A lot has been said about The Dark Knight. A lot tends to be said about a film that breaks box office records, and has become one of the biggest money-makers of all time. I am therefore unsurprised that so many of these words are shallow, empty things; even from those that praise the film. I want to talk about this movie whole-heartedly, completely, and most importantly, regardless of how much money it has made.
I will argue that The Dark Knight is a work of art in the highest order of cinematic masterpieces. It owes this status to a great many people. As I have observed, the greatest of all films were the culmination of infinite factors at just the right time to produce something that goes beyond the sum of its parts. These movies defy what is generally considered an ideal production process. Casablanca had more writers than I can count and Blade Runner survived a strike, crew feuds, and budget constraints. But still, all of the contributor’s creative juices ran free despite it, and produced what has become legend.
The Dark Knight owes a good deal to its foundations: over more than seventy years, the characters that inhabit Batman’s universe have been fine tuned from overblown clichés, into meticulously arced perfection. Weeding through this evolution, however, could be considered an insurmountable task. Even more so than its predecessor, Batman Begins, which largely inhabited a time span untouched by many Batman writers, this film finds itself knee deep in the roots of the Batman mythos.
This balancing act is handled with masterful bravado in the hands of Jonathan Nolan. His script is dense. Perfectly dense. It is interesting to note that very little was altered when brought to the screen by his brother, the Director Christopher Nolan. Only the slightest instances of dialogue variation can be found, and this is a natural and fluid part of the filmmaking process; a compliment, really, that the actors are so devoted to the goals of the script that they wish to make calculated alterations to seemingly miniscule words.
This film has an ambitious workload. It deals with the core of several tertiary-yet-iconic characters, all acting as conceptual foes for the Batman to further define himself against. It is this development of the ideals of Batman that serve as the basis for the entire film. The defining point that is accepted and supported by all elements involved. Batman is a complex character with mature aims and a set of motivations that goes far beyond normal “hero” understanding. It is for this reason that everything he comes into contact with be optimally placed to allow the character to triangulate his own position, and further define himself.
Compelling plot and character interconnections do well to describe the films concepts and theme, but they are also accompanied by many instances of visual reinforcement that make it all the more complete and well-rounded. Let’s look at all of these elements, on their own successful and compelling, and how they strengthen the overall bat-narrative.
Let’s get this one out of the way first: The Joker. A behind the scenes tragedy may have given this character an unfair amount of attention around the release of the film, but I am confident that in the many years to come, the excitement will die out, and this role can be appreciated appropriately. The Joker is portrayed here as Batman’s diametric opposite in terms of ideals. The Joker is not mad. He denies it himself when charged by the mobster Gambol, “I’m not. No I’m not,” he says. It’s true; as shown in the movie, the Joker is in complete control of everything he does, regardless of how “mad” the ends, his means are exactly in line with his absolute dedication to disorder.
“I’m an agent of Chaos.” He challenges Batman in this way. After the criminal death of his parents, Bruce Wayne took up the image of Batman to rid Gotham City of criminality by subjecting them to the order of justice in society. Batman is the embodiment of the people’s power to demand Justice. This is noted by another character, district attorney Harvey Dent, who says, in response to a question of who appointed the Batman, “We did. All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.” Batman is the people. He wishes to inspire them. Unfortunately, his inspiration proves to have several unexpected ramifications.
At the opening of the film, Batman is finds himself at odds with a group of people dressed in his image. These brutish characters, introduced early, lay the delicate groundwork for the horrors to come. Batman’s presence and dedication to justice through grand and theatrical means has elevated crime. “I meant to inspire good,” he says, “not madness.” Unfortunately, by upping the ante with the level of his theatrics, he created the playing field by which the Joker was able to come to power. If not for a perceived need to eradicate the Batman by the mob, they would have never allowed a “freak” like the Joker to ascend their ranks. This concept of the criminal world’s slow acceptance of the newly arising freak culture is established perfectly with the inclusion of Scarecrow; this time around being portrayed as a lowly drug dealer.
Also in this early drug-deal sequence, Batman is attacked by the dogs of a mob member (The Chechen), creating a plot necessity for a new suit. This plot necessity makes way for the nature of the Joker/Batman conflict to be strengthened visually. Their costumes are completely contrasting in nature. The Joker’s is a vile, messy, eyesore of an outfit; an extension of his dedication to chaos. In turn, Batman’s suit in this film reflects his own dedication to order. His suit is an intertwining complexity of parts, working in perfect order to allow him agility with his movements. These evocative images are hardly the arbitrary byproduct of a dog attack.
There is recurring “dog” imagery throughout the film. Quite literally, the film ends with dogs chasing him away from the scene of Dent’s death. This embodies Batman’s final plea for Gordon to “set the dogs on me.” This image is strengthened with verbal mentions of dogs. In fact, the symbol of dogs as Batman’s aggressors started in Batman Begins; when mob boss Carmine Falcone taunted young Bruce by saying before his father was murdered he “begged. Like a dog.” Combine this with the Joker’s dog like head-wag out the window of a cop car, and his self proclaimed analogy, to a “dog chasing cars” and you’ve got a recurring, effective motif.
The Joker’s dedication to chaos is evident in textual (spoken) examples, certainly, but there are also several other finite examples of actions and attitudes that illustrate the extent and versatility with which he uses this idea. As shown in the sequence where the Joker is attempting to escape imprisonment, he calls to the chaos within the very officer standing watch over him, Officer Stephens. There are hints that this may indeed be the method by which the Joker is able to attain a following: the madness portrayed in his goons is palpable (specifically in the character of Thomas Schiff, whom Batman describes as “The kind of mind the Joker attracts”), and in one sequence we even see a harsh instance of his recruitment: he breaks a pool cue into two shards, making men fight for their lives and spot on his “team.”
This is also a finely tuned setup for the Ferry sequence at the end of the film, which situationally makes clear the Joker’s stated dictum: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” The Joker believes that, as previously stated, his mindset comes as naturally to him as it would anybody, generally in reference to the two ferries of people, and more specifically in terms of another defining character in this film. In one sense, he is correct. He was, very methodically, able to construct a situation that bent Harvey Dent into madness.
The ferry situation is fascinating on its own. A tense drama plays out onboard as each boat is given the detonation button for the other. It provides the Joker an opportunity to showcase his belief, and what better way than Gotham Citizens blowing themselves to bits? It is important however, that Batman, as the representative of the people, never for a minute allows himself to believe they will. “There won’t be any fireworks,” he insists to the Joker, who is eagerly awaiting the explosion. Indeed, no explosion comes. This display of good will on the part of Gotham is the priming that allows Batman to make the most difficult decision of the film, involving another fascinating character.
James Gordon comes into wholly new territory in this film. It is amazing that a supporting character that could have so easily remained stagnant was awarded a beautiful and compelling arc that ties directly in with the film’s main dilemma. The story being told necessitates his character made a very, very difficult decision. A heartbreaking decision. Thankfully, we are saved from total, all encompassing bleakness in the way his character is built up this time around:
Everything Gordon does in this film further individuates himself as a person. He is self-sustaining. He doesn’t NEED the Batman, as we are shown, and when the grim situation dictates that he turn his back on the partner he’d grown to know, we feel comfortable allowing him to do so. It doesn’t take any weight off the situation, but it slightly loosens the wrench on our hearts. Look at Gordon’s choice to fake his own death: he wasn’t going to leave his family’s safety in Batman, or anyone’s, hands. He took charge. Look at his rise to power as newly appointed Commissioner after the murder of Loeb. We’re ready when he’s forced to “turn the dogs” on our hero. (Who isn’t, really, a hero.)
Why does Dent fall in the first place? It was the debilitating effects of his extremism. In the face of immense tragedy, it pushed him into dangerous territory. In his absolute image of justice, he could not accept what happened to him, and was forced to don an entirely different, but equally extreme set of rules. He bowed down to fate, because “the only morality in a cruel world is chance: unbiased, unprejudiced … fair.” He gives everyone the same chance the Joker gave Rachel: 50/50.
Watching Two-Face being born is haunting. It was there, laying dormant, ready for the Joker to drag it out into daylight. It happens in the scene where Harvey awakens in the hospital and sees his coin: first, the bright side. Rachel. He sees Rachel, and he smiles. Then he turns the coin over, and it’s power is born with its burn and mangled other side. Rachel is dead. Life. Death. It is here he gives the coin this power. He submits himself to fate, chance etc. The Joker didn’t birth or manipulate Dent into Two-Face … he just coaxed him into action.
Batman is able to witness this mentality towards the climax. He sees how Dent is a slave to chance, and decides to speak on the importance of choice: “What happened to Rachel wasn’t chance. We decided to act. We three.” This is Batman defining himself against Dent. This is him putting his priority on choice, and acknowledging his ability to choose. (Which he will be forced to act upon just moments later.)
In order to make this definition of choice clear, Batman and Dent are paralleled throughout the film. Obviously they both have similar aims. More subtly, their attitudes are even compared. Down to the littlest details, such as both characters being show disarming the un-fired weapon of an attacker. Bruce’s Ballerina date posits that Dent could even BE Batman. Not to be outdone, later in the film (to give the real Batman a chance to intercept the Joker) he admits falsely to the public that he IS Batman. It also helps that both characters be involved with the same woman.
Rachel is in love with both Bruce and Harvey. Understandable, as we have seen the movie seems to portray them very similarly. Both of their characters having a relationship with Rachel helps define them as separate characters in response to a tragic event: her death. Does Bruce descent into madness as Harvey does? Does he abandon his ideals as Batman, just as Harvey abandons his? Her death is just as deeply felt by Bruce as it is by Harvey (“Why was it me, who was the only one who lost everything?” to which Batman replies “It wasn’t.”), and yet Batman’s dedication never wavers, even in the darkest of times, and gravest of decisions.
Let’s talk about that final decision. That decision to cover up the atrocities committed after the fall of Harvey Dent. The entire movie sets up this moment. And let’s be honest, it takes a hell of a lot to make this choice believable: Harvey must be set up as an overzealous defender of absolute justice, his importance to the city must be unquestionable, and the effect of his reputations tarnishing must have detrimental effect to the city.
This is done both subtly and broadly; from people calling him the “White Knight”, or mentioning his past investigations, to a brash, over-the-top visual demonstration of both his importance and extremism: the prosecution of over 500 criminals in a single trial. This establishes the instability of his image. If anyone, cop, lawyer, anyone, got one iota of something dirty in Dent’s past or a shred of doubt to his image, all those thugs are back on the street. It’s literally established by the plot that if Harvey falls, as he does, crime will rise. The city will suffer.
Sure, this decision is made literally before our eyes, but it is also mirrored and strengthened elsewhere in the film. The final intercut moments enforce the recurring theme of a symbolic truth taking precedence over actual fact. This is manifest in Alfred’s burning of Rachel’s letter, as well as the hostage situation at the Pruitt Building. Here, Batman is placed in a parallel situation: he knows the true nature of the deceptive situation, and is forced to appear villainous and out of character. (when fighting the “hostages”, which are, in fact, goons of the Joker.)
Also in these final montage moments, we see his dedication to Gotham is the same dedication he has to the Lucius Fox character. As the in-flux Batman character observes and begins to understand the atrocious mentality of the Joker (thought the kindly help of his butler, Alfred) he understands that the stakes are his image as Batman. The Joker wants this image squandered. He convinces the mob of this, and the ideological “murder” of Batman becomes everyone’s goal. Batman realizes that he will have to venture into the gray area of acceptability.
Thus is born a viciously awesome plot/theme/character device: a vast, bat-sonar imaging device that allows Batman to image Gotham in 3d. This combined with voice recognition allows him to pinpoint an individual’s location. A tool he will ultimately use to locate the Joker. The conflict of this item encompasses one of the movie’s own great conflict: at what cost do we combat terrorism? For batman, he realizes it is at the cost of his own image. Something he becomes willing to give up for Gotham.
He puts this machine in the hands of Fox, who he very well knows would be morally against this device. In the final moments, he rewards the dedication of this character, just as he does the citizens of Gotham, by pre-programming the machine’s self destruction. This machine is the full extent of Batman’s willingness to compromise his rules for sake of combating the Joker. A goal, we find, is primal to the film’s finale.
As if that weren’t enough tension, Harvey’s fall is also tied to the Joker. Letting the city see the fall of Harvey would prove, in the public consciousness, that the ideals of the Joker ultimately win out over those of the Batman. There’s a touchingly simple line, as Batman realizes all of this. Barely seeping from his tired mouth, he forms the words: “But the Joker cannot win.”
He’ll do anything to protect the image of the hero the city needs: Dent. The good Dent. He’s so tied to Gotham, that he’s willing to step down and tarnish his own image in support of a false one. An image he deems worthy of the city. An image he thinks they deserve. More than he deserves his own. And he turns the burnt side of Dent to the shadows, leaving his untouched face gleaming. A visual indication of an internal choice.
This decision calls to the best in all of us: the selfless, the honorable, the caring, the dedicated.
The Joker lost because of these things.
I wish I could go through scene by scene, and list every detail that contributes to the brilliance of this film, as it deserves that kind of attention. In the interest of brevity, I hope this preliminary look at the thematic and conceptual content of this movie proves interesting and possibly enlightening for those intimidated by the sheer mass of content.