The Dark Knight (2008) – Directed by Christopher Nolan – Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Michael Jai White, Tiny Lister, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, William Fichtner, and Cillian Murphy.
THE DARK KNIGHT is a big, complicated, extremely well made, grown up movie. This is not likely the first time you’ve heard that, and not only have I talked about THE DARK KNIGHT repeatedly over the past four years, everyone has repeatedly talked about this movie over the past four years. Here’s what we know: THE DARK KNIGHT is a brilliant movie with brilliant performances and brilliant directing. Chris Nolan does a fantastic job stuffing KNIGHT (and BATMAN BEGINS and maybe DARK KNIGHT RISES – I’ll know later today) full of ideas.
Here’s what I’m not going to do: I’m not going to walk you through the plot. Given the length of some of my reviews for new movies, I shudder to think how many words I would have churned out had I reviewed KNIGHT when it was released instead of after four years of the world obsessing over the film. To be honest, if I wasn’t planning on seeing DARK KNIGHT RISES tomorrow (actually, now, later today), I’d have watched Man-Thing over DARK KNIGHT. It’s not that Man-Thing is likely to be a better film, but it’s a film I haven’t seen and a film I haven’t spent any time talking about with people who have seen it.
So, in summation: DARK KNIGHT is brilliant and lots and lots and lots of people on the internet have written about it ad nauseum, so I’m going to focus on the three areas that strike me as most relevant.
I: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
It’s hard not to watch the Nolan Batman films in the wake of the Aurora shootings, but DARK KNIGHT is all about the responsibility an individual bears for the actions of others. Bruce wanted to become a symbol in BATMAN BEGINS and here we see the unintended consequence of achieving that goal. Initially, we see the intended consequence, that some criminals are curbing their behavior because they fear his presence, but immediately after this we see the unintended consequence of becoming an inspiration, and that’s how others will try to walk in your shoes. There are men across Gotham who are dressing up as Batman and going out and fighting crime.
Bruce (Christian Bale) is not amused, arresting them alongside the Scarecrow’s (Cillian Murphy) crew. “What’s the difference between you and us?” one of the Pretend Batmen asks, to which Bats replies, “I don’t wear hockey pads.” For Bruce, of course, the problem is that he now sees another layer of Gothamites that need his protection – the wannabes. But it also stresses the Chaos vs. Order idea represented in the film with the Joker (Heath Ledger) vs. Batman. It’s nice that Bruce feels protective, but the individual still has to bear the responsibility for their own actions.
In the Nolan films, Bruce Wayne is always looking for the reasons why things happen; it’s as if he sees himself as the nexus of all bad things in the universe – either he’s looking for the reasons why the bad things have happened to him or he’s fretting over the bad things he’s caused. It’s a crippling emotional state to be in and the truth is, no matter that the message comes from the Joker or the Scarecrow, Bruce really is a guy who could use some therapy – whether that comes in the form of a professional or just a friend.
II: PERSONAL DESIRES VS. PUBLIC GOOD
I really don’t like superhero stories about superheroes who don’t want to be superheroes. There’s a bit of that in DARK KNIGHT when Bruce becomes immobilized by all of the Joker’s killings. The Joker decides he wants to see Bats unmasked and so he says, “If Batman doesn’t unmask himself, I’ll keep killing,” and Bruce says, “Well, I guess I have to shut everything down and turn myself in.”
Here’s a thought – be a detective and find the Joker.
Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of detective work in Nolan’s films. Well, not a lot from Bruce, who’s always giving Alfred or Lucius the time-consuming tasks.
Bruce is willing to give up being the Batman because he thinks this will get him Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), even though, as she points out, “They won’t let us be together once you do this.” But Bruce is still willing to do this until Dent steps up and tells the world that’s he’s actually the Batman. Dent is counting on Bats to take advantage of the situation to catch the Joker; Dent’s willingness to make himself the bait gets Bruce out of his funk. Bruce’s desperate attachment to Rachel is yet another sign that he’s still more little boy than man, but Rachel’s decision to ultimately choose Harvey over Bruce is a sign that she isn’t.
And Alfred’s decision to hide this information from Bruce after Rachel’s death shows that he knows Bruce is still a little boy, too.
III: SOME MEN JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN
This is Alfred’s big line about explaining the Joker to Bruce when he’s in his quest to make sense of things, but Alfred is wrong – at least when it comes to the Joker, because the Clown Prince is continually trying to make points. He’s not just interested in creating chaos, as he says at one point, but in making grand points: he wants to bring the Batman to his knees and he wants to drag Dent, the city’s “White Knight” down to his level. The Joker seems very interested in making the point that everyone can fall, to give in to their darker nature.
And that’s something you have to pay attention to in DARK KNIGHT because Nolan pulls this trick between dialogue and action. He has people make very dramatic statements that end up being false (such as with Alfred), lies (the Joker), or even meaningless (Bruce’s declarations about quitting).
There are also loads of unnecessary bits in DARK KNIGHT that could have been cut to produce a tighter narrative – such as the big action sequence in Hong Kong or the bits with Bruce getting ready to turn himself in. There are also unnecessary swerves: Bruce’s decision to out himself, which doesn’t happen and Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) death, which turns out to have been faked.
THE DARK KNIGHT is a great film, but I do get the sense that some of this is due to Nolan’s complete confidence in the material he’s presenting. Nolan’s The Prestige is about creating illusions and that’s part of what Nolan does in DARK KNIGHT – by having a character’s words and actions, or their words and the film’s actions, work at cross purposes, Nolan makes his film’s more complicated than they initially appear.
At the end of the film, Bruce learns that if he truly wants to be the symbol that Gotham needs, he needs to take one for the team. Instead of having Harvey Dent take the fall for his crimes, Batman and Gordon conspire to have Batman take the fall. It’s a very Frank Miller-esque twist and it works for me because it works as the penance Bruce needs to pay for all of his sins.
And there’s a lot of them.
All told, however, while there’s lots of little problems with DARK KNIGHT, Nolan’s vision is powerful enough to see it through. There’s great performances throughout the film (especially Ledger) and it definitely keeps me hooked, but I am coming around to the idea that BATMAN BEGINS is actually a better overall film while DARK KNIGHT is a better overall illusion.
But it is a hell of an illusion.