan Freeman makes the deepest impression as Lucius Fox, the quietly authoritative chief executive of Wayne Enterprises and the film’s supposedly moral voice. (Though if Fox is willing to help Batman nab a crook accountant in Hong Kong, breaking various laws there, he can hardly complain about Batman wire-tapping people’s cellphones to locate the Joker.) Ledger is a mannered Joker, affecting a hunch-back walk and facial tics when it suits and having a grand time in his role, getting the film’s best lines and toying with Batman and the police like so many guinea pigs; even his role hardly calls for much depth of character and it’s arguable that any other serious drama actor in the role would have done just as well as Ledger.
For a self-proclaimed canine car-chaser, the Joker in some ways is surprisingly generous and moral in a way: a true agent of chaos wouldn’t allow innocent people to choose their mode of death or give Batman and the police just enough time to rescue people before bombs go off. Most of those killed directly by the Joker are crooks or police in the line of duty and the city authorities are allowed to evacuate hospitals before he blows one up (and it was probably overdue for demolition anyway). The Joker appears to be testing his resolve and abilities as much as he tests Batman, and his own actions nearly always disprove everything he says about himself. Viewers either accept him as a confused mass of contradictions or assume he’s deliberately lying about himself to throw people off guard and see how they react when they discover the truth.
The Joker’s duel with Batman could have been a true battle of wits, self-struggle, self-examination and who has the brain and guts to call the other guy’s bluff. Batman is supposed to be a master detective using his intelligence and cunning where other comic heroes rely on super-powers; here, he runs about like a rat on a wheel, chasing the Joker and never coming to understand his foe or his methods, much less anticipate and predict where the fiend might strike next. The Joker could be preening himself, imagining that he is conducting a giant science experiment and egging Batman on to ever greater efforts of heroism, at least until Batman has a light-bulb moment (unlikely with Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of the character) and figures out a way to turn the experiment back onto the Joker.
We get a film where gadgetry and technology are fetishised, and explosions mark the various climaxes that appear with boring regularity, signalling the end of one acting routine that features a cat-and-mouse game and the beginning of another similar routine. The special effects, fiery blow-outs and whizz-bang computer work that simulates Batman’s sonar become tiresome and the film, stripped of its pyrotechnics, ends up looking like an ordinary and over-long CSI-type episode. The film does the original comic little credit in spirit: Batman should be something above the usual forces of law and order, and compensate for what it lacks, placing him in a position of conflict against it. For him to be co-operating with a corruptible and incompetent police force when he’s an incorruptible vigilante is a contradictory and compromising position.
The duality of the Batman / Joker conflict isn’t explored much beyond Batman as moral agent and the Joker as supposedly amoral agent. Even this aspect is conflicted in the film: Batman, by jettisoning his principles to capture the Joker at any cost, becomes a corrupted individual. The Joker, in refusing to kill Batman but simply wanting to bring him down through carefully staged pranks that Batman nearly always overcomes (suggesting that the Joker incorporates sporting chances in his schemes), is more “moral” than he realises. The irony is that the Joker didn’t need to do anything stagey or strenuous at all – Batman brought himself down low.