Friday, July 25, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Batman, more than most comic-book heroes, has always been about dichotomies- Batman vs. Bruce, good vs. evil, law vs. order, and so on. But all too often, the series has either expressed these themes in the broadest of terms or smoothed them out to the point of becoming negligible. Thankfully, Nolan plays a different game than his predecessors, exploding the existing dichotomies and throwing in some others for good measure. Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) is still a hero, but it’s questionable how much of a good guy he is. Raymond Chandler once wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” but Batman can be awfully mean at times, and get his hands dirty. More than once in The Dark Knight, he makes morally questionable decisions (such as monitoring every cellular phone in the city) in the name of doing good. The Dark Knight poses the fascinating question of whether we’re able to deal with that.

Most superhero movies square their protagonist off against a nefarious counterpart, but The Dark Knight has more on its mind than a hero/villain showdown. For much of the film’s running time, Nolan contrasts Batman/Bruce with district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), newly elected with the goal of bringing Gotham City’s criminals to justice. The two men have similar goals, but while Batman lacks faith in the system to accomplish his desired end, Dent is the face of that very system. Even though he admires the swift justice administered by the Dark Knight, Dent positions himself as “the white knight,” seeking to eliminate crime through due process. If Bruce Wayne is a pragmatist, Dent is a seemingly incorruptible idealist, a point driven home by his Obama-esque campaign slogan, “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

For a while, Dent’s brand of justice works, cutting a large swath through Gotham’s criminal underworld. But all this changes once The Joker (Heath Ledger) enters the picture. We first see The Joker in the film’s opening scene, staging a robbery on a mob-owned bank only to kill all of his cohorts and escape, alone, with the cash. The Joker isn’t like the other villains prowling the streets of the city. Whereas the established crime syndicates live by their own codes and rules (and have made arrangements with the police in order to survive), The Joker’s sole purpose in life is to stir up anarchy- to leave the populace of Gotham teetering on the edge and let them push themselves over.

Heath Ledger’s Joker has gotten a lot of attention from the press since his death, but I think the character would be one of the great villains even if were still with us. To begin with, Ledger is a far cry from the statelier style of Jack Nicholson. Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was too similar to the Jack persona to be truly scary- more kooky uncle than stone-cold psycho- Ledger immerses himself fully in the character, making him a knife-wielding punk-rock criminal mastermind.

Like Shakespeare’s Iago, this Joker is evil, pure and simple, and every mocking attempt on his part to provide a context or rationalization for his actions only underlines how reductive such rationalizations are when they’re presented seriously in other films. It’s a genuinely disturbing performance, not least to my Knight’s Tale-loving girlfriend. But at the same time, there’s something fiendishly pleasurable about the way Ledger operates in the role, from his delivery of the line, “no, I kill the bus driver” (and its priceless aftermath) to his final fade out. Ledger is in rarefied territory here, joining a murderer’s row- ranging from Alex DeLarge to Daniel Plainview- of irredeemable heavies we can’t help but love.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Nolan’s screenplay is the way he integrates probability problems and game theory into the storyline. Time and again characters are forced to play the odds in order to make a difficult decision. Many of the Joker’s threats carry a heavy price- to name one example, Batman can turn himself in, or the Joker will kill one person every day until he unmasks himself. Or the film’s climactic sequence, in which Nolan employs a variation of the classic game theory problem The Prisoner’s Dilemma to pit two ferries full of people against each other.

But again, Nolan isn’t just showing off here, but setting up perhaps his most important dichotomy- choice versus chance. For all his love of justice, Harvey Dent believes in luck, jokingly flipping a two-headed coin whenever he has to make a tough decision. But when he’s horribly disfigured by an accident (causing him to become “Two-Face”), this belief in chance takes on a deadly undercurrent, as the lives of those who’ve wronged him rests on a coin flip, Anton Chigurh-style.

By contrast, Bruce- who of course is a “two-face” himself- represents choice. As long as he continues fighting crime by night, a happy life with his true love Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will be out of the question (can it be a coincidence that Rachel is not only Dent’s current girlfriend but also a prosecuter herself?). Eventually, he must turn his back on the police department and the populace itself in order the catch the Joker. And in the end, Batman takes the rap for Two-Face’s crimes in order to protect the good name of Harvey Dent. In other words, he inverts the prisoner’s dilemma- rather than letting Dent take the fall in order to free himself, he chooses to become a fugitive and face the maximum punishment. This decision affirms not only Bruce’s sense of morality, but his humanity as well. It’s a bold choice, but a necessary one, allowing the city to keep its white knight even while it turns on the dark one.

The Dark Knight isn’t quite a perfect comic book movie- the action sequences are too haphazardly-directed for that- but it lingers in the mind far more than more conventionally exciting superhero movies can hope to do. Unlike most movies of its kind, the film carries a real feeling of danger, as Nolan isn’t afraid of exploring some terrifying areas most movies wouldn’t touch, even killing off more than one significant character in the interest of thematic resonance. Most blockbusters feel like fairy tales- there’s some tension, some suspense, but in the end the bad guys are punished and everyone lives happily ever after. But the events of The Dark Knight will change- even scar- the characters forever. The Dark Knight isn’t just a classic comic book movie, but a pretty great movie in general, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

1 comment:

James said...

Excellent review. Nice point about Batman's own "two-faced" nature; I hadn't explicitly considered that.

I liked how Nolan seemed to be suggesting that the whole "white knight" stuff is a load of feel-good claptrap, and that the effective heroes are the ones willing to stand up and take the full impact of whatever the bad guys can throw. Dent ultimately wasn't willing to do this, but Bruce was. Some felt the point was overstated, but I found it pitch perfect.