The Dark Knight (2008) Director: Christopher Nolan
“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector.”
In another triumph from Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight continues Nolan’s reflective meditation on the nature of heroism, a theme which initially began in Batman Begins (2005). In The Dark Knight, criminality has slowly crept back into Gotham City. The film opens with an alluring bank robbery wherein we are introduced to the alluring mythos of the Joker (an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger). In teams of two, thieves discuss varying rumors about the Joker, but each henchman is killed off following his part in the heist. A dark crescendo build and reveals the last man standing –an anarchic terrorist known only as the Joker. He is a schemer and a psychopath with reckless disregard for all forms of order and justice. In the words of Alfred (Michael Cane), “some men just want to see the world burn.” His past is foggy, it is riddled with lies. The Joker is an immoralist, and even post-truth, as he offers competing stories for the origins of his hideous scars. Meanwhile, there are also rumors spreading about Batman (Christian Bale) as Bruce Wayne hopes to retire from the role of public vigilante. Heroism is too a great burden for any one man to bear. Bruce longs for a more peaceful life alongside his love-interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), however she has now fallen for the city’s hotshot District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The heroic Batman must now share the mantle of “champion of the people” in a triumvirate consisting of himself, Harvey Dent, and Captain James Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Throughout the film, the Joker serves as the ultimate foil. In contrast to ordinary criminals like Lau (Chin Han), a shady accountant from Hong Kong, or Sal Maroni (Ritchie Coster), the notorious crime boss, the Joker quickly upturns their feeble machinations and instead suggests that all the gangs in the city should unite and pursue the Batman. There is something different about the Joker’s criminality. He seems insane because he cares neither for money nor power, but rather he maintains true dedication to an ideal, to the rule of lawlessness –his own life matters nothing to him. Later, we see the Joker blatantly expressing his hatred of traditional criminality as he immolates Lau atop a massive pile of money. In doing so, the Joker bids an unceremonious farewell to the boring white collar crime of yesteryear. He exposes the failures of the old ways of doing things, he becomes the enemy of his fellow criminals. Ironically, he is the result of Batman’s victories –the existence of a praiseworthy hero like Batman actually breeds a more calloused villain like the Joker. However, the Joker is not entirely a nihilist because he is playful, almost like a child. He begins a series of anarchic games. First, prominent Gotham figures will be killed unless the Batman’s true identity is revealed (in order to prevent bloodshed Harvey Dent falsely claims to be the Batman), and then the Joker entraps Rachel and Harvey in separate buildings rigged with explosives. One of them will have to die. The Batman makes the fateful choice and he winds up rescuing Harvey who narrowly escapes with burn marks across the side of his face, however, distraught at the loss of Rachel, he develops a newfound hatred of the failures of law and order.
From here, the film takes a second turn. Harvey begins seeking vengeance on all who were involved in Rachel’s death. He merely flips a coin to decide whether or not people will live or die (the allusion to Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men was not lost on me). Harvey has abandoned his faith in justice, and now he commits himself to the Joker’s ideal –to chaos, chance, and anarchy. He is now the comic book villain, “Two Face.” Thus the Joker’s mission has been accomplished. He is gleeful when he imagines what the people of Gotham will do when they learn that their darling prosecutor, Harvey Dent, has actually become the city’s villain. Desperate to protect order, Batman reluctantly uses a new technology reminiscent of the invasive overreaches of The Patriot Act and Silicon Valley’s technology companies –he uses secret computer software provided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) which allows for total surveillance of Gotham’s citizens. Omniscience is apparently the only solution to combatting fanatical terrorism. And thus, another part of the Joker’s goal has been accomplished –he has compromised the hero’s moral integrity as the city’s security trumps personal freedom.
The Joker plays one final game wherein two boats are rigged with explosives in the harbor, and both boats are given a button to blow the other up. If neither boat presses the button by midnight, they will both be destroyed. The Joker hopes to sow fear, distrust, violence, and above all, corruption. Amazingly, the people on the boats stand firm and they refuse to kill each other. The Joker is then apprehended, dismayed by the fact that he could not degrade Batman’s morals, though he praises his victory over Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Batman chases down Harvey Dent and ultimately kills him before Captain Gordon’s family can be harmed. With both the Joker and Harvey Dent put away, a very dangerous chapter in Gotham’s history has been closed –however the story is not over yet. The symbolic image of Harvey Dent as a noble hero must be preserved among the people, and so Batman, our true hero, must pose as the villain in order to truly protect law and order. He retreats into the shadows, shouldering the burden of recent events. He destroys his surveillance technology while a public funeral is held for Harvey Dent.
The true burden of public vigilantism comes to light in The Dark Knight. Sometimes the hero become the villain in the eyes of the public. Why? Because in same way that the perfect villain must be self-sacrificial for the cause of injustice, the perfect hero must also be self-sacrificial for the cause of justice. Batman refuses to lower himself to appease the Joker, and so out of love for his city, he actually bears the ultimate burden of being scorned by the very people he loves. Even his round-the-clock surveillance software is destroyed. The truth about Batman must be kept secret for the sake of the city, and even certain information must be kept away from Bruce Wayne (in the end Alfred destroys the letter from Rachel confessing her love for Harvey Dent). Honesty must sometimes be discarded in favor of the greater good. The nobility of certain lies is discussed at length in the writings of the ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, because political bodies require symbols and untruths in order to preserve the facade of order and unity. Hence, why a figure like the Joker is so dangerous –he is a chaotic truth-teller, as well as an exposer and a catalyst of corruption. Both he and Batman stand for things on principle, only one is life-affirming and the other is not.
It was Alfred Hitchcock who said that a picture needs to have a perfect villain, and by this standard The Dark Knight succeeds to a remarkable degree. No review of this film would be complete without an acknowledgment of Heath Ledger’s disturbing yet entrancing performance as the Joker. His tragic drug overdose shortly after The Dark Knight looms eerily over the film, it permeates the aura of his troubled portrayal of the Joker, and his posthumous Oscar was well-deserved.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
For all the actors who have inevitably won the Oscar for playing such a great villain: Anthony Hopkins, Javier Bardem and Kathy Bates, both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix were most deserving for how they so creatively mastered the Joker. Thanks for your Dark Knight trilogy reviews.
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