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Graphic designer Chip Kidd once wrote that the central spark of genius in the premise of the caped crusader is that Bruce Wayne dresses like a demon to do acts of good while the Joker is a clown (designed to make us forget our cares) who carries out acts of pure evil. Kidd argues that unlike other pop culture heroes, this shows us that the world is not always what it seems and requires further examination. (“Where were you when I needed an Oscar?! ” Aaron Eckhart once said to me when I told him this).
Kidd’s view of Batman was clearly the central thesis of Nolan’s The Dark Knight (the tagline for the film was “Welcome to a world without rules”). Where Burton’s 1989 film showed mere flickers of the true potential of the Batman/Joker rivalry, Nolan uses it as the driving force of the film. Even aesthetically Batman and the Joker are diametrically opposed. Every feature in Batman’s over-stylised armour has a neat, symmetrical equivalent while Joker’s garish ensemble is ratty, creased and generally disastrous. Just like the wild 1966 television series and indeed just like in the comics, Batman is a figure of order and the Joker a figure of absolute chaos.
Don’t Forget the Joker
Driving The Dark Knight is of course the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. In a decade wrought by films in which the viewer was forced to endure fistfuls of Tobey Maguire father-figures being transmogrified into Spider-Slayers over long arduous origin setups, Nolan made the refreshing choice not to give the Joker an origin story at all, but rather to allow him to simply appear in the film as a natural byproduct of Batman.
At the end of the first film (the oft-forgotten Batman Begins), Gary Oldman’s pitch-perfect Jim Gordon warns Batman that while the old guard of criminality in Gotham has been defeated, crime will escalate. If Batman defeats crime as we understand it, then the Joker is what happens next. Ledger plays the character in a way very different to any of his predecessors. Perhaps intentionally, it’s never entirely certain whether line deliveries are meant to sound natural or intentionally forced. And much like Mark Hamill’s animated efforts, Ledger’s register slips from that of a playful, carefree court jester into that of hissing monster.
Like Batman Begins did for Bruce, the film wisely does away with many of the stylised gimmicks the Joker is known for (so no laughing gas, no hand buzzers, no chattering teeth). This isn’t just a method of making the film more realistic however. By stripping away the excess, Nolan forces the audience (and indeed the fanboys) to actually examine the character, rather than simply exploiting the toy they had when they were a baby (which is what Zack Snyder and Michael Bay do). While ‘definitive’ implies some kind of unfair ranking system, Ledger’s Joker is probably one of the most interesting and innovative incarnations of the harlequin of hate. It’s to Ledger and Nolan’s credit that internet commenters everywhere insist now that the Joker never had an origin story (he did, Detective Comics #168, written by Joker co-creator Bill Finger). The Joker’s relationship with Batman is crucial to his character. He mentions repeatedly that without Batman he would cease to exist, that Batman ‘completes’ him.
The extraordinary lengths Batman goes to to find the Joker are called into question throughout (from wearing a mask and working as an outlaw to bugging every cellphone in the city), as are the worrisome effects of Bruce Wayne relying so heavily on a dual identity he may never escape from. Bruce spends much of the film convincing himself that if he can just catch the Joker and get Harvey Dent elected as District Attorney, that Gotham will be safe and he can run away with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both the fanboys and the viewers knowing the central tragedy of Batman understand this will never be the case and that Bruce has blinded himself to the fact that Rachel is clearly more taken with Harvey.
The wonderful Christian Bale plays the dual role effortlessly – his wealth of performances may make his efforts as Bruce Wayne seem tame compared to Dickie Englund or Patrick Bateman, but he undoubtedly injects the same animalistic we saw elsewhere into his billionaire playboy. While previous Bat-performers split the character in two (Bruce and the Bat), Bale is really juggling three characters – Batman, the monstrous vigilante with the costume and the silly voice; Wayne the obnoxious socialite and Bruce, the ‘true’ identity who carries the weight on his (enormous) shoulders.
Much has been made of Christian Bale’s voice in these films. While he perfected an angry rasp in the first film, the sophomore attempt sounds closer to an awkward bark with a conspicuous lisp in many lines. According to Nolan, this was a post-production decision made by the director and not the star – heaven knows why. Honestly though, the voice is not a deal-breaker. The relentless pace of the film means that the audience is unable to dwell on it for very long. There remains a strong argument that Bale is the best of the Bats. One really cares for him and like Alfred (the impenetrably perfect Sir Michael Caine). You truly want to see him achieve the better life he has dreamt for himself. The addition of the Bat-Pod (an armoured vehicle that looks like a cross between motorcycle and a missile) makes Batman look quite literally like a modern-day Knight.
The ensuing ten years have led to a very different cinematic landscape than what we may have imagined in 2008. Rather than embracing Nolan’s skill at isolating the key characteristics of a character and making them work in a modern context, filmmakers simply latch onto terms like “dark” and “gritty” and assume that they will work for any character and any franchise. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Year after year, bleak, humourless, colourless films are spluttered into cinemas, each and every one of them missing the point of what made Nolan’s films so successful (as well as forgetting that the three Batman films, Dark Knight especially, had vibrant colour palettes and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour).
Many choose to remember The Dark Knight as a film that benefited from a bleak outlook on its source material. This actually couldn’t be farther from the truth. Christopher Nolan truly believed in Bruce Wayne. While the film calls Batman’s methods into question, the scene where the citizens of Gotham choose to embrace hope rather than blowing each other up speaks to how much Wayne/Batman (and Harvey Dent) has inspired the city despite all appearing to be lost.
Unlike every other superhero movie, this is a film where the hero truly defeats the villain on every ideological level, rather than simply pummelling him into submission. Compare this to the first ‘Avengers’ film (praised for its fun-filled popcorn approach) wherein Nick Fury has to embellish the circumstances of Agent Coulson’s death in order to get the heroes to beat Loki up. Tragically, Warner Bros continue to insist on recapturing the magic of The Dark Knight rather than trying to forge a new identity for their trouble universe of superhero films and with every new effort they show just how much they missed the point of their greatest film.
Why so Serious?
The world has obviously changed as well. Fandom has grown ever more toxic and entitled. Fans are so closed-minded and aggressive that controversial castings (as Heath Ledger’s very much was in 2007/2008) and the inclusion of women and minorities in traditionally boys-club properties has led to an atmosphere where a film as innovative and creatively free as The Dark Knight would be committee-controlled into colourless oblivion. People as sinister as the Joker roam the streets all over the world meting out their own grim revenge upon a world that doesn’t understand them. The difference being that while the citizens of Gotham managed to prove the Joker wrong by not giving into cynicism and blowing each other up, the citizens 2018 are proving him right. And like the world of the film, some rich guy with unlimited resources coming along and delivering us from the world’s evils probably isn’t the ideal solution.
The Dark Knight is curious in that it is both the crown jewel and the black sheep of its own series of films – while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises are wonderfully entertaining superhero films (both arguably placing more emphasis on their title character than the middle installment) they both feel far more typical of summer blockbuster fare than Knight. Both films rely more heavily on fanservice, hero moments and franchise-worldbuilding than the middle film, which sits neatly on its own and can be watched entirely independently of the other two films.
It’s a fast-paced, caustic crime thriller but it’s also a cracking action drama with incredible in-camera action (the Batpod chase is still exhilarating), instantly quotable dialogue (“Now that’s more like it, Mr. Wayne!”) and a stellar cast. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score remains the essential musical accompaniment of the character; Wally Pfister’s cinematography is mesmerising. Ten years on, the film remains a near-perfect example of how powerful comic book superhero stories can be when stripped down to their essential elements. It is the high watermark of superhero cinema. If we should be doomed to another decade of Batfleck nonsense, at least we’ll always have The Dark Knight.