Five years have passed since this movie was a phenomenon. The footprint it left on pop culture is huge — its effects on comic book movies, and by extension all blockbuster cinema, are still being felt today. It made one character in particular, already an American icon when his presence was first teased at the end of Batman Begins, a virtually mythic figure, beloved by the very people who used to shove comic book readers into lockers. That character, as previously developed in comics, television, and another high-profile film, was certainly interesting enough to merit some admiration, but the hype centered around the performance of an actor who tragically died months before the film’s release. His spirit led the charge of a film that seemed to have all the ingredients to become the magnum opus of the superhero genre. Somehow, the finished movie didn’t disappoint. Here at last was a blockbuster that was huge for all the right reasons. It captured the emotional tenor of the time as well as the bedrock characteristics of its source material. Looking back, it’s clear that The Dark Knight is the Empire Strikes Back, the Toy Story 2 of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, in all the best ways.
By all means, let’s begin with Heath Ledger as the Joker. His presence, more than any other factor, lifts this movie above Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Both of those films have classic Batman villains played by very talented actors, but not a single one managed to smear his or her character’s likeness and personality all over the American imagination like Ledger did. Through colossal effort and focus, he crafted a performance that is consistently fun and disturbing — simultaneously. The movie does all it can to help, portraying the Joker as practically invincible: carrying out the most complicated of schemes without a hitch, and withstanding a ruthless pummeling from Batman (played by Christian Bale) without a scratch. But Ledger contributes such a fascinating combination of physical tics and verbal agility that the Joker would be unforgettable even if all he managed to be was a pawn of Gotham City’s mob.
Which is pretty close to how the movie begins. This film also has the best script of the trilogy, laying out each of its threads and tying them together in meticulous fashion, as well as producing more memorable lines than possibly any other superhero movie. The Joker’s rise, while inevitable, takes time. Batman’s attention strays as far afield as Hong Kong before their paths cross. The “mob finances” plot is all just prologue, but it’s necessary to establish these characters and their mutual enemy. As the cat-and-mouse game between them keeps building to a frenzy over two-and-a-half hours, the whole thing becomes much more than a simple “cops and robbers” story. Batman and the Joker become symbolic forces: Vigilante Justice vs. Nihilistic Anarchy. The Joker insists that they’re both freaks, two sides of the same coin. Batman’s quest becomes not only to stop him, but to prove him wrong.
The other central player in this drama is Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart). As Gotham’s district attorney, he seems poised to do even more good for the city than Batman — all within the confines of the law and in broad daylight. Too good to be true, as it turns out. Anyone familiar with the comic book character can see his downfall coming. Admittedly, it’s a very “comic book” transformation when he becomes Two-Face, an abrupt 180 from self-sacrificing hero to murdering villain. But I do find the situation believable. Dent’s bride-to-be (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been murdered, and the left side of his face has to be in immense pain. Put together, those two things would probably be enough to drive anyone temporarily insane. Emphasis on temporarily. I don’t think this version of Two-Face would have become a perennial villain, which makes his death all the more tragic. The movie gets an incredible amount of mileage out of his coin, overtly symbolic as it is. At first, it represents his assertion of power over the whims of chance. When that power is violently taken from him, he is consumed by the 50/50 odds that might have spared Rachel instead of him. Cruelly, the equal chance of a good or bad outcome is literally etched onto his face.
The Dark Knight is a sustained look at just how cruel the forces of evil can be. Two images stand out: the burning fire engine and the demolished hospital. The first is one of many large vehicles (school bus, garbage truck, tractor-trailer, ferries) employed by the Joker in his efforts to stoke mayhem in a civilized society. The point is obvious: if there’s one thing that shouldn’t be burning… As for the hospital, it’s not the explosion itself so much as the panic the Joker caused that led to all hospitals in the city being evacuated. That he would set his sights on a place so unambiguously devoted to doing good is especially awful. His goal was to take all the best things about civilization and invert them. He gets caught in the end, but in many ways he succeeds. This movie is as dark as advertised. However, as Steven Greydanus points out in his review, “it comes almost as a shock, bordering on euphoria, to find that [the movie] maintains a tenacious grip onto hope in the human potential for good.”
The sequence that best illustrates this hope is the Joker’s infamous “social experiment” with the ferries. The movie is crazily ambitious at this point. The foundation is a classic ticking time bomb scenario, with the suspense compounded by the fact that one or more bombs might go off even before the timer ends. There’s the moral test, one that the audience is invited to participate in. (Might we consider murdering dozens, even hundreds of people to save ourselves?) The idea that the human race can be safely divided into “good people” and “bad people” is placed under the microscope. The limitations of democracy and the benefits of a wise leader are clearly illustrated. And it’s all overlaid with post-9/11 dread. There’s a real sense that, for all the hand-wringing, the people on one ferry are just as doomed as those on the other. The Joker represents the same kind of evil as the 9/11 hijackers. It’s a kind we can’t fully understand. It’s a kind that has cast a shadow over the twenty-first century. But, miraculously, its plan fails this time. No one murders anyone else, and everyone lives. They considered going the other way, but they chose good over evil in the end.
Batman’s ambition throughout the trilogy is to become an inspirational figure, someone who will drive Gotham’s residents to reclaim their city as a decent place. In The Dark Knight, he sacrifices that ambition for what he sees as a greater good, allowing a representative of law and order to take that role while he lowers himself to the Joker’s level. To me, this is the essence of being Batman — always needed, never wanted. This film at the heart of Nolan’s trilogy is a marvelous depiction of Batman and his circle of friends and enemies. Batman Begins concentrated on explaining how Batman might be created, and The Dark Knight Rises concentrated on explaining how Batman might come to an end. This movie, though, was free to set him loose so we could all learn what kind of hero this Dark Knight could be.