For some, The Dark Knight was the moment when the “comic book movie” finally became cinema. For others, it was the moment when the bottom fell out, when the “comic book movie” became a self-indulgent and bloated enterprise, a mix of art-film pretentiousness and big-budget spectacle splatter. I take the middle view: this was the moment when the “comic book movie” stopped being a “comic book” — a genre — and started becoming a medium, a receptacle for whatever you could see fit to pour into it.
Small wonder The Dark Knight has been stuck with so many genre labels apart from “comic book”. I’ve seen it variously described as an urban thriller, a heist film, a noir crime drama, an existential revenge picture — anything and everything that would seem to take it that much further from its roots in either the Bob Kane comic, the campy ‘60s TV series, or the Pop Art Deco movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Batman itself has, and comic-book movies generally have, been reinvented to the point where it’s the reinvention that matters far more than the source material.
Just when Batman is considering ceding the fight to others better equipped for the job, in comes the Joker.
And why not, when barely anyone going into the theater to see The Dark Knight (or, for that matter, any comic-book derived film) has read an issue of Batman, and most likely won’t be stopping by the comic store to check one out on the way back home from the theater anyway? The idea that comic-book movies should, or do, inspire direct interest in their source material is something of a misreading, if you ask me. It’s a nice bonus, but it’s foolish to expect any comic-book movie — even one of this caliber — to make comics-in-the-abstract that much more of a mainstream taste. Also, it isn’t as if comics are such a rarefied taste anymore: the current generation of adults not only grew up with Marvel and DC as cultural fixtures, but are far more casual and accepting of it than the previous ones. (Manga and anime, on the other hand…)
Batman Begins worked by grounding the Batman/ Bruce Wayne origin story — the superhero — in a world that was identifiably our own, if a little wilder and darker around the edges. The Dark Knight takes things a step further and does the same for the supervillain: his power over us is fear, a perversion of what Batman himself uses to intimidate his enemies. Small wonder it begins not with Batman himself, but with said villain, the Joker (Heath Ledger), emerging as the sole survivor and brutal mastermind of a bank heist in which everyone involved (save him) has been puppeteered into double-crossing each other. It’s a mob bank, which to the Joker only makes the whole thing that much more fun. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you … stranger,” he gloats to the shotgun-toting bank manager, one of a number of hints as to what made him this way isn’t a fraction as important as the fact that he is this way. Later, he offers up various and contradictory stories about how he got his trademark slit-mouth smile; like John Doe in SE7EN, he’s this way by choice.
It’s no coincidence that Batman / Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is also Batman by choice: he’s reached a point in his new career as a self-appointed vigilante where he has started to question the meaning of his work. Gotham only needed Batman as an interstitial measure, someone to step in because the system was so fundamentally broken. He’s doubly ambivalent about the presence of copycats — on one hand, it means Gotham’s that much more fearless; on the other hand, it might mean creating more problems than are solved. But there are signs the system as a whole may be on the mend, thanks to the rise of a white-knight prosecutor, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a man with brass balls at least the size of Bruce Wayne’s: when a mob thug pulls a gun on him in court, he tears it away from the guy and punches him in the face. Getting shot is not the worst thing that happens to you in this job; being disgraced is.
In Wayne’s purview, Gotham needs someone like Dent more than it does Batman — and Dent’s biggest job, apart from getting the mob out of town, is putting Batman on trial. Wayne’s heartthrob Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhaal) also finds Dent appealing, something else Wayne has to accept with outward good grace (he’s willing to throw Dent a lavish fundraiser) even when his impulses tell him otherwise. And Wayne’s trusted man in the police, Gordon (Gary Oldman), is persuaded by Batman to allow Dent to take major steps against the mob’s finances … doubly so after Batman spirits the mob’s moneyman back from his Hong Kong eyrie and dumps him on the prosecutor’s doorstep.
Cornered, Gotham’s mob turns to the man who has been ripping them off this whole time: the Joker. With his snot-green dishrag of withered hair, his sloppy greasepaint (all the more so to cover his vile, mouth-widening scars), and his ugly custom clothing, he’s as unlike the rest of the mob as they get — save maybe for the fact that he’s even more violent than they are: he waltzes into the mob conference room with a coat full of grenades and shoves a pencil into a henchman’s eye. Whether or not any of his plans — starting with “Kill the Batman” — actually work is not even the point for him. “I’m like a dog chasing cars,” he admits later on, “I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!”
Since the mob won’t let him off Batman for half their take — a deal he makes with as straight a face as he can muster — he tries another tack: for every day that Batman doesn’t unmask himself, the very people he is protecting will drop like flies. Not just semi-random bystanders like one of the masked mercenaries who showed up near the beginning, but people close to him and Gordon — the police commissioner, for instance, or the judge presiding over the mob’s gargantuan farce of a trial, or even Gordon himself. The Joker’s way of pulling all this off is more akin to a Charles Manson than a Charles Calthrop, where people who seemed trustable a moment ago turn out to be under his very large and greasy thumb, and where the killings themselves are upraised middle fingers to anyone close enough to think about fighting back. The only weapon against someone like that, or so it would seem, is to fight just as dirty, and to do that Dent presents himself to the authorities as Batman.
Dent’s serving as bait, of course, and soon he’s being pursued across Gotham by the Joker and his minions in the film’s big action set-piece. It’s an easy criticism to say that moments like this — and the earlier Hong Kong “skyhook” sequence — are the raw meat thrown out by the filmmakers to the comic-book fans in the audience as a way to mollify them. The truth is more complicated: the plotting, double-crossing, gothic (pun intended) intrigue, and ambivalent motives that have powered the rest of the film are also every bit as much what the Batman stories have been about. They give the action scenes context and depth, even at the risk of making them seem like a gratuitous front-loading of action into a story that propels itself along so well in the near-absence of it. E.g.: when Batman jet-propels the Batmobile into the line of fire of the Joker’s bazooka, it comes close to feeling like the movie’s falling back on the sort of slam-bangery that the Batmans of the ‘80s and ‘90s used instead of having a story. But those are isolated moments, not the fabric of the film itself, and the end result is that it’s hard not to get swept along and have our belief cheerfully suspended. In fact, the most eye-popping scenes in the film require the least suspension of disbelief, because they come late enough in the film that they end up being cash-outs on the trust we’ve been paying into the film the whole time — and because they revolve around motives and behavior, not merely the physics of colliding objects.
The real trouble, and the genuine diablerie of the Joker, only becomes clear after he’s arrested. He has gone to great lengths to make sure any number of things can happen entirely without him — not just because he enjoys wielding that kind of power over other people, but because he really, really, really wants to see what happens. When he says to Batman (with uncommon sincerity), “You complete me”, he’s not just talking about the fact that they’re enemies or polar opposites; he’s thrilled with the way someone else is finally doing something other than playing a passive role in his psychic economy. Batman is not just another test subject, but someone who stands a chance of being the “better class of criminal” that the Joker embodies. He’s like a more philosophically credible version of Bond villain Auric Goldfinger (“Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He's fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime!”), if only because he could probably eat Goldfinger for breakfast before breaking out of jail.
And not only does the Joker escape, but he engineers enough mayhem to drive an already-rattled Harvey Dent into — I don’t want to say madness, for all the cheap connotations of the word, but maybe better to say faithlessness. With half his face burned off and no sense that any plans are worth laying, Dent becomes as much an agent of selfish, let’s-see-what-happens-when-we-do-this chaos as the Joker. The movie even stacks the deck in his favor somewhat by having him go gunning, at least at first, for the very people who deserve it: the top mob boss (an amazingly slimy Eric Roberts), or his treacherous cronies in the police department. The movie does a calculated job of showing us that not only can he fall, but that he will have a long way to fall: at one point earlier, when confronted with one of the Joker’s men, he performs a trial run of his coin-toss routine — and is more infuriated by Batman interrupting him than his coin toss not going his way. He’s willing to be a monster for the greater good, but the greater good has other ideas, and so with him what comes most to mind is Kahlil Gibran’s line from The Prophet: “What is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?”
That formula scarcely explains the Joker, though — but maybe there it would be better to invoke Nietzsche, since the Joker seems to be quite happy standing outside of such petty labels as good and evil. Small wonder he sneers at both the mob and the cops in one of his speeches: “I had a vision of a world without Batman — and it was so boring” — right before putting a bounty on the head of a Wayne Industries insider who knows Bruce is the Bat. Either he dies, or a hospital blows up. That turns out to be mere warmup: his final symphony of violence involves a boatload of Gothamites and a boatload of Arkham Asylum’s worst (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”, indeed), each capable of blowing the other up — that is, if the Joker doesn’t blow them up first. He’s like a mad scientist, with the city as his laboratory and the basic cupidity and vileness of man as his volatile chemicals, but the one thing he doesn’t expect is for one of his experiments to fail. Not that, by then, he hasn’t already done his job — which is, as he puts it, “showing the schemers how pathetic their plans are”. Among the schemers are Dent, and Wayne, and maybe between those two that’s mission enough for any supervillain’s career.
The strongest and most sustained criticisms of The Dark Knight revolve around three things: its length (a function of its complexity), its logistics, and its overweening need to be taken seriously as drama and adventure, not just melodrama and action. The first is not a problem for me; no good movie is ever too long. The second falls under the category of fiction being an inherently contrived affair. We don’t ask how the Joker’s men got a hundred barrels of diesel and ANFO into each of the ferries, or question that Batman is able to pull fingerprints off a shattered bullet (well, okay, maybe we do) — not because we have no interest in our stories being tightly-knit constructions but because logistics that unravel are not nearly as destructive as, say, inexplicable changes of motive. I don’t expect to convince literal-minded types who count the number of shots fired from a gun and complain when someone doesn’t run out of ammo on cue, but fiction that doesn’t elect to take liberties that only fiction can take is just depriving itself of one of its biggest pleasures.
It’s the third complaint that’s most valid for me, because it creates the most genuine obstacles to the film’s enjoyment. It leads to scenes like the overlong conclusion, where too much of it is people reciting (or shouting) platitudes at each other. That said platitudes are indeed rooted in everything the film has been about is little compensation; it’s still annoying to see the film park itself in neutral like that when before it found so many ways to zoom along. But even these things aren’t enough to ruin the overall impact of the film. No film is perfect, anyway; and in the long view those slow moments only call that much attention more to all the parts that do work so well.
As some of our “fantastic” entertainments become that much grittier, closer-to-the-floor, that much less un-fantastic by the original measure for such things, they grow that much more informed about human nature, or at least about the mechanics of professional storytelling. They are slicker and more effective, but not always that much more interesting when they’re done with (how often do last year’s blockbusters, genuine or merely intended, merit rewatching?), and they run the risk of becoming too cemented in reality for their own good. A story is not interesting merely because it is realistic, but because its realism is used in the service of building a greater appreciation for all the part of the story that are not realistic — for both contrast and grounding. We are amused that the Batsuit seems halfway feasible, the Batmobile far more so, but we are most impressed by the way Wayne, Dent, the Joker and the rest of the cast are credibly human. They may be printed from the same gaudy four-color ink as the comics, but that ink is not wasted on simply being gaudy.
The real ambition of the film is not just in being a “serious” comic book movie (as if the comics didn’t already take their work quite seriously; ask any comics fan), but in something I thought about in conjunction with Batman Begins: how this kind of story can work as a variety of, for lack of a better term, sociological science fiction. If the appearance in today’s world of a high-tech vigilante like Batman would no longer seem ridiculous, it’s up for grabs whether it’s because the technology is feasible (the Tumbler/Batmobile, after all, was a real working vehicle) or because we’ve been rehearsing, so to speak, the motives, methodologies, and manifestations of such a person through our fiction.
There is more here than just the idea of someone molding himself in that image; many people do that, often badly. What’s more important is how in the face of a truly successful incarnation of such a thing, we might at this point be that much more primed to accept him, to think of him as an inevitability and not as an aberration, and to work with him instead of against him. Such a thing reminds me once again of Gibran, this time from his epitaph: “I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you.” With any luck he will manifest as Bruce Wayne, and not one of his nemeses, but that would be up to us to ensure.