The most dangerous villains, the scariest ones to watch, are the ones with no clear reasons or motives behind their mayhem. They enter from the darkest corners of our imaginations and exist solely to inflict pain on others. They are not driven by greed, revenge, or lust for power.
So how does someone (say, a hero or a district attorney) on the side of right stop such a villain? How much are they willing to compromise themselves; and how much collateral damage is acceptable in the process?
This is the central theme of The Dark Knight, the second of the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman reboot films. It is a superhero movie only in the sense that its characters have their origins in the paneled pages of comic books. In almost every other way it’s dense and unsettling psychological exploration that happens to feature fantastical costumes, expansive set pieces, and lots of explosions.
The villain I’m speaking about is, of course, the Joker. In the hands of Nolan and the late Heath Ledger, the most notorious of Batman’s arch nemeses transcends the bounds of traditional villainy (or even super-villainy) and lives in the territory of soulless movie monsters like Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Ledger inhabited the role with such abandon and glee that I was able to put the tragic circumstances of his death almost completely out of my mind – although I am not going so far as to peg his performance as Oscar-worthy.
Ledger’s Joker is so unhinged, so unpredictably lethal, that even the combined forces of Gotham City’s organized crime syndicates (save one) eagerly accept his offer to rid them of Batman (Christian Bale), who along with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is actually making some progress at restoring law and order to Gotham. But Batman and Gordon have never faced a threat like the Joker.
Enter new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), dubbed The White Knight in the film in obvious contrast to Batman. Dent manages to convince even a skeptical Bruce Wayne that he can stand up to the forces of evil and win; or at least make progress. By his side is Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking Katie Holmes’s place), and voilÃ – your love triangle. All of them and more are brought to the brink by the Joker’s rampage through Gotham.
The Dark Knight squeezes every ounce out of its PG-13 rating that a movie possibly can. It’s every bit as grim and violent as the ad campaign portrays, and then some. To Nolan’s credit, however, there is little in the way of outright gore even though the body count is just this side of your average horror film.
But the true darkness of this Bat-film lies in its psychological element. Whereas Batman Begins was relatively sparse and subdued movie until the climactic third act, The Dark Knight provides little breathing room. The tension is established in the opening scene and, despite the substantial amount of dialogue and character development, never really lets up. Violent confrontation and disaster lurk around every corner, but the feelings of fear, mistrust, self-doubt, and isolation brought on by the Joker extend to everyone else in the film.
The impact of this after two-and-a-half hours is a bit fatigiung, to be honest. I can only guess that co-writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan meant to provide the audience with a sense of what it’s like to actually live in this world of constant peril, instead of simply calmly observing it. It certainly was in stark contrast to the more traditional film I was expecting.
But the bottom line is that in most ways, The Dark Knight lives up to the hype. It’s crammed with excellent performances (even though a certain villain, who shall not be named here, is sadly wasted) and manages to pack in plenty of story in between explosions. So much, in fact, that I think a second viewing is in order.
The Dark Knight takes the superhero genre to a place where few other movies have succeeded in going, and stands as the culmination of the new breed of comic-based films in terms of gritty realism and gloom (even bordering on nihilism). Where Nolan (assuming he continues the series) and other superhero franchises will go from here will be fascinating to observe.