The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Length: 152 minutes
Superhero movies rarely display value outside of the realm of entertainment and box office numbers. The Spiderman and X-Men series may have been great fun, but admit it – you didn’t really leave the theatre pondering the redemptive qualities of humankind.
The Dark Knight could mark the beginning of a new era in superhero films. America’s failed attempts at decisively resolving the conflict in Iraq has left Americans in a shroud of fear, political distrust and moral ambiguity. Screenwriter Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) has capitalized on this sentiment by eschewing the traditional good-versus-evil plot devices that have driven the superhero genre since its conception decades ago. His characters represent the thin line between right and wrong, where the average person is faced with the moral dilemmas about negotiating a route between self-preservation and self-righteousness.
The main plot revolves around Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an honest lawyer and politician who chooses to fight crime the legal way. Bruce Wayne (aka Batman, played by Christian Bale) publicly supports Dent as the real superhero of Gotham City for his efforts to protect justice without usurping the law in the process. Batman also fights crime, but only as a vigilante acting above the law. This hypocrisy forces Wayne to detest himself for breaking the very rules he strives to protect.
But Wayne’s self-loathing must take a back seat, for there is a new villain in town. The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger) earns his name more for his macabre sense of humour than his face paint. In his efforts to outsmart Batman and murder all of Gotham’s keepers of the peace, he inadvertently uses Batman’s true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as a pawn in his murderous game. Unbeknownst to the Joker, putting Dawes in harm’s way has far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.
Whereas Batman operates under an unshakable moral code that prevents him from murdering even the most hard-bitten criminals, the Joker pits the entire population of Gotham City against each other to prove once and for all that mankind is evil and self-serving. In this sense, the Joker believes himself to be a mere microcosm of all men and that there is no use implementing order for an inherently chaotic nature. In this sense, the Joker is the most fitting counterpoint to Batman. Both egos were born out of a history of crime and despair. Both responded in the extreme, one choosing to right the wrongs of the world and the other trying to give company to misery.
The Joker’s greatest victory is his success in transforming the seemingly steadfast Harvey Dent into a murderous villain, Two Face. Dent embodies the halfway point between good and evil, a man who neither chooses one side or the other, but rather leaves everything up to chance. There are elements of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh in Two Face, who decides one’s fate on the flip of a coin. If Batman and the Joker represent the argument between humanism and nihilism, then Two Face is the ultimate fatalist. Indeed, Nolan analyzes the same themes of free will, destiny and chance as in No County, but whereas the latter concludes on a bleak note, The Dark Knight remains a superhero movie to the end.
One cannot underestimate the power that the late Ledger brings to his role as the Joker. This is not posthumous hype. Leger brings to the table a calculated and thoroughly convincing effort as a psychopath embracing his fallen nature. One critic likened his performance to that of the tragic character Guinplaine from the silent classic, The Man Who Laughs (1928). It is an honor well deserved and the Oscar buzz surrounding Ledger should not be dismissed.
The film, like its characters, does not display a clear-cut answer to right and wrong. For all of Batman’s virtuosity, he displays a blatant contempt for the truth and his intrusive methods for locating the Joker is virtually the Patriot Act operating out of his basement. In fact, every character in this film lies to help the forces of good succeed, and yet no lie goes unpunished. This causality is what makes the film so unique for its genre. At what point may we allow ourselves to compromise our own principles to defend a greater objective? And if we do make that compromise, what must we sacrifice? Batman himself makes such compromises, and for that, he sacrifices more than he could have imagined. For any fan of philosophy, this film is a ethicist’s nightmare. Rarely before have our masked crusaders delved into the depths of consequentialism and returned without a clear answer.
Nolan’s script makes obvious parallels to the current issues in American society today. Wire-tapping, execution videos and the use of fear to manipulate the masses make this script one of the most shameless post-9/11 film analogies of the year. Some writers have even made the Batman-Bush connection, claiming that The Dark Knight is a metaphor for the President’s unpopular policy-making (although this critic is yet to be convinced). If Nolan is making any political statement whatsoever, it is undoubtedly that, for all of society’s evils and the corruption of mankind, there still exists a redeemable value in the hearts of men and women that warrants salvation.
David Demers teaches in Mexico City.