On Batman: The Dark Knight

Continuing from Batman Begins is Batman: The Dark Knight, the second part of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. According to SlashFilm’s “Assessing the Themes of The Dark Knight“:

The Symbology of Batman

The final monologue that Commissioner Gordon brings the themes from Batman Begins to their logical conclusion: Namely, that as a man, Bruce Wayne’s powers to evil crime are rather limited. As a man, he can be corrupted, he can be killed, and ultimately, he can be defeated. As a symbol he can become far more, and at the end of The Dark Knight, he becomes, to society, an uncontainable force in very much the same way the Joker was. He becomes hunted, making people believe that he cannot be controlled, that he has lost all respect for societal norms and the rule of law. As Gordon realizes he needs to blame the murders on Batman, he acknowledges not only the need for society to push their fears onto something, but their hopes as well (which he allows them to do by preserving Dent’s good name).

In order to keep from tearing itself to shreds, society needs to believe in the incorruptibility of good and the relative remoteness of evil. The Dark Knight points us to ways in which we cope with this need.

Simultaneously, it’s also made clear that, in fact, Batman never succumbs to his own dark, inner urges. In the movie, Bruce Wayne says the line, “I’ve seen what I have to become to fight men like him,” and he rejects the path he has to take to stop Joker, a man who has no rules whatsoever. In one of the more memorable scenes from the film, the two have a showdown in Gotham’s city streets, the Joker manically screaming “Hit me!” as Batman is propelled towards him in the bat pod. As much as Batman wants to annihilate the Joker, he knows he can’t violate his own moral code, and almost sacrifices himself to prevent this from happening (albeit as part of a broader ruse to capture him). Still, Batman doesn’t seek to kill evildoers, but to bring them to justice. The dichotomy that the film sets up between Joker and Batman is one of chaos vs. order. The dichotomy between Joker and Dent is one of good vs. evil…

The Triumph of Evil Over Good

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

These words, spoken by Harvey Dent in the film and its trailers, portend the inevitable corruptibility of heroes in the Batman universe. At the beginning of the film, Dent represents absolute good, a goodness that’s so pure, that has so much potential to change Gotham, that even Batman is thinking of hanging up his spurs.

Dent is referred to frequently as Gotham’s “White Knight,” a term used throughout the course of the film. I was speaking with a friend about this movie today and he pointed out that when he went to see the movie he did not anticipate “The Dark Knight” could actually also refer to Dent, a clever yet profound subtext to the film (and that’s not even mentioning the night/knight pun, which I will choose never mention again after this sentence). Indeed, Dent’s journey from light to darkness is handled plausibly and adeptly in the film, which makes his story arc monstrously tragic.

Many people have remarked on how depressing the film is and I would say that I mostly agree: The Joker’s ability to destroy that which Dent loves and turn him to the evil that he becomes is sad in a way that can only be experienced by seeing the film. But the apparent relative ease with which Joker does this is what makes the Dent storyline strike so close to home: The film makes us realize that we, as humans are limited, and that our capacity to be good is subject to the vagaries of fate and whatever the hell else decides to destroy what we love. Dent is not just a proxy for hope, he’s a proxy for us as well, reminding us of the duality that lies within each of us.

The Thin Line Between Anarchy and Order 

As Nolan has stated in interviews, this movie was not meant to explore the Joker’s backstory because it’s really not that important to the film. Simply put, the Joker represents anarchy and chaos, a constant and near-unstoppable force whose origins are inexplicable (something which is made clear rather explicitly when the Joker delivers two creepily different monologues as to his scars’ origins). Many people compare Joker to other film and comic book villains but the one that I think he can be most closely associated with is Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, who is a force of nature. His origins are unclear but his actions are strongly felt by those around him (to put it mildly).

The Joker is unpredictable and can’t be reasoned with, nor does he have any broader goals except to create chaos and destruction. When I saw the movie Funny Games and watched an interview Michael Haneke, I was struck by something he said: To paraphrase, he said that we as individuals have personal spaces that go unsaid but are accepted by almost everyone. When people violate this personal space, the results can be terrifying. In a similar fashion, the Joker upends the genre conventions of a villain in that he has no inhibitions and refuses to hew even to the ultra-basic moral code of criminals (see: the opening scene). When a character has no values that you as a viewer can relate to and hold on to, the results are extremely disorienting. This unmoors our basic assumptions of the person’s capabilities.

All of this comes to a head in the hospital scene, when Joker gives Harvey Dent the “It’s all part of the plan” monologue, a speech that’s chilling not just for its content and delivery, but also because of its incisive commentary for us as Americans. I will not make any overtly political statements here, except to say that the complacency with which we as Americans have accepted atrocities and miscarriages of justice committed around the world as well as right here at home may have consequences beyond what we can imagine. The Joker’s monologue points to our baffling perceptions and reactions to the events that disrupt our lives. In our society, what exactly constitutes cause for alarm? And how much sense do those standards really make?

The Terrible Logic of Human Nature

What do people do when they are put in the worst of situations? What would you do if you were given the ultimate power over someone else? The movie touches upon these questions of human nature, but they are perhaps its least developed.

We see this theme pop up several times, most notably in two separate instances. Firstly, it’s evident when Batman breaks into Wayne enterprises and gives Lucius Fox fee reign of the cell phone hackery he has perpetrated upon all of Gotham. Fox demurs, believing that one person should not have this power. People are so easily corrupted that even an initial desire to do good can ultimately lead to evil, the film seems to be saying. This is further confirmed as the entire video interface comes to a fiery end, in a spectacular Batman-programmed self-destruction.

We also see it at the very end, when two separate sets of people are given the ability to destroy each other. Given the lead-up to the film’s climactic action scene, it’s a little bit strange that the boat-bomb storyline ends in the way that it does: With both criminals and everyday citizens concluding that they won’t take another’s life just to preserve their own. Throughout the whole movie, Nolan seems to be trying to tell us we are all easily subject to the temptations of the dark side, but the rest of the movie is already so relentlessly dark that perhaps this ending was more palatable to general audiences.

Humans can’t handle power responsibly. But maybe, in our shared humanity, there is still hope for compassion.

Additionally, it may be unlikely to see the version of Batman from these films in any other superhero movies, as according to CinemaBlend‘s “Why The Dark Knight’s Batman Won’t Be In Any Other Superhero Movies”:

Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman in The Dark Knight series will go down in history books as one of the best Batman performances to date. And while there’s been speculation on the return of The Dark Knight’s Batman, Bale has put the notion to rest, assuring that his portrayal doesn’t fit in any other superhero movies.

While Bale has been busy promoting his upcoming role in Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s been blasted with questions on his reaction to the new Batman introduced in upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. In a recent interview with IGN, Bale denied a return for his caped crusader stating that though The Dark Knight’s Batman is a “character that could have kept on going and going and going, it was right for Chris [Nolan] to finish it where he did… And ours doesn’t belong in any other version.”

He’s right in that it doesn’t belong in another cinematic universe. Christopher Nolan’s series is so cleanly linked together, that it serves as prime example of how a trilogy should work. Bringing Bale’s Batman outside of that trilogy would throw off the beauty of the movie’s bonds. They tell a grand story, with twists and turns, but end in a way that sums it all up. Bale added in his interview that, “It was appropriate to leave at the right time”.

And without Bale acting as Batman, it is a totally different character, there’s no debate. Bale’s portrayal of Batman redefined the depth of the character. Aside from the voice, which was a bit over the top at times, a new Batman has pretty big wings to fill. The next time we see Batman will be in Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and will be played by Ben Affleck. Already we know Batman in the newer universe is going to be an entirely different breed than The Dark Knight’s Batman. But on top of that, Batman V Superman is set in a completely different world.

What Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale did so well was to create a realistic Batman. A man and plot grounded in reality. Concepts explored were not outside our scope of the world, and Bale’s Batman was a foiled character with deep-seeded issues and human weaknesses. The new Batman V Superman already has a huge difference in style. The Batman in this movie coexists in a world with Superman, a super powered alien, and Wonder Woman, a warrior princess with superhuman powers. These characters would never exist in the world explored in The Dark Knight Rises trilogy. It’s not to say that Batman V Superman isn’t going to be incredibly awesome, but it going to include a very different Batman then we’ve grown accustomed to in the past few years. And we should let The Dark Knight’s Batman stay contained in the trilogy that he thrives in.

Finally, Ledger received critical acclaim (seriously, it was quite epic, though nobody originally wanted him to play the role) for his portrayal of The Joke, as according to MoviePilot‘s “10 Insane Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Heath Ledger’s Joker” regarding that portrayal:

After seven years, The Dark Knight remains a treasured staple of the film community. It currently holds the number one spot on comicbook.com‘s best comic book movies of all time, and it is ranked number four inIMDB‘s Top 250, below Shawshank Redemption and the first twoGodfather movies. Though there are countless reasons why The Dark Knight is so great, the number one reason has to be Heath Ledger’s terrifying yet incredible portrayal as the Joker.

Needless to say, you don’t play such an epic character without stories behind him, and there are many concerning the Joker!

He Had Plenty of Competition for the Role

Director Christopher Nolan always had Heath Ledger in mind for the Joker, but that didn’t stop several other actors from wanting the role. Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Adrian Brody, and Paul Bettany all publicly stated that they wanted the role.

He Paid Tribute to His Daughter

When the Joker dresses up as a nurse during the hospital scene, the name on his uniform says ‘Matilda.’ Matilda is actually the name of Heath Ledger’s daughter.

He Removed Himself from Society

In order to get a good feel for the Joker’s insanity, Ledger checked into a motel room and isolated himself for six whole weeks! During that time, he took the effort of learning the Joker’s voice and laugh. He didn’t want to mimic Jack Nicholson’s Joker, so he based his character off of Alex De Large from A Clockwork Orange.

He Contributed the Joker’s Various Tics

From the first time we see the Joker on camera, we can tell just from his mannerisms that he’s a bit strange. One of these mannerisms, the signature quick lip-licking motion, was put in by Ledger, as he had to keep a moist mouth in order to keep up the Joker’s voice.

He Designed the Joker’s Signature Make-Up

Heath Ledger really took method acting to heart when he made the decision to design his own make-up for the Joker. He explained that he didn’t feel like the Joker would allow anybody to apply the make-up on him, so he applied the make-up himself. Naturally, he couldn’t keep doing that every day of filming, so the cosmetics team made note of his original design in order to replicate it.

He Was Always a Part of the Action

The Joker has a significant amount of screen time in the movie, so he naturally had many scenes to film. However, even on the days where he didn’t film, he would still show up on set in full costume in character.

He Worked as a Director for the Joker Videos

Remember the videos that the Joker took of himself torturing the fake Batman? Ledger directed those himself, to make sure to get the perfect Joker-esque effect to them. Director Christopher Nolan supervised the first video, but it went so well that he let Ledger handle the second one on his own.

He Improvised Two Classic Joker Moments

In the scene where Gordon get promoted to Commissioner, the Joker’s sarcastic and mocking round of applause seems like the perfect thing that the character would do in that situation. However, the clapping was not scripted. Ledger suddenly improvised the clapping, and Nolan pushed the rest of the actors to continue the scene.

He also improvised the hospital detonation scene. It was scripted for the explosion to be delayed, but Ledger messing with the button was completely unscripted.

He Scared Maggie Gyllenhaal

Seeing as Ledger starred alongside her brother Jake in Brokeback Mountain, Maggie Gyllenhaal had met him before. During the scene when the Joker crashes Harvey Dent’s party in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse however, that was the first time she saw him in full make-up and costume. Ledger had to improvise the line “Look at me!” because Maggie was legitimately frightened and kept trying to look away.

He Scared Michael Caine Too

As far as casting decisions go, Michael Caine as Alfred was nothing short of perfect. His warm, nurturing personality mixed with the wisdom of his voice made him the ultimate go-to confidant. However, in Caine’s first scene with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, he had no words of comfort. In fact he had no words at all! Ledger’s performance in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse scene was so intense that it frightened Caine, making him forget his lines for the scene.

He commented that the fright was contributed to it being his first time meeting Ledger, “I’d never seen any of it and the elevator door opened and they came out and I forgot every bloody line. They frightened the bloody life out of me.”

As far as movie villains go, the Joker hits a high point across the board thanks to Ledger’s dedication to the role. Jared Leto is sure giving us a promising look on the latest Joker in Suicide Squad, but I’m not sure even he could compare to the brilliant performance we saw in The Dark Knight.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Batman” isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This film, and to a lesser degree “Iron Man,” redefine the possibilities of the “comic-book movie.”

“The Dark Knight” is not a simplistic tale of good and evil. Batman is good, yes, The Joker is evil, yes. But Batman poses a more complex puzzle than usual: The citizens of Gotham City are in an uproar, calling him a vigilante and blaming him for the deaths of policemen and others. And the Joker is more than a villain. He’s a Mephistopheles whose actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies.

The key performance in the movie is by the late Heath Ledger, as the Joker. Will he become the first posthumous Oscar winner since Peter Finch? His Joker draws power from the actual inspiration of the character in the silent classic “The Man Who Laughs” (1928). His clown’s makeup more sloppy than before, his cackle betraying deep wounds, he seeks revenge, he claims, for the horrible punishment his father exacted on him when he was a child. In one diabolical scheme near the end of the film, he invites two ferry-loads of passengers to blow up the other before they are blown up themselves. Throughout the film, he devises ingenious situations that force Batman (Christian Bale), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to make impossible ethical decisions. By the end, the whole moral foundation of the Batman legend is threatened.

Because these actors and others are so powerful, and because the movie does not allow its spectacular special effects to upstage the humans, we’re surprised how deeply the drama affects us. Eckhart does an especially good job as Harvey Dent, whose character is transformed by a horrible fate into a bitter monster. It is customary in a comic book movie to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen. “The Dark Knight” slips around those defenses and engages us.

Yes, the special effects are extraordinary. They focus on the expected explosions and catastrophes, and have some superb, elaborate chase scenes. The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue. He presents the city as a wilderness of skyscrapers, and a key sequence is set in the still-uncompleted Trump Tower. Through these heights, the Batman moves at the end of strong wires, or sometimes actually flies, using his cape as a parasail.

The plot involves nothing more or less than the Joker’s attempts to humiliate the forces for good and expose Batman’ secret identity, showing him to be a poser and a fraud. He includes Gordon and Dent on his target list, and contrives cruel tricks to play with the fact that Bruce Wayne once loved, and Harvey Dent now loves, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The tricks are more cruel than he realizes, because the Joker doesn’t know Batman’s identity. Heath Ledger has a good deal of dialogue in the movie, and a lot of it isn’t the usual jabs and jests we’re familiar with: It’s psychologically more complex, outlining the dilemmas he has constructed, and explaining his reasons for them. The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who first worked together on “Memento”) has more depth and poetry than we might have expected.

Two of the supporting characters are crucial to the action, and are played effortlessly by the great actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Freeman, as the scientific genius Lucius Fox, is in charge of Bruce Wayne’s underground headquarters, and makes an ethical objection to a method of eavesdropping on all of the citizens of Gotham City. His stand has current political implicstions. Caine is the faithful butler Alfred, who understands Wayne better than anybody, and makes a decision about a crucial letter.

Nolan also directed the previous, and excellent, “Batman Begins” (2005), which went into greater detail than ever before about Bruce Wayne’s origins and the reasons for his compulsions. Now it is the Joker’s turn, although his past is handled entirely with dialogue, not flashbacks. There are no references to Batman’s childhood, but we certainly remember it, and we realize that this conflict is between two adults who were twisted by childhood cruelty — one compensating by trying to do good, the other by trying to do evil. Perhaps they instinctively understand that themselves.

Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie. “Spider-Man II” (2004) may have defined the high point of the traditional film based on comic-book heroes. A movie like the new “Hellboy II” allows its director free rein for his fantastical visions. But now “Iron Man” and even more so “The Dark Knight” move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes. And the Batman legend, with its origins in film noir, is the most fruitful one for exploration.

In his two Batman movies, Nolan has freed the character to be a canvas for a broader scope of human emotion. For Bruce Wayne is a deeply troubled man, let there be no doubt, and if ever in exile from his heroic role, it would not surprise me what he finds himself capable of doing.



One thought on “On Batman: The Dark Knight

  1. Pingback: On Batman: The Dark Knight Rises | The Progressive Democrat

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