Two madmen at war with each other and themselves.
Editor’s note: I was originally going to hold off on publishing this review due to an upcoming in-depth article I’m working on. However, upon learning that today would have been Heath Ledger’s 37th birthday, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to honor the late actor’s magnificent work. So, without further adieu, here is my review for the magnificent superhero epic that is ‘The Dark Knight.’
The Dark Knight is a moral dilemma about two madmen trying to make sense out of their own worlds. One hides his madness with a mask. The other demonstrates it proudly with a crooked smile and a demented laugh. We define one as “good” and the other as “bad”, but really, what’s the real difference between these two? They are both traumatized by tragedies they’ve experienced at very young ages, and one was clearly more devastating than the other. Just switch around Bruce Wayne’s childhood with that of the Joker’s for a second. Is it really that far-fetched to think that they could have grown up to become the other person?
It’s difficult to draw such similar parallels between a film’s protagonist and antagonist, especially in a superhero movie where everything is supposed to be so cut and dry. But Christopher Nolan orchestrates his characters masterfully here in The Dark Knight, a film that feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy than it does as a superhero blockbuster. It isn’t a film that is driven by big-budget fights and special effects, although those technical elements definitely don’t suffer in the movie all the same. This is a movie driven by character’s ambitions, desires, loss, and pain. Rarely does a film reach into such dark depths and have such outstanding payoff.
This movie is, of course, the sequel to Nolan’s highly praised 2005 prequel Batman Begins, which too succeeds in showing Bruce Wayne not as a comic book icon, but as a human being, reliably portrayed by Christian Bale with his own complexions and regrets. The Dark Knight continues Bruce’s story, but takes focus off of Batman and puts a larger focus on Gotham, the city Bruce is sworn to protect. In doing that, Nolan inadvertently creates another character in the Batman story, and you only need to look at its citizens to see what the character is like. It’s manipulative, murderous, deceitful, selfish, and crooked, with the only evidence of decency in only a handful of citizens wanting to do the right thing.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, of course, sees the sick nature of Gotham and imposes his own version of justice upon the city. From a different perspective, could the Joker be considered the hero of the story? Both Batman and the Joker are vigilantes in their own ways. The difference is who they see as the main poison to Gotham.
Like any other superhero, Batman sees the criminals and mob bosses as the biggest culprits to Gotham’s decay. The Joker, however, sees it differently. He sees the city’s politicians, judges, police officers, and commissioners as the real criminals. Technically, neither is wrong. All of these people are responsible for the state that Gotham is in, and Batman and Joker are just picking two different sides to the same coin. Our instinct tells us to root for Batman, mostly because we are the everyday regular citizen he’s fighting to protect. But the Joker has been hurt day-in and day-out by regular citizens. So has Batman. His parents were killed by a citizen of Gotham. The Joker forces citizens to kill each other in The Dark Knight. In witnessing all of this murder and corruption taking place, you can’t help but ask yourself one question: are we even worth saving?
This gloomy idea of morality has been explored by Christopher Nolan before. Indeed, his career has been defined by character’s questioning ethics in 2000’s Memento and 2006’s The Prestige. Look at those films and how eerily similar they are to The Dark Knight. Look at the parallels not just in character and theme, but in tone and aesthetic. Look at how closely they are shot. Look at how tightly the action is edited together, yet coherent enough to understand everything we need to. Look at the character’s conflicts that test them and, in some cases, even break them. Look at their state of mind and security, and how quickly they decay in the midst of crippling loss, paranoia, and distrust.
This is why The Dark Knight is almost universally seen as the best comic book movie of all time: because it is not a comic book movie. Nolan didn’t film it like a comic book movie. He didn’t want to make a comic book movie, or at least, in the conventional sense. Everything involved with this movie, from the writing to the framing to the visual effects to the acting, was constructed with the idea that Nolan and Warner Bros. were making something much more than a comic book movie. They were making a crime film, a psychological drama, and a visual poem in disguise as a superhero blockbuster.
Just to clarify, I’m not knocking the superhero genre. Some of the greatest movies of all time spawned out of that genre, and if done right, it can be the best out of any of the other film genres. Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Superman II humanized a superhero that was anything but human. Spider-Man made an ordinary character extraordinary. X2 embedded a message of prejudice into an action-fueled sci-fi thriller.
Great superhero movies have come before The Dark Knight, and many more will come after. But what makes The Dark Knight unique is not its status as a quote-unquote “superhero” movie. It is its mirroring psychology that makes you question what is truly right or wrong. Superhero movies don’t normally do that. They normally provide our hero and our villain and have them go at each other in fun, comic-booky fashion. But that wasn’t enough for The Dark Knight. It needed to ask why they were going after each other, and what was at stake if they didn’t do so? This is one of the rare action movies that questions if our hero is actually doing the right thing, and if he’s fighting this labeled villainy in the right way.
In these characterizations, the performances are key, and Bale and Ledger alike to brilliant work in not just bringing their characters to life, but their beliefs as well. Ledger has received all the acclaim and the Academy Award for best supporting actor as the Joker, and he’s right to. He’s delivered a downright chilling portrayal of a mentally disturbed madman: a brilliant finish to a long and successful career up until his death in 2008. Yet, I don’t think many people notice Bale’s nuanced performance as a man struggling to know and do the right thing. That’s genuinely a shame, because the movie is a success due to their acting together, not just one performance over the other. Again, they treat their characters not as superheros and supervillains, but as competing complexions, battling each other not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of proving their own personally defined morality. At the end of the day, isn’t the battle of morality more powerful than any physical battle can ever be?
The film builds up to it’s highly-anticipated climax in classic Nolan fashion. The final battle, however, is not between our hero and villain, but instead between the two sides of Gotham. One side has been convicted by the law. The other has been convicted by God. And in their convictions, both sides are forced to make a choice. I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say this: they make the right one.
Batman and Joker are not two different people. They are two sides to the same coin. We too exist on a coin and have the equal potential of being either Batman or the Joker. It’s only a matter of what we choose to be.