So deeply does The Dark Knight delve into the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men that it comes almost as a shock, bordering on euphoria, to find that it maintains a tenacious grip onto hope in the human potential for good.
There is nothing glib or pat about this. The vision of evil is too morbid, the losses too tragic, the moral choices too murky, the heroes too hard pressed, too compromised. Here is evil as incalculable and remorseless as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, as capricious and Mephistopholean as Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma.
I have described those earlier films as nihilistic, and the same word has been used by a number of critics, both positively and negatively, to describe The Dark Knight. This is a mistake. Like many middle movies, The Dark Knight is darker than its predecessor — but something else is here, beyond the calculations of men like Chigurh and Wade. Nihilism gets a hearing, but it does not carry the day.
Three years ago, Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman Begins, cowritten with David Goyer (Dark City), offered a vigorous and satisfying new reading of who Batman is and what he stands for. It was and is one of the best super-hero movies ever, though I noted in my review that Nolan was evidently pacing himself, laying the groundwork for something grander.
Was he ever. The Dark Knight, cowritten by Nolan with his brother Jonathan and Goyer, goes beyond Batman Begins as only a sequel can do, building on the original in a way earning comparisons to the grandest of sequels, The Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back. Though apt, the comparisons are in a way superfluous; The Dark Knight’s immense ambition and singular achievement can’t be reduced to a name-checking soundbite.
The shadow of 9/11 and the war on terror, subtle but distinct in Batman Begins, deepens here. Then the enemy was a fanatical shadow organization, led by a mastermind with an Arabic name, dedicated to the destruction of decadent society, with decapitation and weapons of mass destruction among their arsenal. Now The Dark Knight plunges us into a terrifying world in which an incomprehensibly evil enemy has changed the rules — blown away all semblance of rules — while those we look to to protect us scramble to catch up, with the real and ever-present risk of failure on the one hand… or corruption on the other. For one side, at least, is supposed to believe in rules.
In the old days, everyone believed in rules of some sort, even the bad guys. “Criminals used to believe in things,” blusters a dying mob banker in the brutal opening heist scene. “Honor. Respect!” But that was then. Today belongs to the Joker, played with insinuating caprice by the late Heath Ledger as a soulless sociopath with no motivation but to subvert the dominant moral paradigm, to unmask the chaos and meaninglessness of men’s lives and the rules they imagine themselves to live by. “This city deserves a better class of criminal,” he gibbers at one point, meaning by “better” nothing very obvious.
Who or what is the Joker, with his white greasepaint and disturbing scars stretching from the corners of his mouth across his cheeks? “An agent of chaos,” he says grandly at one point, elsewhere dismissing himself as “a dog chasing cars… I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” On one occasion he hints at a psychological profile with a childhood anecdote involving his parents and his scars — yet a later scene suggests that this anecdote sheds light on the Joker’s twisted soul only in an oblique and unexpected way.
The filmmakers ultimately make no attempt to explain the Joker; perhaps no explanation is possible. “Nothing happened to me,” Hannibal Lecter told Clarisse Starling in a line from The Silence of the Lambs omitted from the film. “I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” Lecter may or may be bluffing, but in the case of the Joker, that’s all we know.
“Some men don’t want anything logical,” observes Alfred (Michael Caine) with the insight of experience. “They can’t be bought, bullied or reasoned with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
How does one combat such evil? Three heroes represent three possible approaches. First, there’s the Dark Knight (Christian Bale), a grim pragmatist who has learned to do what is necessary, though he sincerely hopes for a day when his methods won’t be needed. He hasn’t given up hope for a normal life as Bruce Wayne, possibly involving lifelong friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, gracefully taking over for Katie Holmes), who knows his secret.
Bruce’s best hope for retirement may be Gotham’s “white knight,” district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich, Nurse Betty), though Dent is also Bruce’s only rival for Rachel’s affections. A righteous crusader without a mask, Dent’s whose moral certitude is slyly symbolized by his habit of pretending to toss a coin over decisions where in fact the outcome is not in doubt.
Partially bridging the gap between Gotham’s two knights is Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), a dogged good cop who’s in it for the long haul, and is willing to work with knights of either persuasion, though he won’t pin all his hopes on either.
Both Batman and Dent seek to restore hope to Gothamites. “I Believe in Harvey Dent” is the white knight’s idealistic campaign slogan — for many, including Bruce, hope for change they can believe in (hat tip: Peter Chattaway). Meanwhile, Batman’s own campaign yields mixed results: crime is down for the moment, but in addition to controversy over his methods, he’s sparked a rash of Batman wanna-bes putting themselves in harm’s way, not to mention their hero’s.
“What makes you different from us?” a cowled imitator demands as the original stalks away from the scene of a brief run-in with the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
“I’m not wearing hockey pants” is the terse parting shot. It’s a rare moment of levity, since the Joker’s sense of humor is too ghastly to be really funny to anyone except himself. This is what Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson got wrong about the character, who got funny lines in the 1989 film but never seemed in on the joke. Ledger’s Joker is queasily persuasive in inhabiting an emotional universe of his own… though he seems more than willing to make psychic space for one other party: Batman himself.
The Joker’s opportunity is occasioned by the power void in Gotham’s criminal underworld resulting from the very effectiveness of the city’s two knights. More than once it’s pointed out that Batman and Dent pushed the criminal world to the point of desperation, so that they were willing to contemplate desperate measures of their own. Almost overnight, Batman’s fragile advances have unraveled; the city is worse than ever. Worse still, the Joker makes Batman the direct scapegoat of his terror, declaring that every day that Batman doesn’t unmask, people will die.
It’s the first in a string of dreadful dilemmas the Joker poses by way of showing up the other side’s rule-bound pretensions as self-deceiving poses. “Tonight, you’ll break your one rule,” he sneers at Batman, at another point declaring, “When the chips are down, these civilized people… will eat each other. You’ll see. I’ll show ya.”
Although there’s one line Batman won’t cross — he won’t kill — he does cross other lines. In Batman Begins, he terrorized a corrupt cop for information, but didn’t really hurt him. Here he twice brutalizes criminals for information… and fails both times. In one of the film’s most dazzlingly choreographed and filmed sequences, he snatches a suspect from a foreign country and transports him halfway around the world. In another striking effect, he exploits every cellphone in Gotham for unexpected metadata, a tactic Bruce’s employee and ally Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) finds disturbingly invasive.
“That’s too much power for one man,” Fox objects, and isn’t reassured when Bruce reveals his approach to checks and balances. Given the severity of the crisis, Fox relucantly agrees to offer one-time help… but threatens to resign over his concerns once the Joker is caught.
Terrible, even impossible choices abound. What rules there are seem unclear, sometimes with tragic consequences. In a wrenching climactic sequence with shades of the Titanic disaster and United Flight 93, the humanity of two different groups of people and the willingness of each to sacrifice others to save themselves is put on trial with a two-bomb scenario straight from a philosophy-class debate. Truth is a potential casualty, and, with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dark Knight suggests that printing the legend may sometimes be the best we can do.
Yet amid this virtual symphony of ambiguity and darkness are ringing notes of grace and redemption. With an immersive, fully realized world, stunningly choreographed set pieces, lucid dialogue and persuasively drawn characters, The Dark Knight is as engrossing as the likes of No Country for Old Men or 3:10 to Yuma — but unlike those films The Dark Knight offers a bleak milieu punctuated by hopeful, even inspiring moments and choices.
Heroes may not be untarnished, but heroism is still possible. Good guys may bend or break the rules, but they may also be willing to fall on their swords for the greater good, to take a hit for something they believe in. A single quasi-messianic figure may inevitably let down those who put their hopes in him. Yet even when all seems lost, people may still do the right thing, taking their last recourse in prayer rather than in Nietzschean ruthlessness. It may be a mistake to believe in Harvey Dent. But I want to believe in the best of The Dark Knight, and back that against the darkness.
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I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. It seems to me that the movie leaves us with this question: are we being invited to approve the lies perpetrated by Wayne and Gordon at the end?
The message preached overtly at the end is that sometimes a lie is “better than the truth,” and that people “deserve to have their faith rewarded” even at the price of a grave, pernicious lie. This doctrine is, quite simply, Satanic. Are we being invited to approve it? I fear that we are.
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Thank you for the insightful and enjoyable movie reviews. I have been reading them in the National Catholic Register for some time now and always look forward to reading them. I was eager to see what you had to say about The Dark Knight, and as usual, it was a pleasure to read.
As much as I enjoyed the movie, for many of the qualities that you point out in your review, there seemed to be something off when I thought back on the movie as the credits rolled. It would seem that the only character in the movie who really understood himself, and the other major characters in the movie, was the Joker. I think even he knew that he deserved to be killed and that it would have been just and justifiable for him to be killed.
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My problem is that the heroes were too compromised in this film. Batman decides to do something he believes is immoral in order to save Gotham, and in the end he doesn’t have enough faith in people so he decides to lie to the people of Gotham in order to protect them from hard truth about their DA. Batman breaks the law all the time but when he taps phone lines the omnipotent deity Morgan Freeman tells him he has gone too far and that this is unethical.
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Thank you for your excellent and insightful review of The Dark Knight. I read it right before seeing the film and it enhanced my appreciation. This is the first film I’ve seen since Lord of the Rings that left me blinking at the shock of re-entering the Real World from the Reel one.
It seems to me that by the end, Batman has become the Suffering Servant. Assuming the planned third film closes Nolan’s arc, myth-logic would require Batman to allow himself to be killed but Bruce Wayne would be redeemed.
I hope you don’t get too much static from National Catholic Register readers for praising something other than a “wholesome family film.”
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What is your opinion of the addition of Catwoman, to be played by Anne Hathaway, in the third Batman film? I am worried that this may bring, for the first time in this franchise, an element of unnecessary sensuality. I think Nolan is a fine filmmaker but even with The Dark Knight he came close to crossing the line in terms of explicit, onscreen violence and mayhem. It seems that the franchise is departing from the inspiring, relatively clean tone set by Batman Begins.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.