The burns and scars of The Dark Knight

The midnight IMAX screening of The Dark Knight ended shortly after 2:30 a.m. Most of the moviegoers greeted the closing title screen with rapturous applause. Me? I just sat there.

20 hours later, another screening – different theatre, smaller screen, other side of town. Three of those hours were spent sleeping, which tricked me into thinking that the calendar had turned. Shawn rightfully pointed out to me that I was, in fact, seeing the same movie twice on the same day. But I had to see it again as soon as possible, to make sure that my first reaction was accurate.

It was like déjà vu when the credits rolled. Everyone applauded, I sat silently, stunned.

It’s not supposed to be this way. When I go into a movie with ridiculously high expectations, I’m supposed to walk out of the theatre negotiating with myself over whether to embrace the film’s shortcomings or scorn them. I’m accustomed to wrestling myself over whether to blame the movie or my misguided enthusiasm for why I feel underwhelmed. Often my final thoughts become less like an opinion and more like an apology. It’s a time honoured tradition, the oft-ugly results of which can be seen all over this blog.

The Dark Knight left me perplexed because asks no excuses of me as a moviegoer. It requires no qualifications, no small print typed in eight-point font below my endorsement. It provides me the most minor of quibbles to chew on, where other films force-feed chiseled slabs of fat and gristle. It inspires shock and awe upon an initial viewing, followed by respect and admiration on the second.

In short: The Dark Knight is a masterpiece.

Bold words? I’m just getting started. Those that compare The Dark Knight to its superhero contemporaries – impressive films like Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, X-2 – aim far too low. It deserves to stand alongside no less than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as this decade’s best example of blockbuster cinema. And in presenting the full realization of Christopher Nolan’s dark, uncompromising take on Gotham’s caped crusader, The Dark Knight rivals (dare I say it) The Empire Strikes Back as one of the most satisfyingly bleak and brilliant action/adventure films ever made.

I’ll admit that the movie changes on a second viewing – it’s such a tour-de-force of suspense and human drama that it plays quite a bit different when you know what’s going to happen. But the second time around only makes one realize the craft and care that director Christopher Nolan, his brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan, and a top-of-their-game cast have approached the film with. Not unlike the Nolans’ previous film The Prestige, this is a movie full of smartly-executed pieces coming together to make an extraordinary whole, one that actually seems smarter the more one thinks about it.

This post is going to be spoiler-filled rather than just boiler plate because I want to discuss the film as a whole, so stop here all ye who’ve yet to see the movie. Just know that no matter what your level of anticipation for The Dark Knight, your expectations are off-base: you have absolutely no idea what you’re in for.

* * *

Alright, so I’m going to do something a bit different than, well, everyone in discussing this film: I’m only going to pay lip service to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. For one, everything worth saying about it has already been said and, yes, it’s all true. But it’s mostly that too many reviewers (and probably audience members, for that matter) are so dazzled by Ledger’s tour-de-force that they don’t give enough credit to the way in which the Nolans leverage the Joker’s anarchy and chaos to tell one hell of a story.

If The Prestige was a magic trick rife with misdirection and trickery, The Dark Knight is a chemical reaction where we see every burn, every flame and every scar. The film’s plot centres around the coming together of three disparate elements that have enough in common to find shared ground and work together for a united purpose. But the Nolans throw a terrifying, cackling catalyst into the mix, one explicitly designed to react harshly to the original elements. When the reaction finishes, only the catalyst remains unchanged, and nothing in Gotham is ever the same again.

It’s the alliance between the elements – vigilante symbol Batman, good cop in a bad town Jim Gordon, and “white knight” of the law Harvey Dent – that’s the core of the film, and it’s one of the riskier and more interesting choices that The Dark Knight makes. What could have been a distraction from Bruce Wayne’s story arc in lesser hands succeeds because the Nolans use Gordon and Dent as both friends and foils to Batman, improving our understanding of all three characters instead of just taking away from the superhero’s screentime. And it’s an alliance that appears to work for Gotham – the trio succeeds in bringing to trial a good majority of the city’s crime lords in one fell swoop in the movie’s first act.

But the cracks are already there, just waiting to be exploited. Gordon is overly protective of his relationship with Batman. Dent is angry with Gordon that so many in his police department are corrupt. And even putting aside Batman’s key flaws – a taste for theatricality and escalation just waiting to be matched – he has a very disparate view of his role in the relationship from Dent. Dent sees Batman as a valuable partner, but a self-interested Bruce Wayne sees Dent as a replacement for the heroic symbol Batman has become and an opportunity to pass the torch and retire (and, perhaps, steal back Rachel Dawes from Dent’s arms, of course).

Enter the catalyst: the Joker. The Dark Knight makes you realize just how wrong Tim Burton got the character almost two decades ago when he gave us the character’s complete origin start-to-finish. If the Joker is to be a terrorist – and at his core, that’s exactly what he is – then loses something when we know where he’s coming from. Terrorism thrives on fear, and we fear what we don’t understand (as Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone told Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins). The Nolans don’t just want Gotham to be scared of the Joker – they want to extend that fear to the audience as well. When the Joker tells us different stories about his origin, or performs his “magic trick,” or sets up another elaborate morality prank, we’re left uncertain that anything the he says or does can be believed or expected, and that’s truly unnerving.

I will say this much, though: the Joker’s speech to a disfigured Dent lying in his hospital bed, one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes, is completely full of shit. Contrary to his own opinion, the Joker as much a planner as anyone else in the film. It’s just that his plans are strategically designed to undo the best laid plans of others, and more importantly, they’re more malleable. The Joker’s original goal is merely to bring down Batman, but he comes to realize that the Dark Knight has equally-important counterparts and allies who fight in the light (Dent) and in the grey (Gordon). So he aims to bring down no less than the entire trifecta of justice.

And this is the coup-de-grace, The Dark Knight’s tragic brilliance: he succeeds. The Joker wins.

* * *

Okay, so it’s not a total victory. Batman manages to stop Dent from achieving the Joker’s demented endgame for Gordon, and the people of Gotham don’t perform in the Joker’s “social experiment” like he planned (anyone else think that each detonator would have blown up its own boat? Seems like a very Joker thing to do). But by that point, the damage is done. The alliance between Batman, Gordon and Dent is forever broken, and all three men find themselves shattered, torn and forever changed.

Dent, obviously, fares the worst. The Joker’s decision to shift his strategy from targeting from Batman alone to making Dent the centre of his devious scheme is the subtle shift that takes place over the film’s running time. Partly it’s because Batman proves a more difficult nut to crack than expected (of course, we the viewer know that Bruce Wayne was ready to surrender at the film’s midpoint, but the Joker never knows that). But it’s mostly because of something that Gordon says at the end of the movie: that in destroying Dent, the Joker “took the best of us.”

It’s that righteousness that makes Dent the ideal target. Batman and Gordon understand compromise in their roles, the former operating outside of the law and the latter knowingly working among scum and corruption. In contrast, Dent’s unflinching faith in order and control – best embodied in his two-headed coin, embracing the token idea of chance but never its consequences – is unsustainable, just waiting to be shattered by something (or someone) that demonstrates just how fucked up and random this world can be.

The way in which his fall ties in with the Joker’s rise is one of the reasons why Dent’s story arc is so satisfying. The other is that the Nolans resist the urge to turn Dent into a supervillain. “Two-Face,” as popularly understood, doesn’t exist in this world; from his first scene through to his disfigurement and his untimely end, Harvey Dent remains Harvey Dent. What’s lost after the accident and Rachel’s malicious, horrifying murder (seriously, what a shockingly great scene) is his faith in order, that there is true law in the world besides that of chance. And the path of revenge he puts himself on – with Gordon and his family as the endpoint – embodies his new law of chance: heads or tails.

* * *

Of the three protagonists, Gordon emerges the most intact, although that’s only because Batman is able to save his son from Dent’s hands. But as a cop, what he looses is his two most powerful allies in solving crime: Dent fighting in the light, Batman fighting in the shadows.

Batman’s final choice in the film happens so fast, and so close to the final credits, that its implications really don’t have time to sink in. But it’s huge. Bruce Wayne created Batman to act as a symbol of fear to the criminals of Gotham, but over time he has also become a symbol of hope for many – look at how Gordon’s son idolizes the Caped Crusader. And at the end of the film, he’s probably still the most heroic of the bunch (in spite of a privacy-infringing surveillance network that I’m sure many, including Lucius, would consider morally questionable).

And it gives it up. Forced to choose between showing Gotham the true face(s) of what its district attorney has become and tarnishing his own image, he chooses the latter. He takes the blame for Dent’s murders and ends the alliance between Batman and any legal authority. This not only makes his job more difficult; it cripples the assets of the Gotham police force (you recall that Gordon was making use of Wayne Enterprises’ technology in his unit’s operations).

But just as he did when he created the character of Batman, Bruce Wayne chooses symbolism over practicality. Batman may help clean up the streets, but he doesn’t provide nearly as much hope to Gotham as Harvey Dent can, even in death. He knows that if the people of Gotham see what has become of Harvey Dent, what incentive is there for any of them to stand up to injustice, to take on the horrifying scum that runs throughout their city? Without a white hope, what hope do they have?

Hell, even with Dent’s posthumous reputation intact, hope is hard to come by. In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes asks Bruce Wayne, “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?” The Dark Knight rewrites the question: “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do something?” And its answer disturbing: that in the face of horror and chaos, good people will fall. They will fail. They will turn their backs on their principles. They will loose that which they hold most dear. And though some may maintain some faith in those they vowed to protect, that faith will be shaken to its very core.

Good doesn’t prevail in The Dark Knight. It merely survives – tattered, torn and frayed. I have no idea where this series goes from here. I hope that the Nolans have a storyline to top this one, but I fear that following up this bold, operatic piece of blockbuster filmmaking may surpass the Joker as Batman’s biggest test to date.

Watch: The Dark Knight theatrical trailer

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2 responses to “The burns and scars of The Dark Knight

  1. Pingback: A Reminder » Blog Archive » The Dark Knight·

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