The Dark Knight
More than the sum of its parts, mostly due to its rightly celebrated performance of central villainy, The Dark Knight is nevertheless an unwieldy mixture of the inspired and strictly functional, assembled by a director entirely lacking cognisance of his own limitations. As a result, it manages to be both a formidable experience and an overrated one.
But then, how could it not be the latter… The movie was a rare phenomenon, a billion dollar-plus grosser when such things weren’t yet ten-a-penny (only the fourth to do so, not accounting for inflation). A superhero movie that could be taken seriously (oh, the joy!) such that its lack of Best Picture Oscar contention became contentious (more nominees were ushered in a year later, leading to criteria so slack even Black Panther could eventually get a nod). And the Nolanites burgeoned in numbers, acolytes who deemed the director incapable of doing wrong. An aura that persisted at least until The Dark Knight Returns proved somewhat less satisfying than its caped predecessor. Still, though, this movie remains lodged at Number 4 in IMDB’s all-time chart and shows no sign of taking a tumble any time soon.
Of course, The Dark Knight Returns might have been a very different story, had Heath Ledger not so rudely expired; it’s been suggested Nolan would have continued with the character in some capacity (and that, as David Goyer originally conceived the trilogy, Harvey wouldn’t have become Two-Face until the third picture, wherein Joker would be on trial, and/or make for a Lecter figure Bats needs to consult). I’m doubtful Nolan – who seemed uncertain he’d even want to embark on a third following The Dark Knight’s release – would have risked the repetition of keeping the character centre stage, but some form of role would surely have occurred (much like the Scarecrow). You can see The Dark Knight Returns’ problems in trying to fill the gap, not helped any by Nolan casting someone as capable as Tom Hardy, only to ensure he’s virtually unrecognisable/inaudible (he then went and covered him up again in Dunkirk).
Ledger is The Dark Knight. Which shouldn’t ignore that this is easily Bale’s best showing beneath the cowl. His take on Batman completely works here, because he responds to the extremes of duress the Joker incites with frustration, rage and violence, all well within Bale’s actual wheelhouse. That reversal of texture – Batman is the straight man of the piece, basically – doesn’t play so well across all aspects of the movie, but it lands perfectly in terms of primary purpose (and thus does so more effectively than Tim Burton’s Batman, which can’t find a distinctive place for Michael Keaton, however leftfield the casting may have been).
The legend of Ledger in the Joker role, his posthumous Oscar, and his subsequent spectral invocation with the MKUltra shenanigans of Aurora (although the truth of that one, even beyond that interpretation, well…) casts a long shadow. Mythmaking runs the gamut, from Donald Marshall, among his musical achievements, intimating he was pretty much responsible for the key notes of the Joker, in a Heath clone suit*, to Rev Bob Larson exorcist extraordinaire, making headlines for not quite saying he thought Ledger was possessed (“I would say…something overtook that man. There is a strong possibility that somehow, he just took on too much of the evil of this character”). Gilliam on the other hand (renowned starver of horses, innocent chronicler of adrenochrome, and recently cancelled) claims Ledger was in high spirits during filming, delighted to be let off the leash, and that any ensuing darkness rising was due to legal matters preying on his mind.
Whatever he may or may not have been channelling, the performance remains an extraordinary one, and while I’m critical of Nolan’s technical acumen, he evidently knows what he’s got here and captures it accordingly. I’ll come to the Joker’s motivation – anarchy/chaos causing – but it’s the sense of the unpredictable in the playing that gives the character his power.
He’s a figure stepping in from a horror movie; there’s a constant sense that a scene may lurch into the transgressive whenever he’s on screen, from his first, showstopper call out to Nolan’s previous movie (“How about a magic trick?”), to his Nurse Ratched drag act (the shot of him uniformed, gambolling away from the hospital is indelible). Perhaps most defining, and unsettling, though, is his rehearsed, constantly shifting account of his facial disfigurement. “You wanna know how I got these scars?” he asks his latest victim, before launching into, variably, an incident involving his father or his wife.
The inherent problem with such a turn as this is that it imbalances the rest of the movie. As noted, Bale does a more than decent reactive job, but in terms of structure and plot (as opposed to theme), Nolan is making his big sprawling crime movie, his Heat. Now, that obviously had Al Pacino – “Ferocious, aren’t I?” – going OTT, but there was never a point during the proceedings where Mann was unable to find the value in pursuing each of his threads. Nolan and Goyer have no such luck.
There are commendable vignettes – the opening bank robbery boasts an enervated cameo from William Fichtner as a bank manager fighting back. He’s a fine actor who can’t help but hold his own with whomever he’s sharing a scene. Likewise, you throw Eric Roberts into an indifferent mob boss part (Sal Maroni), and he makes something of it. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits Nolan’s conception much better than Katie Holmes did and seems to be part of the same picture as Bale and Eckhart. And Michael Caine is still in full platitude mode as Alfred, but he has one particularly juicy tale to unwrap (Burma’s warlord).
Much less effective are those with more significant subplots. Yet again, Gary Oldman essays the thanklessly grey role of James Gordon and can do nothing to make it compelling. It could just be that the character is inherently without a hook, or it could be that Oldman shrinks beneath his moustache into a devoutly unexceptional (but decent) man. Either way, his hero plotline (death, resurrection, promotion, pleading for his son’s life) leaves me cold.
More damaging is Harvey Dent. In a way, this happened before. No, not Billy Dee Williams, who didn’t even get a chance to suggest murk beneath the hood, but with Tommy Lee Jones, mugging to no avail because Jim Carrey had already won the battle just by being there. Aaron Eckhart is a solid performer, which is precisely why casting him as solid good guy DA Harvey was a mistake. It unbalances and unmoors the movie at a crucial stage, with the third act shift in focus from the Joker’s machinations to the effect they have on Dent.
Of names mentioned in connection with the part, I could absolutely see Liev Schreiber having done something with it, and Hugh Jackman might also have been a shrewd choice. Part of the problem, though, is how you make this character stand out in his own right, become as vital and necessary as the villain who made him. And I’m not sure that was going to happen. The concept behind him – “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain” – is salient, but it’s quite another thing to make that seem fresh and urgent.
The problems are even seen in visual realisation. Where Nolan’s tendency to his own version of realism absolutely works for the Joker, Harvey’s half-fried monster-mash face is exactly the wrong kind of excessive, too extreme to be legitimate and so very much something where you’re continually conscious it’s artificial, manipulated, CGI (especially ironic, given Nolan’s preferences – he thought makeup would look unrealistic, but compare this to, say, Darkman, and the more convincing is more than obvious). More than that still, while the Joker’s “Burn it down” conveys a narrative free-for-all quality whereby anything might happen next, Harvey’s revenger questing is unutterably dull, and directed at someone (Gordon) who is unutterably dull. In concert with several other elements, it ensures The Dark Knight’s third act is a bit of misfire.
There are nice touches sprinkled throughout Nolan and Goyer’s concept. The Batman wannabes. The cameo by Doctor Crane (“Not my diagnosis”). There are also ones that drag it down, because we’ve seen this before. What’s the increasingly battered and bruised Bruce if not a discarded thread from Pierce Brosnan’s quest for more Bond-ian depth? Mostly, though, what impresses is his, Goyer and Jonathan Nolan’s attempts to make the plot less facile than your average superheroer, such that the Joker’s plans are all contingent ones. He wants to be captured. Getting beaten down is part of his remit. Attacking the Harvey fundraiser. Misdirecting the rescue mission.
And it DOES offer us a movie where the hero is faced with genuine utilitarian choices, with consequences that don’t cheat, of The Wrath of Khan imprimatur (Bruce fails the test, like all movie heroes, by choosing personal over greater good, but in contrast to most, he must also face the fallout from this). That in itself is commendable. Of course, there’re also the familiar devices. It’s the second movie and the hero is considering hanging up the cape (although he has no time to here, at least). Then there’s the threat of a reveal of identity. And the ferry…
For the second time, we have Nolan attempting an action spectacular, and on this occasion, it bears emphasising that he is no Michael Mann. However impressively devised the set pieces – the bank robbery, the truck flip – may be, he lacks the spatial acumen to arrange them cleanly and coherently. Which means the action is often choppy, unfinessed and lacking kineticism. Batman in a nightclub isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds (if you can even recall that scene).
Sure, he creates defining images – Joker with his head out of a car window; the aforementioned exit from the hospital; the lights turning off in the Batcave; Hanged Man Joker suspended from the building – in combination with Wally Pfister, but it’s how you utilise them and coordinate them that counts when it comes to the action side, how you conceive your shots in service of an edited whole. The Dark Knight, in those episodes where the action does “play”, often does so thanks to the sterling contributions of Hans Zimmer, lending the material form, character and cohesion.
On the other hand, where he’s dealing with straightforward dramatics, actors one on one, or plot advancement, Nolan tends to deliver commendably. Whenever Ledger’s onscreen, his rasping, taunting, mocking tones are almost overpowering. The interrogation scene is a masterpiece of sinister sound design and accompanying intensity. All round, this has Zimmer (in collaboration with James Newton Howard) on peak form, as he often has been with Nolan (he is also, elsewhere, prone to the autopilot), and his work is at least as significant as Pfister’s if not more so. It is Zimmer who inscribes the epic sense to the mythmaking of Gordon’s final characterisation of Batman (the score missed even a nomination, unaccountably).
But what of The Dark Knight’s thematic content? What is Nolan trying to say? This was the point where he became the preeminent Hollywood moviemaker, and thus the one tasked with the greatest influence on audiences worldwide. With that come a whole gamut of responsibilities at the behest of one’s lords and masters, regardless of the thoughts one may have oneself. Is Nolan a stooge or fully on-board collaborator? Are his suggestions warnings, or are they the statements of one, Huxley-like, gloating at the social engineering experiment he is helping to coordinate?
Unsurprisingly, the movie is very careful to arrange its pieces in conflict, the good/preserving the status quo and the bad/disrupting it. The Dark Knight has no League of Shadows puppeteering those who believe they are in power, but it nevertheless draws attention to the manner in which events, views and narratives are staged and arranged.
Bruce is learning that the story he wishes to sell is insufficiently robust, so he seeks to put his clout behind another (as billionaire moguls tend to), that of Harvey Dent. He’ll do what he needs to in order to manufacture this, even to the extent of turning an ultimate villain into a hero. Because that’s what “noble” heroes do themselves: manipulate, herd and corral the masses into accepting a paradigm, as they’re too weak-minded to work it out on their own. Essentially, Nolan’s in agreement with the Joker’s surmisal, if not his approach, and thus we see the picture quite convincingly portraying a Hegelian dialectic.
The Joker is the ultimate card in carrying off such a narrative, something he explains in some detail: “You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying! If tomorrow, I told the press that, like, a gang banger would get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds!” The plan, the control, is everything: “The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans. Y’know they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know I’m telling the truth. It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and, uh, look where that got you”.
It’s the Press who sculpt such plans and feed the public thoughts to think, be they in relation to wars, diseases or financial disasters (and makes sure they have for or against, within carefully prescribed limits, in each case). In the movie’s narrative, the Joker is an agent of chaos, a genuine disruption of this careful nurtured control system (control that comes through both legitimate and illegitimate channels, so as to make the greater whole that is Gotham). In actuality, though, both Batman and the Joker, on their heightened canvases, are working their hardest to preserve the status quo. Everything either does ultimately reinforces the essential necessity of the state apparatus, the body that controls and dictates to and shepherds the sheep (this is, of course, fundamental, regardless of ostensible political affiliation, since the conflicting political affiliations are in themselves essential to the system).
If one wishes to seek out the Joker’s greater motivation, though, beyond what we are told in the narrative, one might be advised to look to his meta function in terms of the swathe of MKUltra signifiers, as seen by those he has influenced (The Dark Knight Returns), and the media presentation thereof.
Harvey Dent, meanwhile, is introduced as essentially decent. And yet, persevering within such a system, where there can be no legitimate rectitude, certainly at the higher levels, is impossible, hence his early recognition that he (or one) will eventually become a villain. Bruce may buy into Harvey’s legitimate wish to do good – “Gotham needs a hero with a face”; Nolan’s Batman is explicitly about presenting an image to the public, all about selling the people something, all about another form of deception, however ostensibly righteous his intent – but he’s no less cynical for that attitude.
When Harvey announces “I am the Batman”, Bruce considers the deceit to be an honourable one (“He’s not being the hero. He’s being something more”). He and the Joker both, to some extent, see Harvey as chess piece, one they are vying over. But one nurses “The whims of a terrorist” while the other is “A silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight”.
The Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilised people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
As Hegelian forces, Batman and the Joker are essential to each other; “You… you… complete me” may be a mocking burst of Jerry Maguire, but it recognises the truth of their dance: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever”. In this, the public are precisely as easy to manipulate as the Joker believes they are, and “only as good as the world allows them to be”. At least, that’s his tenet. That, in an extreme situation, such as a plandemic, people will turn on each other, accuse each other, despise each other, just as they would in historically less “advanced” times of dog-eat-dog oppression.
Does Nolan agree with the Joker? Nolan, in his fine linen troos and blazers? What’s the key to the ferry scene? Apart from being so pungently clichéd in dramatics, execution and resolution as to be borderline redundant (it conjures nothing so much as the memory of the regrettable Spidey-saved-by-commuters in Spider-Man 2: Hoo-Ra!) This is crucial, regardless of the thematic content, as it’s another reason the backend of the movie flounders. In terms of dramatic integrity, it represents yet more characters Nolan is introducing and expecting us to invest in, when he has enough already who aren’t exactly passing their appointed tasks with flying colours.
In terms of theme though, whether Nolan believes the message or not, the ferry represents convicts and commuters, the proles, recognising that the only way to break the push-pull of Hegelianism is to disassociate from it. To refuse to take part in it. It isn’t Batman, one part of the Hegelian construct, who saves them, gives them permission to live and reason to be grateful to him; it is their refusal to be blown in the wind of the system. Perhaps the reason this subplot is particularly weak is because Nolan doesn’t believe it himself.
Lucius Fox: Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous.
After all, elsewhere we find Bruce both deploring and affirming the value of the surveillance state, as a horrified Lucius Fox realises “You turned every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone”. Wayne has made each device a “microphone” and “a High-frequency generator-receiver” – “you can image all of Gotham” – and Lucius is resolute, rather like dear Eddie Snowden (ahem) that “This is too much power for one person… Spying on thirty million people…”
Obviously, it’s fine to spy on people if the threat – the whims of a terrorist – are sufficiently severe, and furthermore, it’s okay, because it’s a one-time-only deal (like the War on Terror was). After all, whatever Bruce’s failings, he means well. Right? The part about imaging people is resonant with hindsight too, as that’s precisely one of the ideas floated for 5G’s capacities; via relays dotted along every street, it will be possible to “see” into everyone’s homes. Comforting, eh? Let’s not forget too, we’ve already observed how Batman recognises no sovereignty of nations – he’s the UN, the NWO basically – in his quest to go in and swipe away those he deems wrongdoers, because might is right.
But wait. Is Batman actually… Donald Trump? After all, the Donald did say “I am Batman” back in 2015 (it would have been more perfect for Q-ers had he said “… THE Batman” verbatim). Like Harvey, to those who venerate him, “He’s not being the hero. He’s being something more”. Like Batman, he’s taking the fall for all our good. And like those who remain convinced there is a grand design – for good – despite pressing indicators to the contrary, we’re assured “Things were always going to get worse before they got better” (per the poster below “It’s all part of the plan”). Of course, using The Dark Knight as a template for such a scenario isn’t entirely comforting, as it comes part and parcel with recognising the need for further deception, that people cannot handle the unadulterated (“Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough”).
To the greater throng, The Dark Knight is Chris Nolan’s masterpiece, and the film that will continue to grant him acres of goodwill, no matter how many stodgily respectable historical propaganda pics he subsequently makes in his quest for awards validation. The Dark Knight isn’t a masterpiece, far from it, but it’s a case of the director’s “realist” approach to the superhero genre largely hitting a sweet spot. Ironically, much of that is down to how larger-than-life his star villain is.
*Addendum 12/09/22: While the understandable initial response would be to blanche at its ramifications, my understanding is that 95 percent of Marshall’s account of his experiences was accurate.