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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.

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