Good and evil. Supposedly diametric beings are deconstructed and turned on their heads in The Dark Knight, which has cemented Batman as the cutting-edge franchise in comic-book adaptations. Christopher Nolan’s latest film effortlessly combines eye-catching action with visceral emotion in an unpredictable blend of excellence.
The plot, at its most basic level, is just the Joker (Heath Ledger) wreaking havoc on Gotham while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) struggles to strike a balance between his personal interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and his creation of Batman. Meanwhile, Wayne contemplates destroying Batman to give way to the new face of hope, hard-hitting crime-fighter, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who also competes for Rachel’s affections. Also returning from Batman Begins is Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Lieutenant/Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Enterprise CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
The plot, on a more complex level, blurs the line between good and evil. To be sure, the Joker is evil, and Batman is good, but the line between the two is an ever-changing line in the sand. The Dark Knight, more than other superhero movie shows that there are real consequences to Batman’s actions, no matter how noble the intentions. Even if Batman acts for the greater good, people die under his watch, and sometimes because of it. This type of vigilante justice hasn’t gone unnoticed among the restless Gotham people.
Then there is the Joker, in a legendary performance by Ledger in his final appearance on film. His portrayal is so creepy, sinister and ominous that he captures and captives right away. But what truly makes his portrayal of the Joker is the depth and intensity that is given to his character. His primary goal is chaos, but it’s done in such a way as to penetrate to the depths of the human character. In one particularly ghastly deed, the Joker leaves two bombs on two separate passenger ferries with each boat given the opportunity to blow the other one out of the water. Who will be the first boat to blink first?
This is the kind of moral question that the Joker attempts to plague Batman, Gordon and Dent with throughout the movie until what was once viewed as incorruptible and invincible suddenly turns into more of a realistic reality of the shades of grey that everyone is painted with. And in that way, perhaps the Joker isn’t as purely evil as he’s made out to be. In contrast with the other “good guys” in the film such as Dent and Batman, the Joker is the most brutally honest, and is asking other people to share in his question for the truth.
And the truth is that superheroes – if such a thing exists – are completely fallible. With almost any film dealing with a hero, he (or she) is expected to overcome insurmountable odds, and following a struggle and with great determination, he has able to “save the day” and is universally loved.
That Hollywood ending is completely dispensed with, because for Batman, it’s not even a viable option. The Joker presents predicaments where there is no ability to “win” and no possible way to save every single protagonist. Batman is forced to choose between saving the city, and saving his love. It is a thankless task, and the mood and lighting match the bleak and dark ethical questions that the brooding Batman must face.
Another dilemma on Wayne’s is the direction he wants to take Batman in. Dent is clearly the new face of justice and hope, and Batman seems to have lost its purpose. Gotham needs an identifiable face, but when Dent transforms into Two-Face, the Joker has managed to force Wayne to choose between eviscerating the legend of Batman or damaging the image of the District Attorney he worked so hard to entrench.
While all of this is happening, we forget that the movie is also an action movie, and what an action movie it is. The Batmobile also comes with a Batcycle that twists and turns through the unforgiving underbelly of Gotham. There is also a special operation in Hong Kong that looks like it could be ripped from a James Bond movie and a hostage situation that pays homage to Miami Vice. The best part about the action is that it never subverts the plot. It is a necessary factor, but never completely overwhelms.
But with the Joker and Dent being introduced as key characters, the movie sputters somewhat in its exposition. With the movie bouncing back and forth between the Joker, Batman, Dent and Gordon, themes are raised and then dismissed, only to be raised again later. The juggling act is done well for the most part, but necessarily, with so many characters heading in all different directions, it’s difficult to develop a unifying theme.
Perhaps the biggest causality of the constant juggling is Batman himself. In Batman Begins, the storyline focused around the development of a legend, as Bruce Wayne struggled to invent Batman as he went along. Even though there was a very identifiable villain, Ra’s al Ghul, the primary purpose of the antagonist was still to develop the Batman character, and explain the complexities behind Bruce Wayne.
There were no other major characters to develop. The struggles of Wayne are still somewhat explored, but The Dark Knight inevitably focuses on a story told through the eyes of The Joker. Batman is almost more of a secondary character to develop the critique on human nature.
And that critique is that nothing is as plain as black and white. In the end, the Joker gets his way. The line is blurred between good and evil, so much so, that the once invincible Batman becomes a villain and a fugitive.
A Dark Knight, indeed.
Rating: **** (out of 5)