There are spoilers later in this post but I’ll warn you before they appear, so read on in safety for now.
I actually went to see this movie on Sunday. Today I went to see it again. It’s not often that I’ll do that. In fact, this is the first time in years that I’ve done it, so I guess that’s some indication of how good this film is.
I should qualify this from the outset with the fact, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, that I’m an absolute fan of Batman. I’ve been reading the comics since I was a kid and I still read them. I have a little Batman statue at home. Yes, I’m that much of a fan (read: geek.) So, by that standard, I’m very hard to please when it comes to Batman movies. Frankly, I hate them. Burton’s original Batman films looked good but the stories were awful, Keaton is not a good Batman by any stretch of the imagination and they killed the Joker. Awful. And the movies just got worse after that.
So when Nolan cast Christian Bale in Batman Begins I was intrigued. Reservedly I went along and I was thoroughly impressed. I had (and still have) a bit of an issue about how he made Henri Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul the same person, but I can live with that. Otherwise it was an excellent film.
The Dark Knight is better. When it was obvious at the end of Batman Begins that Nolan was taking on the greatest Batman villain ever, in fact, the greatest villain ever, I was excited and concerned. The Joker is my second favourite fictional character, after Batman himself. The two are opposite sides of a coin, but more on that later.
I was also concerned when I first heard that Heath Ledger had been cast in the role. But I had very high hopes for the film and Heath was getting some extremely high praise early on. Believe me, he deserved it. Bale is excellent as Batman, even if he still can’t quite get The Voice. Aaron Eckhardt plays a great Harvey Dent, Gary Oldman is always outstanding and is once again with Jim Gordon in this film. But Heath Ledger steals the show. His performance is flawless. Let’s take a look at why.
This film deals with three primary issues, rather than the usual two issues of good and bad. Each is personified by the three leads. There’s good, moral righteousness, played by Batman, with his hard and fast rule of ‘no killing’. He’s not shining white good, he has to let crime happen to get to the roots of it, but that makes him a realistic good and shows the strength all good people strive for. Then, in place of bad, there’s chance and chaos. This is so much more realistic than a simple morality tale. Bad is easy. Bad is selfish people helping themselves and hurting other people along the way. They’re easily dealt with too. You just trap them with their own vice, be it money, power, whatever. But there are far scarier things in the world than bad people.
There’s chance, which we can do nothing about. In this case that chance is personified by Two Face, making life and death decisions with the flip of a coin. And there’s chaos, again beyond our control, which is where The Joker comes in. He’s not after money or power or anything else. As Alfred puts it during the film, “There are some people that just want to watch the world burn.”
This is why The Joker is such a great villain. This is why he’s so scary. This is also what every portrayal of The Joker before this one has missed. Nolan got it, directing the film. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and David S Goyer got it with the script and story. And Heath Ledger got it. The Joker even makes a point of telling Harvey Dent during the film, “I’m an agent of chaos.” He really is.
There are going to be SPOILERS now, so stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie. Go and watch it and then come back.
The Dark Knight deals with two primary stories. One is a great crime caper. It’s as good a crime movie as Heat. Sure, it’s Heat on acid, set in a nightmare, but the comparison is still valid. There’s the police versus the Mob and the bigger than life characters that are the primary drivers of that situation. It deals with corruption, trust, heroism, sacrifice. All the good stuff you expect from a crime thriller. And it does a really good job of it.
But it’s also a Batman movie. Nolan has been quite open about the fact that he took a lot of inspiration for the film from an Alan Moore graphic novel called The Killing Joke. And so he should. No Joker story would be right without that book as its inspiration. It’s the best Batman story ever written, in my opinion. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best stories ever written. You really should read it if you haven’t already. If you have, read it again. It’s about the fact that Batman and The Joker need each other. It’s about how one created the other and sustains the other. It’s about how The Joker is trying to prove that Batman is really not so different from The Joker himself. In a line from the book The Joker, talking to Batman, says, “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot. I admit it. Why can’t you?”
In the movie, The Joker says, “You complete me!” and “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” The Joker and Batman are a duality, with Batman representing good and The Joker, rather than representing bad, represents something that scares us even more. Chaos. The unpredictable. The car that jumps the lights as you cross, the shadow on the MRI scan, the fish bone turning sideways in your throat. There’s nothing you can do about it, no way to plan, no way to predict it and catch it out. And with a hero and defender as powerful as Batman, it takes a force of chaos as powerful as The Joker to really make him viable.
In the movie, Harvey Dent is close to becoming the open, maskless force of good that the city needs. But The Joker sees in the Batman a reflection of himself and can’t let Dent take the mantle of the bat. He tears Harvey Dent down, murders his love and disfigures him. As The Joker says to Batman, “I tore him down to our level.” By doing that he ensures that Batman will have to stay. Batman staying means The Joker always has a purpose, a justification. He knows the Batman will never kill him, because the Batman believes in his own code, his rules. The Joker will never kill the Batman because he’s “just too much fun.” Should the Batman ever crack and kill The Joker, which is the only way to really stop him, then The Joker wins anyway, as Batman has forsaken his rule and descended to the bottom.
These are all themes that the movie deals with excellently, while providing an incredible visual feast (with real explosions and the flipping of eighteen wheelers, no less), and it wraps it up in a great crime caper.
So, is it the perfect film? No, not quite. The primary problem is that it’s a bit too long. The first time I saw it I thought it was much too long. The second time I didn’t mind so much. It’s really refreshing that a Hollywood movie attempted, and largely pulled off, a complex, intellectual story. It doesn’t insult your intelligence, at least not until the last twenty minutes or so.
The other problem, and it’s tied into the first, is the killing off of Harvey Two-Face at the end. It takes something away from The Joker’s finale and it forces the writers to hammer home their points too much. After all the complexity, they club you with their point at the end to make sure you got it and that’s a shame. They needed Batman to become the vigilante again. They needed him to be the hero that Gotham needs, dark and frightening, and take the rap for all the shit going down. They did that by letting Batman take the heat for all the things that Two-Face did after The Joker cracked Harvey Dent. They should have let it go at that.
We didn’t need to have Two-Face’s story wrapped up at the end. They should have let him go on and Batman could still have taken the rap for the things he did. They didn’t need that scene at the end with Two-Face threatening Gordon’s family. They really didn’t need Gordon spelling it all out for us again. It would have been more intense to have left it with Two-Face being out there somewhere and Batman, a vigilante again, trying to find him and bring him in before he ruins Harvey Dent’s reputation. It would also have made a nice thread to pick up in the next movie if they make one.
However, aside from that rather small quibble in the grand scheme of things, this really is a great movie. Definitely the film of the year so far and Heath Ledger’s Joker should be a benchmark for all future villains to try to live up to. And they should never be ashamed if they can’t.