Full Disclosure: Comic book movies are as much a part of my generation as comics themselves are of previous generations. They are a modern mythology, open to interpretation, and run the gamut from entertainingly bad trifles to spectacular modern epics at the peak of filmmaking. When I first saw The Dark Knight I was 19 and right in the middle of my development from a simple movie buff to a lover of everything film. This particular movie had already gained a substantial amount of critical praise, and so I was excited to see what kind of comic book movie could make the critics so excited. What I saw that day was a seismic shift in the way I perceived what popular entertainment could do. I was floored by the idea that a movie could be that complex and deep and still be cool and fun. I saw it two more times that summer, though only once in IMAX, which I deeply regret. It is a part of my generation’s cultural DNA, something that I can say I’m pretty proud of.
At this point it is mostly accepted that The Dark Knight is a modern classic. Five years after its release its imagery and dialogue have become embedded in the cultural lexicon and the words “Why so serious?” conjure distinct images of a deranged clown with a Glasgow smile. More importantly, the underlying themes of the film have been debated endlessly, and its exploration of the escalation of violence, the nature of heroism, and the loss of ideals, have all proved to be rich fodder for thought and discussion.
Themes aside, the movie is also just plain fun. From the opening sequence of a bank robbery with a decidedly sinister twist, the film hurtles through its two and a half hour runtime with spectacular displays of action and pyrotechnics. The centerpiece of the film is an explosive car chase sequence where the Joker targets an armored car while Batman targets him, ultimately unveiling the Batpod, an ingenious vehicle that gives director Christopher Nolan the opportunity to use his typical momentum in the camera to the fullest extent.
Of course, all of this action would all be for not without a good story. Eschewing the typical good guy fights bad guy and wins plot of nearly every superhero movie that has come before it, Nolan instead shapes his film into a complex crime epic that focuses more on its ensemble and the implications of Batman’s single minded crusade to rid the city of Gotham of crime. The story picks up with Batman following the end of Batman Begins, having spent the last year or so nearly wiping out the crime syndicates that plagued the city. Desperate to return to the status quo, the syndicate bosses hire the Joker to kill Batman. The Joker, however, has loftier ambitions and leads both Batman, and the audience, on a twisted downward spiral towards moral decay and insanity.
Perhaps the most discussed element of the movie is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. I won’t belabor the point, but it truly is one of the great villainous performances. This Joker is terrifying in his brilliance and ability to manipulate situations to his advantage. We get the idea that this is a talent he has honed throughout his life to make up for his lack of physical strength. One thing I think hasn’t been previously explored is just how much the Joker lies throughout the movie. One can expect a certain level of dishonesty from a villain; however, here the majority of the Joker’s lines are designed not to reveal more about the character but to distort perceptions about himself and his plans. The now famous monologues where he explains where he got his grisly scars are only the most obvious indication of his intentional obfuscation. The character seems built around sleight-of-hand and trickery, and it’s this lack of outward definition that makes him such an effective villain, because we are constantly guessing at what his goals are, and so we are afraid of where they might lead.
For such a flamboyant villain, it stands to reason that we must have an equally effective hero. Nolan disagrees. Instead, he allows Batman to fail. Not as a character mind you: Christian Bale’s performance is outstanding. Bruce Wayne’s subtle breakdown from an idealistic hero to a broken man is emotionally wracking, especially given the added context of the other two movies which complete his character arc. What’s particularly telling is how Batman loses trust in his own city, even as they show they are willing to stand up to a psychopath, with or without his help. The Joker is able to take Batman’s need to save Gotham, as well as his desire to leave his life as Batman, and twist them to a point where Bruce Wayne does not even realize he has already sacrificed too much of himself to go back. This shows a great of storytelling gall. Consider that in most superhero sequels, the hero remains static, having already achieved the goal of becoming the hero in the first movie. In The Dark Knight, only the Joker is static, the heroes are allowed to fall.
None falls harder than Harvey Dent. His character arc, from ideal to monster, is both an exaggeration of Bruce Wayne’s own arc in this film, as well as the causative action that gives the film its emotional momentum. While Batman is allowed to fall, he only goes so far, and is able to at least remain a hero to the audience because he still defeats the villain, despite the fact that this defeat is itself a failure. Harvey Dent has no such redemption. He gives in fully to his anger, and in turn becomes the object of Batman’s failure.
Such character dynamics show just how adult this movie is. While other superhero franchises allow themselves the excuse of serving an adolescent audience to make up for simplistic stories, Nolan never blinks. Instead he trusts the audience to enjoy the ride and then get back on to find all the curves they missed the first time.