Movie Talk: The Dark Knight

Rewatched The Dark Knight today.

Or, rather, watched the rest of it, which I had watched the first half sometime last week. Overall, it holds up. Mostly.

I talked about this on twitter, but I think that film’s real strength is the cinematography- the way the shots and sound come together is simply masterful, and some scenes are just, so well done it’s ridiculous. Where it fails is the script and the plot, which, until the last third, just seem to meander. It’s a lot of setup and a lot of “here’s Batman, watch him do a Batman thing and be angsty about it” which is really the worst Batman stuff.

Not to mention, Christian Bale is, at best, an okay Batman. He’s not amazing, and to be fair his role isn’t that great either. Lots of grunting and whining, alternately. Heath Ledger’s Joker is still fantastic though, absolutely the show-stealer of the movie.

Batman has always been a bit… crypto-fascist? I don’t know how else to put that. He’s a vigilante, yes, but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that he’s a vigilante who acts, basically, as a super-cop, and in the universe of Nolan, that means all cops alternately fear him or want to be him.

Cops in the Nolanverse are perfect guardian angels, and civilians are generally an angry, afraid, and temptable mob. It’s weird then, that in TDK, the one major climactic Joker failing revolves around underestimating the good of the populace — a scene that, to be honest, feels undeserved. Didn’t we just spend an entire movie learning about how these people are idiots? When did they suddenly gain a heart?

The film has weird, half-answered questions throughout. Alfred, in the space of 20 minutes or so, goes from urging Wayne to leave Batman behind (as, according to him, the presence of the Batman has aggravated local crime syndicates into further debauchery and, well, crime) to wholeheartedly insisting that Wayne keep up the Batman (because “the city needs you”). Which is it? Is Batman an aggravating actor in a chess game of crime, or is he the city’s savior?

The end of the movie tries to clear this up — yes, Batman is a hero, but he’s one that we have to fight, not like that Dent guy who managed to die a real hero. Except he didn’t? The final act of the film, like many superhero movies, tells the viewer that evil is a deficiency of character — something that good people ‘fall into’ — while goodness is an action. This seems, sort of, not a bad conclusion? Except it becomes complicated when you examine it on the systemic level that the films, honestly, don’t ever do.

Harvey Dent is a good guy when he works through the law, and Batman is a good guy when he works outside the law, but the bad guys, they’re always bad. In every scenario. The ‘crime bosses’ have no families, no homes, no life other than shadowy ‘drugs’ and shadowy ‘crime’, and even these actions are muddy. The purest glimpse we see of ‘bad guys doing bad guy things’ in the film is in the opening, with the Joker’s bank robbery, and even that is really a Joker action (which is to say, chaotic) not an act of the crime syndicates. The Joker is chaos, and chaos is evil, because this chaos wants to kill Batman, and Batman is good. Or something.

If there’s one thing that gray-morality tales do that irk me, it’s be gray. It’s one thing to show a nuanced world, but it’s another to not really say anything through it. In hindsight, while I think Rises is a much worse film than The Dark Knight, they both only really have one clear message: Cops Be Good. Cops are nearly always good — even if they’re tricked into being bad, they’re always virtuous. The populace, the civilians, they’re the wildcard. You never know if they’re gonna be smart or stupid, evil or good.

Which then raises an interesting question: if it’s the civilian populace most often shown to be the ‘wildcard’ in situations of tension in the Nolanverse, what is he saying by putting the Joker (the ultimate wildcard, no pun intended) as the principal villain of The Dark Knight?

Sure, there’s a lot to be said about the Joker being the purest ideological opposite to the Batman. I know those arguments, they’re good arguments, and I don’t want to rehash them here. I’m talking about the Joker being, at the end of the story, really not much more than a civilian in the Nolanverse, elevated to the status of supervillain because he had the same technological junk that the Batman has (relatively, to be fair) but he didn’t have the superhuman, uh, personality(?) that characterizes the Nolanverse Batman.

The Joker plays the civilian mindset gone rogue, he’s unpredictable, only cares to save his skin, and somehow only holds an ideology of chaos. He doesn’t hate the Batman per se, he just hates the concept of the Batman being a force of rules and justice. But in the world of Nolan, the Batman is supercop. He enforces the rules… bigger… than the cops.

The point that I’m meandering around here is pretty simple: The Dark Knight doesn’t view civilians as actors in the game of Gotham because they are chaotic actors. The Joker acts as a chaotic force who can play the game, and that’s why he upsets things (also the wanton killing, but c’mon bear with me here).

It’s an ideological viewpoint that isn’t even blatantly fascist as it is monarchal: the Batman is king by divine right, and the Joker is a court jester vying for the crown. The cops are, I dunno, soldiers or something. Not a perfect metaphor, but there’s something to it.


Movie Talk is my super unprofessional series where I talk about movies.