The Dark Knight

darkknight-var-72dpiTim Burton’s Batman (1989) was a remarkably successful film. The first comic-book movie since Superman that positioned and took its main character seriously, it had a production design that, in retrospect, may have been the most influential of the ’90s. All of this – the exaggeration, the German expressionistic characters and compositions, the days and nights that look like dusk – became the look of thrillers for an entire decade. Then The Matrix updated the aesthetic and claimed it for its own (inspiring, ironically, the same visual excess in its followers that Batman Returns glommed on).

As to The Dark Knight‘s influence, only time will tell. In its wake, though, Christopher Nolan’s near-realism could make films more specifically comic-book feel silly.1 Nolan’s Gotham is not a real city, but it does seem real. Accordingly, the monsters it creates are all the more terrifying.

The Joker is the film’s main attraction, and plenty has been said extolling the virtues of Heath Ledger’s performance. Let me add one piece of praise I haven’t seen elsewhere: Ledger’s Joker is consistently psychopathic. He isn’t a mad dog jumping and screaming short of internal purpose. He’s a monster who reacts to each stimulus the same way. His complete narcissism and detachment show disturbing depth in a creature designed to be all surface.

In The Dark Knight, Batman is a victim of his own success. Gotham’s criminal class is so frightened, they have to bring in outsiders to make their business work: Hong Kong accountants, drug chemists, and the Joker, a killer hired to take Batman out. If the basis of Batman’s symbolic power is that the criminal mind is superstitious, suspicious and cowardly, the Joker’s is a total abnegation of rules (as he himself states). In a way, the Joker is the film’s storyteller. He sees the status quo of the city, including the heroic narrative of its district attorney, and decides to rewrite the script as tragedy.

Unfair is Harvey Dent’s place in the film, particularly to those who know his last sobriquet. As we are told more than once, he is Gotham’s White Knight. However, he’s got a hair-trigger temper and a willingness to stretch the rules just to the breaking point. The central motif of Harvey’s character is that he creates his own luck. By using a two-faced coin for his tosses (natch), he snatches control of his destiny from the jaws of fate. This tiny bit of hubris – believing that, if he’s the man pulling the strings, things will work out in his favor – blows up in his face. Literally.

Nolan’s take on Batman is self-consciously realistic, and I doubt we will see Killer Croc or Clayface show up in the next film (if there is one). Thankfully, the filmmakers understand that the power of iconic superheroes is not based in total realism. Here the major comic-book figures are not only important in their strict narrative sense, but they have deep iconic weight. Batman and the Joker are counterpoints – two extreme reactions to an apparently broken society. Batman wants to fix what’s left by driving back the forces of destruction. The Joker sees the world Batman protects as a ludicrous construct, totally unfit to withstand the minor pressure he applies. Batman wants to save what’s worth saving; the Joker doesn’t believe there was anything good there in the first place. Harvey Dent and Two-Face, both emblems of order, represent the fragility of decent society. The Joker proves his point: good things can be corrupted; the greatest can become the lowest. But if there’s a silver lining here, it’s in Batman’s resolve. He can’t win, but he can lose, because evil is easier than good. You can be evil without doing anything at all, while good (all good) requires effort.

This review has been, perhaps, less a review than an overview of the film’s major themes. Should I discuss the technical merits, I’d fill this space with superlatives. Here’s what’s important: The Dark Knight has a point. It is modern tragedy, something reviews promised of There Will Be Blood. But where that film was afraid to express a point of view not “open to interpretation” (so as to be completely empty), The Dark Knight wears its themes and ideas right where they belong – on its sleeve.

1I’m glad that both Iron Man and The Dark Knight were highly successful this year, since there is an argument to be made for both cinematic styles. And, as the rot-gut quality of independent thrillers show (i.e., those in the mid-to-late ’90s who sucked the Pulp Fiction teat, and the minor glut of Matrix clones killed off by the Matrix sequels themselves), having a single influencing force doesn’t lead to cinematic liberation. It leads to creative death.

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