The third film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is due out in a couple of weeks. I thought I'd revisit my old review of the previous installment as a warm-up. This is slightly different than the version of this that ran on my old web site. I've had four years to think about this movie. I'm a bit less sanguine about it than I was at the time and at the time I already found it troubling. I'm less inclined to give The Dark Knight's political implications as much of a pass these days as I was four years ago, but I won't get into that, I guess.
The Dark Knight , 2008. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhall.
Synopsis: Batman has Gotham City's underworld on the run. He has so dispirited the gangsters that once had free reign that others are stepping forward to clean up the city. Prime amongst them is the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, Gotham's new white knight. So effective has Dent's office become, that Bruce Wayne contemplates hanging up the cowl and living a normal life with his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes. Unfortunately for everyone, there's a new criminal in town: The Joker, a psychotic mastermind whose only identity is defined by the hideous smile carved on his face and the nightmarish clown make-up he wears. First, The Joker plays the gangs against each-other, next he plays Gothamites against each-other. Ostensibly, his mission is to kill the Batman, but his ulterior motive is far more sinister. The object of chaos, to The Joker, is chaos. To this end, he engineers a confrontation not with himself, but with every player's moral substance, challenging them as to which is stronger: the better angels of their natures or the beast inside all of us.
A Better Class of Criminal: This is a movie with ambitions. This is an odd enough thing to find in a summer tentpole, but to find it in a superhero movie is unheard of. Mind you, there have been "ambitious" superhero movies of a kind before. Spider-Man 2 is one, as are the Hellboy movies. But these movies aspire to be great superhero movies. This one aspires to be a great movie, period, no apologies necessary. Does it succeed? That's open to debate (read on, dear reader, read on).
I will say this, though, it has a better class of super villain than any superhero movie I can think of. The press that has surrounded this movie has raved about the performance given by Heath Ledger as the Joker. Ledger is good. He's not so much the Joker as he is a kind of Satan, or he is a walking, talking monster from the id. That's all well and good, but this movie doubles up on the villains just as the first film did, and manages the not inconsiderable feat of doing it right. Harvey Dent's alter-ego, Two Face--I'm not giving anything away to anyone who has ever read Batman comics, by the way--is my favorite comic book villain. His previous big-screen appearance was in Batman Forever, which got virtually everything about him wrong. Dent is one of the comics' most tragic figures, and The Dark Knight finally gets that exactly right. Ledger had a relatively easy role because he starts crazy and isn't asked to transform during the course of the movie. Aaron Eckhart's character is entirely more difficult. He has to present Harvey Dent's fall from grace over the course of a two-hour movie and make us believe it. He largely succeeds.
I say all of that knowing full well that The Dark Knight also contains even more of the director's peculiar flaws, too, particularly his embrace of chaos cinema and the occasional cinematic inconsistencies that that aesthetic entails. It wasn't as bad this time as it was in Batman Begins, but it's still outside of my own comfort level.
This isn't the first movie to suggest that Batman's enemies are fragmented aspects of his own persona, but it's the one that examines this idea with the most rigor. This film's version of Two-Face makes this theme explicit, providing a dark reflection of vigilante justice and a dual nature driving a man with noble intentions into madness. For the character of Batman himself, this is the real conflict of the film. But, of course, Batman lives in a deranged and corrupt society, and this is where the Joker comes in. He is a carnival funhouse reflection of Gotham city's dark underbelly.
This is all framed in the idiom of a crime thriller. Director Christopher Nolan's metiér is in post-Noir thrillers, which he applies to the look and the moral universe of this film with a vengeance. Each of the major characters in this film--save The Joker, I guess--has a moment of staring into the abyss. Each has a private hell to occupy and a moral choice to face. This is not a film where everything is black and white; it's a film where the shades of gray are all at the black end of the spectrum. Visually, the movie reflects this, though it refrains from a neo-noir murkiness. It's a dark movie, but its lines are clean and hard. Unforgiving, even. As a movie, it's a bracing, merciless thriller, expertly performed by an amazing cast.
Hell, it might even be a great movie, but that's for time and tide to judge. For myself, I walked away wondering why a movie of such qualities troubled me so. I didn't like the answers I was giving myself.
Superhero stories are essentially fascist. They posit a kind of exceptionalism for its heroes. They are a race apart, self-appointed as the protectors and enforcers of the status quo. They never appear to testify against the criminals they apprehend, they are unbounded by the rules of law-enforcement. That's a given. Oh, you can argue that the superhero story is actually more akin to Greek myth, with its heroes and demigods, but the heroes of Greek myths don't have to interact with our society or the civilizations that have grown up over the last three thousand years. Viewed as a fascist, Batman becomes a really vile kind of character, a hero only because the people he fights are monsters (and they're slanted to be perceived as monsters). He's a rich man who dons a rubber suit to go out and vent his rage at the world by beating up the poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill.
Ordinarily, one can ignore this and groove on the action or the angst of the hero, but The Dark Knight builds an essential and troubling fascism into its storyline over and above the conventions of the superhero archetype. The first hints of this are heard when Harvey Dent proposes that democracies have often suspended themselves in times of crisis and handed power over to a single man (Rachel, for her part, points out that Rome gave this power to Caesar and he never gave it up). In the course of the movie, the measures adopted by Batman and his allies take on more and more of the tenor of the current tactics of the "War on Terror." Added to Batman's arsenal: "enhanced" interrogation techniques, "extraordinary rendition," and universal surveillance. "I know what I have to become to fight men like him," he says of the Joker, but he may have become something even worse. At the end, the truth of what happened to Harvey Dent is covered up in classic John Ford manner when Batman and Commissioner Gordon jointly decide that the truth is too ugly. Instead, they "print the legend." Reality is what we make it. Propaganda is more important than truth.
The way all of this unfolds suggests that the filmmakers may not necessarily have intended this kind of theme, but its disturbing that the movie gives tacit approval to all of this in such a subliminal way. I won't say it doesn't bother me, because it does. It bothers me a lot.
Still, I've often argued the case that Dirty Harry is a fascist movie, too, and that it's all the more powerful because it argues on behalf of the necessity for fascism. Whether or not that film's Scorpio is a straw man or not is open to debate, given his similarity to the real-life Zodiac killer. I suppose you could argue that The Joker is Scorpio, or Zodiac. Yeah. That fits. I don't agree with the politics of Dirty Harry, and I damn sure don't agree with the politics of The Dark Knight, but I can step away from that, I guess. I just wish that this movie made some kind of argument, as Dirty Harry does. Instead, it just has a world view, and an unexamined one at that. It's not a comforting world view, either. This is not a feel-good movie. The filmmakers have smuggled one of those bleak seventies-era crime films into this movie under everyone's noses. It makes for a deeply troubling experience.