Review of Dark Knight

There is a scene (and mind you; spoilers are coming) in the new Batman movie that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern America. Two ferries are filled with passengers escaping from Gotham city. One ferry is filled with prisoners from the city jail and the other with ordinary citizens. Both are told that there is a bomb on board and are given a trigger. The trigger is for the opposite boat. If one boat is blown the other will be saved if neither chooses to blow the other up then both bombs will be triggered. They have half an hour to decide.

While the boat with prisoners is relatively placid the other starts a vigorous debate about whether they have the right to take another’s life to save their own. The passengers take to voting to decide whether to destroy the other boat. What a fantastic scene in an election year! When faced with mutually assured destruction democracy will solve our problems! All we have to do is vote against what we despise.

There are so many great elements to this movie that make it at once complex and at times overwhelming but at the base level enjoyable. Mostly what this film accomplishes is in making icons out of people. The Joker and Batman (through spectacular performances) achieve a status that moves beyond human to archetype status. In that way the film succeeds in being one of the best comic to movie adaptations. The Joker is a sadistic, insane mastermind who is only after chaos and Batman is a vindictive, calculating detective.

The clash of the two opens up the mind-scape of the film so that it moves beyond simple character motivations. They need each other and form two halves of the same whole. Two comics come to mind when thinking about this movie The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. They both provide some of the most complex motivations behind the characters. What’s interesting is the way the film is able to complicate the Batman character in the vein of the Dark Knight Returns and yet still have audiences cheer him as a hero.

Don’t me wrong I idolized Batman as a child and still consider him one of my favorite comic heros — though they take up less importance for me now. But let’s face it Batman is a fascist. He craves order and has to do “rightâ€?. But when tested it’s less out of motivation to be just and pure as in say Superman and more out of a very human sense of revenge. As the Joker points out in the film Batman needs the Joker to prove to himself that he is right and that justice is being served. The question is how far do you go to ensure the safety of civilization? In his quest for “justiceâ€? Batman crosses so many lines that he estranges himself from allies sacrificing their safety and trust and pushes the limits of what is “rightâ€?.

The Joker has no compunctions about working against any system of order. He is so removed form any traceable form of motivation that he is almost a pure personification of chaos. The amount of planning that would have had to have been done to achieve the twists and turns in plot would crumble under analysis of logic but it doesn’t matter. The point is the icon, the archetype and not the details. Even the origin of the hideous scars on the Joker’s face are confused in a twisted back story that changes each time it is told and it’s unclear whether the Joker even fully knows why or what he is. He is dedicated in his resolve in the very least to break down order, to celebrate entropy. He doesn’t really care about “wrongâ€? or “rightâ€? he despises any systems.

In this way I feel the tragedy of Ledger’s death really does impact the film. One of the reasons that many have presumed that the film is at the focus of such popularity is because it is our last film starring the late actor. I don’t really care about whether it sells well or not because of it (though I do believe that those involved with the making of the film did handle the debacle in a mature and thoughtful manner, choosing not to capitalize on it). What is interesting, however, is how it influences our perception of the iconography of the film. If the Joker is really the personification of anarchy it’s more chilling that even the actor who played him can no longer be understood or thought of as a living, breathing human.

There’s a scene in the middle of the film where the Joker leans out the window of a car and there is no diegetic sound at all, instead there is just a low rumble of ambient noise somewhere between a music score and a sound effect. The impact is chilling. Being in that theater staring up at the image of a deceased man I felt a kind of fear and leaned on the edge of my seat. For a summer action film The Dark Knight is bleak but as a fable for our modern times it’s powerful and important.

9 Comments on this Post.

  1. It’s interesting to contemplate how much Batman is acting to serve his own interests relative to being the (impossible) ideal of the true selfless hero. There is a difference, I suspect, in how this is insinuated in the movie versus the comic book. I think the movie makes it pretty explicit that he is our hero in the purely altruistic sense, especially with commissioner Gordon’s voiceover at the end: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” The part of your thesis regarding how Batman is ultimately seeking order to manifest his own world view may be possible in the comic, where his motivations are more ambivalent, but here in the movie we are led to infer that he pretty much does the right things for the right reasons. The most powerful example of this is his inability to kill the Joker–surely doing so would restore more order than generate chaos–but he does not, and it isn’t because he likes the game. He believes in the people of his world to uphold the justice system and put the Joker where he should be, not needing to force upon them his idea of order.

  2. I think you point to what I was disappointed in in the movie. Not that he should have killed the Joker but more I kind of wish it was a little more bleak. I think the clearest example of where we can see flaws in his personal vendetta versus a higher calling is the letter from Rachel where she explicitly says that he needs Batman more for himself than for the greater good. I’d have to see it again but at least she seems to see the selfishness in his motivations and implies that he is totally lost.

  3. See, I’ve always felt that Batman is being incredibly selfless. He’s given up a life of carefree luxury to spend his nights getting beat up to make Gotham a better place. I think that Rachel’s letter comes from a place of misunderstanding. Bruce Wayne can never give up being Batman not because he enjoys being Batman. Rather, he can’t give up the mask because there is no Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne died when his parents did. Wayne is little more than a mask to wear when it’s not convenient to be Batman. Incidental, to respond to Eric, Batman didn’t spare the Joker because he likes the game, Batman spared the Joker because he doesn’t kill. It’s not something they explicitly state in the film, but it’s become so ingrained in the character that it’s hard to avoid. When Batman goes out at night, he’s not looking to stop as much crime as possible, or to put as many crazies behind bars. Batman’s single goal every night is that no one dies. Not a single person. That’s why he can’t kill the Joker.

  4. nicolita

    WE WERE TOTALLY JUST DISCUSSING MOST OF THESE MOTIFS!!! I COMPLETELY AGREE… THE “SUMMER ACTION FLICK” IS TOTALLY THE GREATEST TRAGEDY OF THE YEAR, GOTHAM’S/OUR INCAPACITY TO ABANDON OUR OWN FAMILIAR NARRATIVES OF GOOD AND EVIL AND RECOGNIZE THE COMPLEXITY (SEE: HARVEY DENT) BEHIND ICONIZED BEINGS LIKE JOKER & BATMAN (AND NOW TWOFACE) SUCH THAT nothing CAN TRULY BE RESOLVED!!!

  5. Mitch, you misread my comment, though it’s no big deal :o)

  6. If this film had a particular human condition in mind throughout its stages of production it would be a Janus Complex. As I see it, it affords the most coherent means of associating the characters to one another, both as individuals and as icons. The three main characters (Bruce Wayne/Batman, the Joker, and Harvey “Two-Face” Dent), are informed by a duality, and also thereby represent different modes of carrying that duality. In my view, what makes this film so enjoyable and affecting, is the degree to which it demonstrates the continuum between one’s own demons and the ethical praxis it informs through the character conflicts (or should I say comparisons?).

    In the instance of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker, both share a similar point of origin (a traumatic youth wrought by violence), yet are diametrically opposed in the means by which they’ve coped with its reality. Specifically, both have attempted to regain (or reclaim) a sense of agency over violence, the vehicle for which is a persona that they’ve created: Batman and the Joker.
    I would argue that their divergence goes deeper than simply the opposition between primal forces of order and chaos. I believe that the persona coping-mechanism utilized by both is ultimately what guides their ethos, and can be observed beyond their actions and interactions within the persona itself.

    Wayne and Batman are ostensibly two discreet identities, with certain roles relegated to either one; Wayne participates in society, whereas Batman serves to preserve it; an activity that is coterminus with Wayne’s attempt at dealing with his childhood trauma, attempting to “fix” before it happens again (e.g. classic case of compulsive neurosis from guilt). In this sense Batman is the personification of order; Batman is order only insofar as chaos threatens Wayne’s sense of agency (as violent criminality is synonymous with chaos within the diegesis). Thus I believe that Mitch correctly identifies Wayne’s need for Batman originating not from personal gratification; though I would go a step further to assert it instead originates from a deep-seated anxiety and guilt.

    The Joker, on the other hand, deals with (presumably) the same issues, but has arrived at a very different mode of compensation. Instead of assuming the role of order to retroactively combat his past victimizers, the Joker has identified with the very pain itself, internalizing it and becoming it, obliterating his entire sense of self. With the Joker, there is no original person that the persona points back to, as the persona was born at the precise moment that whoever the Joker used to be was destroyed by their reality. (That we never see the Joker without his make-up off is very meaningful; he’s a mask without a face underneath, even wearing a second mask in his introduction).
    As such, this is the point of the Joker: that peoples’ habitual lives are the only things separating them from what the Joker is: the void. His wanton destruction serves to illustration the attachments that people need to protect themselves from the Joker’s truth, which is why he is at once damningly erratic as well as ruthless. This is also what the Joker means when he professes to Batman: “You complete me.” The Joker could kill Batman, but it wouldn’t serve the Joker’s paradigm. Rather, if the Joker can goad Batman into destroying himself, in the same way that the Joker’s original identity did, then the Joker’s agency would be realized. In other words, if the Joker can force the Batman to become the very thing he stands against, once more demonstrating the arbitrarily cruelty and violence inherent in the world. Indeed, this is the significance of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s role in the film.

    Harvey Dent and his “Two-Face” persona, serve as an example of what would happen to Wayne if Batman failed to maintain the integrity of his purpose. Two-Face is in fact a near perfect blend between Batman and the Joker: the only true and blind justice in the world is remorseless cruelty. Additionally, Two-Face also demonstrates the perils of the persona being influenced by the emotional needs of its creator; Two-Face’s drive to exact revenge on Gordon is akin to a sacrificial lamb; it doesn’t matter who suffers, as long as someone else does to. As Two-Face retorts to Gordon’s protests of his son’s innocence: “But its fair!” Harvey’s persona has become so corrupted by his grief that even innocence has become divorced from pardon, as his reality equates cruelty with justice.

    What ends up saving both Wayne and his Batman persona is the recognition of their separation; that Batman can do and be things, even things that Wayne finds abhorrant. Ironically, Wayne protects the order his anxiety needs by allowing his persona to take paradoxical responsibility for transgressions he did not commit. (This paradox has much more to it, but I don’t have coherent thoughts formed about it yet. My guess is that the next installment will develop it further). Additionally, it also allows Batman to “win” over the Joker: he becomes a violent figure, but falsely, diffusing the Joker’s intended consequent.

    In summation, I must insist that in this film, Batman is not an intrinsically fascistic character; only in outward appearance. This is more true in the comics (from the “Year One” era and onward), and particularly so of Frank Miller (as in everything he does…). And I believe that the reason for this lies in the comparisons constructed between these three principle Janus-complicated characters, and more importantly, owing to the emphasis on the distinction between the person and their persona.

    —–

    In reference to the late Heath Ledger:

    Insofar as the film portrayal of the Joker is a mask without a face, the fact that the man who performed the role is now deceased lends a disturbing (and tragic)intertextual dimension. Though personally, I think that the strength of the Joker performance is strong enough to have achieved the same eerie effect, were Ledger still alive today. I wouldn’t read too much into it beyond how unfortunately a propos it is for the character.

    Incidentally, what is with film characters who don face paint and then immediately die? Does anybody else find that surreal?

  7. Nick: It’s interesting, I think that you are able to see more of the human motivations in the characters than I do. I think on my next watch I’m going to try to keep this in mind. Because I was focusing only on the image of the joker + batman it led me to view them merely as stand ins. While I think my reading still works, I do enjoy how you seem to be looking more at the psychology of the characters, something which I completely ignored.

  8. Thanks.

    Btw, I don’t know if you’ve read up about the film’s production, but you are spot-on about identifying “The Killing Joke” and “The Dark Knight Returns” as major influences; Nolan specifically mentions that the former work was the primary inspiration for the Joker in this film.

    I’m going to see it again tomorrow, hopefully. I may have some additional thoughts yet… 😉

  9. Incidentally, I did not mean to imply that your reading is wrong, as it is fundamentally accurate in terms of archetypes. I just took it as framework for expanding it into the psychological depth of the writing.

    You probably would have ended up with the same conclusions after your second viewing anyways. Its such a dense film that its impossible to take all its facets in at once!

    Cheers,

    – Nick

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