There are a million reviews of Nolan's latest offering in his reimagined Batman movie series, The Dark Knight. You can find a lot of them here, go read them. I can summarize, though: You should see this film. There, that's out of the way.
Instead of reviewing the movie, I'd like to simply go over a few thoughts I have had about it and perhaps try to tie them together in the end. There are spoilers below, so go see the film before reading this.
The Dark Knight is not a movie about Batman
That's right. Sure it's a Batman movie, but the caped crusader finds himself playing a minor role in many of the film's key scenes. In fact, though I like the character and I like the actor, I didn't spend very much time in this film worrying for Bruce Wayne and his shadowy alter-ego. You know that he's going to come out ok - or at least as ok as a permanently psychologically damaged, uber-violent billionaire with anger issues can come out.
Instead of worrying for Batman, Nolan does us one better - he has us worrying with Batman. We feel the invulnerability that he feels - it's almost like if he dies then that just goes with the role. But when those close to him start to feel the heat, the tension rapidly starts climbing.
This is a movie about Rachel Dawes, a woman torn between her love for the city's rising star and her feelings for her best friend. It's a movie about a police officer named Jim Gordon, who'll stop at nothing to save his city but who knows that his family is his greatest liability. It's a movie about Harvey Dent, the man slated to single-handedly clean up the city by taking the fight to the mob and fearlessly prosecuting those who dare trespass against his home. These are the real people in the movie, and as such they're the ones who can be - and in most cases, are - seriously hurt.
I think it says something that we've reached a point where you can make a superhero movie wherein the superhero is a minor character. It means that we've come far in the genre, that our collective imagination has matured. The result is that The Dark Knight is in many cases the most realistic movie of its kind - and, for me at least, the most emotionally riveting.
The Dark Knight and Sympathy for the Devil
Wow, I'm how many paragraphs in and I haven't even mentioned Ledger's Joker? If the emphasis on "minor" characters is what grounds this movie in reality, The Joker is what cements that ground. It would have been easy for him to be a caricature, a traditional Batman movie villain - campy, silly, comical.
Instead, he's frighteningly real. His motivations aren't rooted in some sort of "take over the world" plan, his back-story doesn't involve toxic chemicals or genetic mutation - he's just a guy with ironically applied makeup who gets a kick out of stirring the pot. He's a dangerous killer, but nothing about him is unbelievable - and what's more, the more he talks the more you listen.
There's a scene about halfway through the film where Batman and the Joker are alone in an interrogation room. The Joker goes on this whole long routine about his motivations and about his understanding - his true understanding - of Batman. Just as he's at his most charismatic, most convincing, Batman hits him and breaks the spell - and you realize that you were hanging on every word. You realize that maybe, out of every character in the film, he's the one who makes the most sense.
The easiest character to identify with in this film is Ledger's Joker, and he's right about everything. What the hell does that say? He's the monster, but not because his worldview is wrong - he's a monster because his values are different. And Nolan has the courage to make them different in an appealing way - so much so that if you're like me you get a little conflicted watching this film.
The Dark Knight is about Decisions
The Joker's strategy in this film is to consciously put the other characters into situations where whichever choice they make they're betraying some sort of fundamental principle. Everyone, he observes, has rules - from Batman to the city's Mafia. These rules determine their behavior, and since the Joker understands these rules he's able to consistently anticipate and manipulate the situation. He's able to consistently force characters to make Decisions, and then he unflinchingly enforces harsh consequences no matter what they choose.
The lesson that he wants us to learn is that Rules are weakness - and he's right. In a way, he wins in the end - and it's all because he doesn't have rules. He has patterns, sure, and that's how Batman catches him - but it doesn't matter to him whether or not he lives or dies, gets caught or gets away. He's always going to be free, just as the other characters will never be free.
What really hit me about this film is the way the Decisions the characters made had such devastating repercussions - Bruce agonizes over the decision as to whether or not he should reveal his identity, and after finally convincing himself that he's made the right choice he essentially gets Rachel killed. Dent, finally broken, chooses to give in to madness - he throws away his career and ultimately his life.
The overall message here is pretty bleak: if you have principles, sooner or later those principles are going to contradict each other - then what?
The Dark Knight and Cognitive Dissonance
Another recurring theme in this film is that in order to win the good guys have to break their rules - Dent, on the verge of madness, starts to torture a criminal for information. Gordon fakes his own death and lets his family think him gone. Batman sets up an Orwellian (if technologically improbable) city-wide surveillance system. Everyone seems to be operating on the condition of "Just this once..."
But what does this say? That the rules are only important when they're easy to uphold? If everyone needs to go against their own principles to come out on top, then of what value are the principles? Doesn't The Joker make his point -with flying colors - if the only way to beat him is to suspend the rules and raise high the Jolly Roger of Chaos (but just this once!)?
It's this hypocrisy, this inability of the system to cope with a threat that exceeds its scope, that makes the Joker's victory inevitable. After all, he only set out to prove that the systems that guide us are flawed. How could he fail? We all know that they are.
It's a forced frontal impact with this truth that makes Dent snap - his life only made sense when he devoted it to the system. He was the embodiment of the way things are supposed to work - and all he gets in return is a brutally murdered fiance and disfigurement. He is, in effect, split in two - half of him wants to believe in the system, but half of him wants to throw it away and embrace the chaos. It's no coincidence that Two-Face is introduced in this film - Two-Face is The Joker's legacy, he represents the Truth of chaos. He is the conclusion - that there is no simple way to resolve the cognitive dissonance that emerges when the system is intentionally undermined.
"You Either Die a Hero or Live to Become the Villain."
Finally, what conclusions can we draw about who Batman has to become in order to serve his city? As we've seen,
- Batman has to take a back seat to the "real people" of his city.
- The Rules are a weakness that Batman's villains will exploit. If Batman is to remain viable, he must make his own rules.
- Decisions are lasting and meaningful - when Batman takes the heat for Dent's madness, he's making an irrevocable choice that will have lasting repercussions.
- Finally, Batman must find a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance to which everyone else falls prey, even if this means he has to become monstrous to serve his ends.
So what does that tell us? Henceforth, Batman has chosen to become, more than ever, a servant who is operating behind the scenes. While his rules were always more lax than those of the police, they must become laxer still - he must embrace a fluidity that allows him to do whatever he has to do to protect his city. The death of the woman he loves is his fault - what worse could he do?
This is the lesson of the Dark Knight, that the system doesn't work and that principles are weakness. I feel like, should Nolan continue this series, the events of this film will be seen as a baptism. The Dark Knight, to remain viable, must become darker still - he has to be as loose with the rules as The Joker if he hopes to stand against the threat to his wards. He becomes the scapegoat, he sins so that nobody else has to.
I for one am already excited about where the next film in the franchise will go. I feel like Bruce hasn't had time to grieve, like Batman hasn't been able to catch his breath long enough to suffer. His one tie to humanity ("Don't make me your only hope for a normal life, Bruce") is severed, and practically by his own had - what could possibly keep him afloat?
As Dark as this movie was, I sense that it's only the tip of the iceberg for Nolan's Batman. As the final scene unfolds, the police chasing the now-fugitive Batman into the night, Dent's tragic pronouncement from earlier in the film comes into stark relief: Dent has, through Batman's grace, been allowed to die a hero. It is Batman who must now live to become the villain.
What did you think?