"This town deserves a better class of criminal." – The Joker
Indeed. And by extension, audiences deserve a better class of villain. In The Dark Knight, we get one. Director Christopher Nolan seems to have a keen understanding that we want our heroes to be badass — but we want our villains to be way badder. The movie tells a story about Batman, sure, but really, this is The Joker's tale. Even when it's Batman's story. . . The Joker owns it.
The Dark Knight is unlike almost any other superhero movie that came before it. It's insanely dark, it's melancholy, it doesn't leave you with a great sense of peace. But the thing is, we can handle it. I think this is Nolan giving audiences some credit. And every superhero tale has these themes of good vs. evil, order vs. chaos, hero vs. villain. It's just that this one doesn't sugarcoat these things at all. And why should they be sugarcoated? The superhero's tale is actually the perfect vehicle for exploring these things, and explore them we do. Nolan brings us an affecting, disturbingly dark tale, and one that could easily be seen as an allegory for the goings-on of today's world (terrorism vs. peace, cowardice vs. heroism, etc.). To see more what I mean (and I promise — no spoilers),
Christian Bale reprises his role as the manly, gravel-voiced Batman by night and the wealthy Bruce Wayne by day. Michael Caine again dryly charms his way through the role of Bruce's helpful butler Alfred, and Gary Oldman is again the likable Commissioner Gordon. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives Rachel Dawes, Bruce's love interest and Gotham City's District Attorney, some much-needed depth and chutzpah. In this installment, there's an evil mastermind on the loose, terrorizing Gotham, and his name is The Joker. As The Joker continues to taunt Batman, trying to get him to break his noble moral code of beating the bad guys without actually harming anyone, the body count rises and Joker gets closer and closer to forcing the citizens of Gotham City to turn on each other. He is the greatest fearmonger of all time.
Heath Ledger is thoroughly mesmerizing as Joker. Should we be talking Oscars? Absolutely. I haven't seen a performance so impeccably realized, so desperately truthful in a long, long time. However, another impressive performance comes from Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Gotham's great white hope for a safer, Joker-less future. His mixture of political-minded bravado and inner turmoil makes for a far more layered character than one might expect.
In perhaps my favorite scene — one that is so exciting, and yet so agonizing — we get both of these tortured souls, The Joker and Harvey Dent, alone together. The outcome of this scene is a profound sense of despair because in it we witness how quickly people can shift from good to evil, and how easy and nonsensical violence is. On Joker's part, there is no real reasoning behind his cruel madness, and we're reminded that sometimes evil simply exists for no good reason. It taps into a very real, basic and horrible fear: that in this world where terrorism could lurk anywhere, where chaos and war and murder exist, we struggle continuously to figure out "why?" The Joker represents our most feared response to that question: There is no reason.
Then again, here is another truth: Sometimes people choose good over evil, no matter what. Some will surprise you with their unselfishness. There is a lot of bleakness in this film, but there is also hope.
Of course, compounding the darkness of the movie is the maddening real-life tragedy that is forever intertwined with it. An unsettling side effect of Ledger's death is that we will never see the man behind the garish, horrifying makeup. And in this sense, the Joker is forever, hauntingly alive. There’s no Heath Ledger to do the late-night TV show circuit or the red carpet interviews. He's not coming out from behind the screen to reassure us, "No, no, it's all an act. Here I am, just a guy, just an actor, see?" Logically, we're adults who understand that the Joker doesn't exist. And yet. . . Ledger's absence causes the tiniest of doubts in the back of our minds, the part that's still on board for superhero movies. With no one telling us otherwise, we're left with the cryptic suggestion that the Joker might very well be. . . real.
This is partly what has left me with such a sense of uneasiness since watching the movie, and one of the things that is keeping The Dark Knight at the forefront of my mind. But even beyond that, the film is so well-written, thrillingly suspenseful, action-packed and brilliantly acted. It's all the things we want in a superhero movie — along with a whole bunch of dark, thorny morality issues tossed in.
All told: It. Is. Amazing.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.