“And here we go.” – Joker
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the middle film and the pinnacle of his trilogy. Besides being the greatest comic book movie of all time, it is simply a great movie regardless of genre. When I saw it in 2008, I actually ruined my first experience. I could not resist looking at some pictures and reading a little bit about the storylines beforehand and pieced together too much of the plot. Nevertheless, I was able to fully appreciate the near perfection of the movie the second time I watched it. To date, it is the only movie I have watched that got significantly better the second and subsequent times. The Dark Knight has everything you want in a movie: exhilarating action sequences, great plot, and fantastic characters. Of course, the star of stars is Heath Ledger, who stole the show as the Joker and posthumously won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. As we know, Ledger died six months before the release of the movie. After Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as the Joker in Batman (1989), few thought that his Joker could be topped. I was definitely among the majority who thought the task was impossible. However, Ledger proved me wrong and blew Nicholson’s performance out of the water. Ledger’s version of the Joker will forever be the face of this movie and is the main reason it receives so much acclaim. In Ledger’s own words, his Joker is a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” While I will not say it is impossible again, I find it difficult to believe that anyone will be able to top Ledger’s Joker. The one criticism that I have heard about The Dark Knight is that it has too many climaxes. However, it is like saying something is so good that you cannot believe it. As such, you need to subtract a couple of points just to be safe. I respectfully disagree.
The film begins shortly after the events of Batman Begins. As the final scene of the first movie foretold, the theme of The Dark Knight is about escalation and the villain is the Joker. As such, the opening scene is a thrilling robbery of a mob bank masterminded by the Joker. He is completely diabolical as he tricks his own men into killing each other before killing the final accomplice himself so he can keep all the money. Similar to Batman (Christian Bale), the Joker has a flair for the dramatic. While Batman inspired good in Gotham, he has also inspired an escalation of evil in the form of the Joker. Nevertheless, the Joker is not seen as an urgent threat as Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) are focused on the mob. Gordon has moved up on the police force and leads his own Major Crimes Unit. In addition, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) enters the picture and is crucial in the fight as Gotham’s new district attorney (“DA”). He is relentless in his prosecution of the mob, which includes its new head Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts). He is also Rachel Dawes’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) boyfriend in the movie, which forms a love triangle with Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
With the help of Batman, Gordon has been very successful in fighting the mob by imprisoning its money launderers and is closing in on the mob’s last money launderer, Lau (Chin Han), who has possession of its “entire life savings”. Batman also ties up loose ends from Batman Begins by capturing Dr. Jonathan Crane/ Scarecrow in a drug bust. Cillian Murphy makes a solid cameo as Scarecrow. Nevertheless, the mob still has corrupt cops under its payroll. As such, Lau is alerted of a planned police raid to seize all of the mob’s funds and flees to Hong Kong with the money, believing it is far from the jurisdiction of the Gotham police. However, the Joker crashes the mob’s video conference with Lau. He warns the mob bosses that the real problem is Batman as he has no jurisdiction and will bring Lau back to Gotham. While the Joker offers to kill Batman, the mob turns him down as he wants half of all its money. Moreover, the mob bosses inherently do not trust the Joker as he already stole from them. In fact, one of the mob bosses, Gambol (Michael Jai White), is so incensed by the sight of Joker and that he puts a hit on the Joker. Of course, the tipping point for the mob is when Batman goes to Hong Kong and brings Lau back to Gotham. In the mob’s desperation, it turns to the Joker and unleashes him on Gotham. The Joker starts naming his victims and promises to continue to kill until Batman reveals his true identity. His most prominent killings are Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane) and Judge Cirillo, who is the only judge brave enough to help Harvey’s prosecutions. His killings and terrorist threats throw the city of Gotham into panic and chaos as the heroes desperately try to stop him.
Similar to Batman Begins, the Dark Knight has a great supporting cast. One can begin with Bruce’s loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Once again, Michael Caine is brilliant in the role. I love how Alfred is essential for keeping Bruce centered. While Bruce is overconfident at the beginning of the movie because of his successes and proclaims “Batman has no limits” despite the severe injuries he is incurring, Alfred responds that Bruce Wayne the person does have limits. When the Joker pushes Bruce to his limits and he wants to turn himself in as Batman, Alfred advises Bruce to “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice no one else can face: the right choice.” Alfred plays his role perfectly in being the voice of reason when Bruce is on the edge of going too far with Batman but also being the voice of encouragement when Bruce wants to give up. The trust and relationship between Alfred and Bruce is great part of the Batman story and Michael Caine and Christian Bale do another great job portraying that relationship in the Dark Knight.
Another key supporting character is Lucius Fox, who Bruce appointed as CEO of Wayne Enterprises at the end of Batman Begins. Similar to Caine, Fox is flawless in his supporting role. As CEO, Fox is able to provide Bruce with the technology he needs to be Batman, such as a new suit and the Batcycle. He also possesses an extremely high intelligence and uses it to handle Bruce’s “unusual requests” as Batman. For example, Fox has R&D develop a cell phone that acts as sonar. It was crucial for Batman’s mission to bring Lau back from Hong Kong as it is able to provide imaging of an entire building. Moreover, he gives Bruce the idea of mimicking the Skyhook program that Special Forces use. It utilizes a balloon magnet and a low flying plane that pulls the target up and out of a dangerous situation. It was definitely one of the most amazing concepts in the movie and great to see on the big screen. While Fox’s ingenuity is important, his morality is just as critical. When Bruce applies the sonar concept to all cell phones in Gotham so he can find the Joker, Fox vehemently opposes it as morally wrong. As Bruce already understood the moral dilemma between using the device to find the Joker and invading people’s privacy, he entrusts Fox with the power as Bruce has total faith in Fox’s moral authority. The relationship between Fox and Bruce is very well done throughout Nolan’s trilogy and helps differentiate it from all other versions of Batman. Of course, Fox is also a great character because he is wise-cracking, poised, and smooth in all situations. Nothing illustrates it more than in one of my most favorite scenes when lawyer Coleman Reese (Joshua Harto) figures out the Bruce is Batman and tries to blackmail Fox for money. In a perfectly calm response and with a smirk, Fox asks Reese “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands… And now your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck.”
The Dark Knight also shows Gordon’s ascension to commissioner. As in all three films, Gary Oldman does a fantastic job as Gordon. Similar to Alfred and Fox, Batman has complete trust in Gordon. One of Gordon’s greatest attributes is his loyalty to his allies and friends. However, I really liked how the film showed that it was also a weakness of Gordon’s as he was too trusting and too loyal. While he knows that the police force still has a lot of corrupt cops, he fails to accept that any of his men on his Major Crimes Unit could be among them and defends them to no end despite the warnings from Harvey. As Harvey ends up being correct about a couple of traitors in Gordon’s unit, Harvey ultimately holds Gordon responsible for the actions of those corrupt individuals as Gordon refused to listen. Nevertheless, Gordon does feel a lot of guilt for his naivety and the terrible tragedy it caused Harvey. Moreover, I thought that Nolan did a great job in portraying Gordon’s devotion to his family. Fearing for his family’s safety as the Joker targeted the heroes and the people they care about, Gordon took to extreme measures and faked his death at a key point during the movie. While the scenes with Gordon interacting with his son were short, they were very effective in illustrating Gordon’s love for his family and for his son in particular.
The one aspect I did not like about the movie was the change from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes. Holmes definitely made a terrible career decision in not returning to the role. I did not “fancy” Gyllenhaal’s performance at all. Holmes was stiff at times in Batman Begins but she did do very well as a no nonsense, idealist who was a moral guide for Bruce. Gyllenhaal’s version of Rachel is a smart ass, nag that I thought was annoying. At the end of the first movie, Rachel is proud of Bruce as he was secretly Batman while pretending to be an apathetic, playboy billionaire. In The Dark Knight, Rachel is again critical of Bruce. However, she knows he is protecting the city and making significant personal sacrifices as Batman to do so. As such, it contradicts the admiration she had for Bruce at the end of the first movie and made her very irritating. Nevertheless, the character plays a critical move in the story. As the Joker knows Rachel is the most important person in Harvey’s life and figures out that she also has a relationship with Batman, the Joker knows that killing her is the best way to devastate both heroes. I also liked how Nolan used the death to define both Harvey and Bruce through their responses to the loss.
Moreover, one of the best moments in the movie is the letter Rachel left for Alfred to give Bruce. In it, she notes that she has decided to marry Harvey. Due to the Joker’s reign of terror, the public demands Batman to turn himself into authorities. Understanding the importance of Batman, Harvey takes the blame and takes responsibility for being Batman. While Rachel originally waivered on accepting Harvey’s marriage proposal as she still has feelings for Bruce, her anger for Bruce in allowing Harvey to take the fall becomes the deciding factor. In her letter to Bruce, she notes “When I told you that if Gotham no longer needed Batman we could be together, I meant it. But I’m not sure the day will come when you no longer need Batman. I hope it does, and if it does, I will be there but as your friend. I’m sorry to let you down. If you lose your faith in me, please keep your faith in people.” Of course, Alfred never gives Bruce the letter as he realizes that it would devastate Bruce even more than her death as he believed Rachel would wait for him. Nevertheless, the scene is great because it proves once more that Bruce is madly in love with Rachel and how much the pain of losing her is for him, which also plays a significant role in the next movie. Moreover, the Rachel’s opinion that Bruce will have a difficult time letting going of Batman is a very important one and there is a lot of truth to it.
A new character that I thought Nolan did a great job with is Harvey Dent. I loved the portrayal of Harvey as Gotham’s white knight in contrast with Batman as the dark knight. As Gotham’s unwavering DA, he is the face of justice and the public holds him in the highest regard. As with most of our heroes in real life, that standard is usually difficult to live up to in reality. Harvey is warned by Gordon and Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) of the dangers he faces as he tries to stop the mob. As he is seen as the epitome of good, every criminal will be aiming to destroy his reputation to discredit his prosecution. However, Harvey is not deterred as he is completely confident he can handle it. One of the best scenes at the beginning of the movie is when Bruce crashes a date between Rachel and Harvey. Bruce does it for a couple of reasons. Of course, one of the reasons is jealousy which leads to some snippy comments between Bruce and Harvey to antagonize each other. The second reason is that he was testing Harvey to see if he can trust him. While Bruce tries to bait Harvey into saying negative comments about Batman, Harvey is animate in defending Batman. More importantly, Harvey wins Bruce over when he notes that Batman could not possibly want to be Batman forever and is looking for someone, like Harvey, to take over the fight. As it is exactly what Bruce wants as he would be able to be with Rachel as per her promise at the end of Batman Begins, Bruce gives his complete faith and support to Harvey.
However, we also know that Harvey eventually becomes Two-Face in the Batman mythology. In the same conversation, Harvey also makes the statement that “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” That line foreshadows the fall of Harvey during the movie. The subtle way Nolan incorporated some of the key aspects of Two Face was also brilliant. First, Harvey has a two headed coin that he uses to “make his own luck”. However, he gives it to Rachel before her death. In the explosion that kills her, one side of the coin is charred thus creating the two different sides that Two Face uses to make decisions. Moreover, the explosion that burns Harvey’s face was a unique yet believable way to scar his face into its two halves. I also liked that Nolan made Harvey an anti-hero vigilante instead of a full villain. As Spiderman 3 proved, trying to have too main villains becomes sloppy and counterproductive. Moreover, I really enjoyed Harvey as the foil for Bruce and Batman. Both men are passionate and dedicated to the justice. Moreover, they are in love with the same woman. As such, there are a lot of parallels between the men. As Harvey is considered the best of the heroes, he becomes the main target of the Joker. However, Harvey and Bruce both feel the same pain with the death of Rachel. Nevertheless, the pain ultimately causes Harvey to fall to madness and evil while Bruce remains just and moral throughout. In addition, I think the comparison and contrast between the two characters is great in showing how difficult it is for Batman to be moral all the time and the emotional toll it takes. In addition, I like how it brings us back to a point made by Bruce in Batman Begins in that “as a man, I can be ignored, destroyed”, such as Harvey, was but “as a symbol, I [Batman] can be incorruptible”.
While Nolan’s version of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face was great, Nolan and Heath Ledger’s vision for the Joker was perfect. They moved completely away from Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Instead, they decided to make the Joker into an anarchist and terrorist or “Agent of Chaos”. During the movie, Alfred has a perfect description of the Joker: “some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money… they can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn”. It is exactly the purpose of Ledger’s Joker. He puts people in impossible situations in which they are forced to choose between two awful decisions. For example, after he kills one of the mob bosses Gambol, he breaks a pool stick in half and tells Gambol’s men that they will have tryouts to join his team and that there is only one spot thus forcing them to kill each other to survive. The Joker also forces Batman in a moral dilemma as he only gives Batman enough time to either save Rachel or Harvey. In addition, the Joker knows Batman will choose Rachel and thus switches the locations he tells him. Finally, the Joker rigs two boats with explosives at the end of the movie. One of the boats has criminals while the other boat is innocent civilians. He gives each boat a detonator and forces them to make a decision to blow the other boat up to survive. Each situation is meant to force people into making one horrific decision or the other so the Joker can prove to people that they are animals that will do anything to save themselves. I also thought that the flashbacks of the Joker talking about his past were a clever way to develop the character and give his origin. Staying true to the mysterious origins of the Joker, he has lied so much about his past that even he does know the truth about himself anymore as shown by completely different accounts of how he got his scars he tells different people throughout the movie.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Batman interrogates the Joker after Harvey is kidnapped and missing. The conversation between the two was brilliant. First, the Joker notes that Batman has changed things forever and there is no going back. In essence, Batman has escalated things and inspired the Joker to be a “better class of criminal”. The Joker also admits that he has no interest in honoring his promise to the mob of killing Batman: “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off Mob dealers? No you… You complete me.” Moreover, he reveals his goal is to prove to Batman that the people of Gotham are no better than the Joker: “Their moral’s, their code… it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people… they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” It is definitely one of my most favorite scenes in the movie. It brings you into the mind of the Joker. Although you realize he is completely mad, there is also some morbid truth to what he says. During the scene, he also causes Batman to lose it when he notes that Rachel is also kidnapped and strapped to bombs. While Batman desperately tries to physically beat the Joker into telling him where Rachel is, the Joker simply laughs and says “You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” In that moment, you realize that the Joker is completely dedicated to chaos as he has no regard for his own self being. It is also what makes him completely dangerous and the ultimate villain.
Similarly, he has an equally memorable conversation with Harvey in the hospital after the death of Rachel. In a moment of comical relief, the Joker is dressed as a nurse and gives Harvey an awkward “hi”. While Harvey is completely enraged by the sight of the man who came up with the plan to kill his fiancé, the Joker simply responds “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… do things.” It is one of my most favorite lines the Joker gives during the movie and reinforces the idea that he is an “Agent of Chaos”. In the conversation with Harvey, the Joker also gives commentary about society: “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds”. It is a very true statement. No matter how terrible something may be, we willingly accept it as long as we expect it. However, we tend to overreact to rare tragedies and develop a disproportionate fear for them.
Another aspect of The Dark Knight that I thought was great was the end. First, the moral dilemma faced by the two boats is intriguing. Since one of the boats is filled with criminals, does it make it ok to blow that boat up to save the innocent people? In the end, Nolan used that scene to illustrate his belief that people are inherently good rather than inherently bad. In a very powerful moment, one of the prisoners gets up, takes the remote detonator from warden, and tells him “I’ll do what you should’ve did 10 minutes ago” before throwing the remote out the window. I liked how Nolan showed that even criminals have a sense of morality and that the Joker is alone in being pure evil. After the final fight in which Batman throws the Joker off the roof, he uses his grappling hook to save the Joker and pulls him back up. With the death of Ledger, I originally thought Nolan could have changed it to allow the Joker to fall and die to kill off the character as no one could play it better than Ledger. However, he made the correct call in not changing that scene as it was one of the best in the movie. As the Joker is dangling from the building, he tells Batman “Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Those lines summarize the two characters perfectly. No matter how evil a person may be, Batman is uncompromising in his beliefs and will not take a life. While Harvey is perceived as pure good and the best of the heroes, Batman is the only one that can truly live up to that high standard. Moreover, the Joker boasts that he “took Gotham’s white knight [Harvey] and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!” It proved how diabolical the Joker truly is and why he is Batman’s greatest adversary and one of the great villains of all time. The Joker knew that he probably could not outmatch Batman in a head to head confrontation. As such, his plan the entire time was to destroy Harvey’s reputation. It would destroy the spirit of Gotham as witnessing its greatest hero become corrupt would destroy all hope. As one could conclude, the reasons Ledger’s Joker is a great movie villain are that he is charismatic, compelling, unpredictable, devious, and entertaining.
Of course, the Joker is successful in corrupting Harvey. While he is mainly an anti-hero killing the corrupt cops and criminals responsible for Rachel’s death, he eventually becomes a full villain as it was earlier foreshadowed. His fall is complete when he threatens the life of Gordon’s son in order to punish Gordon for Rachel’s death. When I first saw this movie, I was on complete edge as I thought that Harvey might actually kill an innocent boy to take the trilogy to an unimaginable level of darkness. However, Batman is able to save Gordon’s son. In a nice touch, Harvey’s coin lands on the side of justice. Nevertheless, Batman and Gordon are faced with a tough situation as Harvey’s crimes will destroy any hope for Gotham. His prosecution will fail and the criminals will flow right back into the streets. However, Batman decides to take responsibility for the crimes despite Gordon’s initial objection. Batman convinces Gordon with some of the best lines in the movie: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I’m not a hero, like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be. I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.” The decision links back to the beginning of the movie when Alfred reminds Bruce the point of Batman is that he can make the decision no one else can, the right decision. It also ties back to what Harvey told Bruce earlier about dying as a hero before becoming a villain.
During the ending, I also thought it was very moving when Batman says “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more. Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” As he begins saying those words, the movie cuts to a scene of Alfred burning Rachel’s letter as that truth is not good enough for Bruce and he deserves more. Next, it cuts to a scene of Fox inputting his name into the machine entrusted to him by Batman. While the machine was clearly an invasion of privacy and immoral, Bruce always knew it should only be used once in order to stop the Joker. Stopping an evil of that magnitude requires extreme measures. As absolute power corrupts absolutely, it takes an incorruptible man to use that power and immediately give it back up when it is no longer needed. As the input of Fox’s name causes the machine to self destruct, Fox has a smile on his face as his faith in Bruce is rewarded. I also thought it was a great touch to have Gordon’s son come down and ask why Batman is fleeing as he did not doing anything wrong. In response, Gordon ends the movie with the perfect lines synced to the perfect music composed by Hans Zimmer: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”