Expectations can be a dangerous thing. They can build up a film so much in your mind that the actual product can’t possibly hope to compete, and lead to the crushing disappointment of a film that crumbles under the weight of its own hype. There was a fear this could end up being the case with The Dark Knight. To demonstrate with a personal anecdote, Batman Begins took me largely by surprise. Yes, I was already familiar with Nolan through his work on Memento, and I had been a massive Batman fan for as long as I could remember. But in 2005, I was at a point where my love for Batman was at one of its lowest ebbs, after the lame Batman & Robin and with me drifting away from comics in general (and even then with me being mostly a Marvel fan in the years before that), I wasn’t particularly anticipating Batman Begins. In fact, I was much more excited about Sin City, scheduled for cinematic release a few weeks after Batman’s revival. However, while it was a good enough film that I caught a few times at the cinema, I don’t think I’ve watched Sin City since 2005, while Batman Begins is the film I’ve revisited time and time again, a film which reignited my passion not just for Batman, but for comics in general, with me becoming an avid collector of both graphic novels and the latest monthly comics. So, while Batman Begins pretty much sneaked up on me, there was no way The Dark Knight was going to do that. It became the most anticipated film on my horizon from the second that Joker card flashed at the end of Begins, and the hype only built steadily from there. Between it following on from the excellent Batman Begins, to the inclusion of not just The Joker but Two-Face too, and the absolutely masterful viral campaign that unfolded for over a year before the film’s release, my expectations were blasted so sky-high that when I went into the IMAX cinema at the Glasgow Science Centre in the summer of 2008 to see an advance screening of The Dark Knight, I was expecting no less than my new favourite film. Four years later, it still is.
Perhaps it is backlash for the film’s near universal acclaim – not just amidst geeky circles, but amidst the cinematic community as a whole – but amidst some fanboy circles, the word “overrated” is liberally thrown about, as it often is to deflate that which gets too popular or “mainstream”. Many nitpicks are dissected and agonised over, and when a quality superhero film like The Avengers comes along, some folks are tripping over themselves to proclaim how much better than The Dark Knight it is, or how much more faithful to the source material new Batman adaptations like the Arkham games are. One movement I’ve noticed emerging that particularly makes my blood boil are the folk who are already talking about the next Batman reboot, how Warner Bros should launch immediately into it in order to have a new Batman film out in cinemas within the next couple of years, and how hopefully this one can make things right again after Christopher Nolan “ruined” Batman. Much of the negativity is easy to dismiss, but sometimes I begin questioning myself: “Is the film really as great as I remembered?” But every time I actually sit down to watch the film, I’m reminded afresh that yes, it absolutely is, and that even now I’m finding new aspects to enjoy.
One common complaint I’ve noted is people saying The Dark Knight is too long, and particularly that there’s too much third act. I’m inclined to disagree with this assertion, and in fact think one of the film’s greatest strengths is how ingeniously plotted and paced the whole thing is. I think the problem is that some people are trying to apply a classic 3-act Hollywood structure to the narrative, which is understandably problematic. But, and I could just be reading too much into this (I think that could be the summary of this review as a whole!), I believe The Dark Knight actually employs a 5-act tragic structure, famously employed by William Shakespeare in his great tragedies. Perhaps an appropriate comparison for this most Shakespearian of Batman tales! In his 1957 series of essays, The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye broke tragedy down into five stages: encroachment, complication, reversal, catastrophe and recognition, which fits in quite neatly with a 5-act structure, and which I think can be applied to the unfolding narrative of The Dark Knight. Indeed, when defining the core essence of high tragedy, Frye says, “the fiction of the fall of a leader (he has to fall because that is the only way in which a leader can be isolated from his society),” which seems like a pretty bang-on summation of Batman’s plight come the end of the film, where Batman falls not just figuratively (taking the fall for Harvey Dent) but literally.
The first act of tragedy is encroachment. In this opening stage, the protagonist is riding high, at the pinnacle of their success. But as they enjoy their advantageous status, they overreach in some way, driven by their tragic flaw, and in doing so make what at the time appears to be a small, innocuous decision which in fact sows the seeds for much of the heartbreak that is to come. In The Dark Knight, this segment covers the opening skirmishes of the film between Batman (and his allies) and the mob, culminating in the sequence in Hong Kong. Before Batman himself is first seen in the film, we see a group of impersonators who are so inspired by Batman’s actions they have made bumbling attempts to dress up like him and become crime-fighting vigilantes. It’s a bit of a play on the trope of Shakespeare’s tragedies to have other characters talk about the heroism of the protagonist before he himself is seen. When Batman does show up, he defeats Scarecrow (a welcome cameo return for Cillian Murphy) with relative ease, in stark contrast to the formidable challenge Crane seemed to pose in the first film. Things are going very well in Batman’s war on crime, it would seem, as the plan he and Jim Gordon have concocted to bring down Gotham’s organised crime network nears its endgame. Batman’s audacious snatching of Lau from his Hong Kong sanctuary to drag him back to America to face justice is a demonstration of the hero at the height of his power – he has no jurisdiction – and is a nice nod to plays like Othello and Macbeth, where the heroes begin the play returning home victorious from great battles. We really do get the sense that we begin The Dark Knight at the end of one large story, with another set to intrude and take over. And that’s where the devastating misstep comes into play: as Batman, Lt. Gordon and Harvey Dent hatch their plan to bring down Gotham’s mobs through seizing their ill-gotten cash and bringing them all down via the old “rico” trick, The Joker lurks in the periphery of the film, hatching schemes of his own and carefully setting the pieces of his monstrous masterplan into place. But when confronted by Gordon about how he is going to deal with this new threat, Batman utters a line that is a perfect definition of that aforementioned seemingly minor misjudgement that will have dire consequences: “One man or the entire mob? He can wait.” This is reflective of Batman’s “tragic flaw”, but we’ll get into that later.
The second act, complication, is where the antagonist or antagonising forces come to the fore, and the threat against our protagonist is laid out before him, with events aligning in a manner that begins to point us with an ominous air of inevitability towards a tragic conclusion. With The Dark Knight, we are quite clearly blasted into this second phase of the narrative by The Joker’s homemade video – watched by Bruce Wayne as it is screened on a news broadcast – where one of the Batman impersonators is brutally murdered, and The Joker demands that Batman unmask. It’s not The Joker’s first appearance in the film, but it is the first moment where Bruce Wayne truly takes note of him and recognises him as a serious threat. And just like that, the ostensive primary plot of Gotham’s mob and the chase to bring them down is jettisoned, and The Joker’s reign of terror takes centre stage. If the first act was about showing Batman at the height of his power, the second act is the reverse of that, showing the emergence of an opposing power that takes Batman’s “no limits, no jurisdiction, use fear as a weapon” ethos and applies it for dark purposes. The montage chronicling the assassination of the judge and Commissioner Loeb, building up with the swell of the score to The Joker appearing at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent, is just thrilling cinema, and it showcases The Joker’s power to seemingly be everywhere at once. And in the set pieces that follow, it is demonstrated repeatedly that Batman is always one step behind, that he just can’t keep up or get his head around what makes The Joker tick. But still, at this stage The Joker’s apparent goal still seems somewhat straightforward and relatable: he is being paid by the mob to force Batman to unmask and kill him. This being ours and Batman’s understanding of him takes us on a narrative strand that climaxes with the breathtaking car chase centrepiece, which will be discussed in more detail later on. That ends with The Joker’s arrest, with the good guys catching the bad guy, and the second act coming to a close. At this point, a conventional Hollywood actioner may be likely to segue into an endgame, with a third act that from here sets up one final explosive confrontation that would cement the hero’s victory, and at this point an unsuspecting filmgoer might still have expected that from The Dark Knight at this point, watching the film for the first time. But it’s from this point on that the film’s true depth and darkness truly become apparent.
The third act of tragedy is called reversal. It is the point of no return for the protagonist, where his hopes of escaping unscathed or salvaging his desire for a happy ending in the face of the adversity he faces are dashed once and for all, and he is left with no choice but to go forward into the grim fate that awaits him. In the context of The Dark Knight, this surely comes with the death of Rachel Dawes. It is a horrific reversal not just for Batman, but for us as viewers. Up until now we might have known where this film was going under the criteria of a 3-act superhero action film, and even when Rachel is revealed to be in danger, it plays on our expectation that the climactic obstacle the superhero must face will involve rescuing the damsel in distress. Only here, he doesn’t rescue her, does he? More on the implications of that later. This genuine shock casts our expectations adrift, and leaves us with a chilling sense that this is indeed, as the poster taglines declared, “a world without rules,” one where anything could happen and we genuinely didn’t know how this was all going to end. I would suggest that this third phase of the film also includes the tense build-up to this pivotal moment in the narrative, where the satisfaction felt by Batman, Harvey Dent and most visibly (newly appointed) Commissioner Gordon over their hard-fought victory over The Joker begins to falter, as it becomes ever more clear it’s not a victory at all. The turning point where The Joker establishes just how much in control he still is comes in the film’s Batman/Joker interrogation centrepiece. Interestingly, in Nolan’s Batman films it often feels like the most climactic and crucial battles are verbal, as demonstrated in this battle of wills. At first, Batman seems to be in control, putting on a show of anger in an attempt to intimidate The Joker into revealing where Harvey Dent is. But over the course of their conversation, The Joker makes it clearer than ever that his goals are much darker and more ambitious than what Batman assumed, and that Batman does not have what it takes to break him. One of the most powerful, unnerving moments in the film comes when The Joker, howling with laughter after Batman has beaten him senseless, screams, “You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do with all your strength!” And he’s right. To our horror, Batman has been rendered impotent. Also of note for inclusion in this third act is the immediate aftermath of Rachel’s death: Gordon’s anguished realisation of his folly, cutting into The Joker driving through the city, head tilted out of a police car: a moment so instantly iconic it was mentioned in the “and the nominees are…” Best Supporting Actor speech at the Oscars that year. Following on from this is an ethereal montage, Hans Zimmer’s score perhaps at its most poignant, as Rachel’s letter to Bruce (her last will and testament, as it would turn out) is read over as we see the agony inflicted upon both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent in the wake of their bereavement. Here, things are at their bleakest, but it comes with an ominous promise that things are going to get worse.
The fourth act is called catastrophe, which as you might be able to guess, is when things get really terrible. This is the point in the tragedies where the bodies start to pile up, and the chain of events that was set in motion from the early stages of the play comes to devastating fruition. It is essentially the answer to the “third act” of today’s conventional cinematic structure, where the climactic action occurs. In the case of The Dark Knight, this could be seen as the point where the narrative starts to veer away from the tragic structure that up until now it had so fascinatingly adhered to, though it does seem to toy with following the thread to the bitter end. I’d categorise Act 4 of the film as The Joker’s reign of terror over the city, the film spiralling into a dizzying series of wicked set-pieces staged by The Joker, from riling the citizens up to kill Coleman Reese, to blowing up a hospital, to the diabolical “social experiment” he conducts with the two barges attempting to leave the city, each stage of his masterplan piling up on top of the last like a car wreck. It would certainly be apt to classify this segment of the narrative as “catastrophe”, not just because this is when The Joker’s anarchic goals are revealed in their full horrific majesty, but because this is the point where Bruce’s dream of a better Gotham that no longer needs Batman seems closest to slipping away forever. Harvey Dent, the great white hope for Gotham’s future, completes his downfall here, his disfigurement and transformation into Two-Face making him a bitter, vengeful murderer. But the destruction of Harvey Dent is just Joker’s “plan B”: his main goal is to show that the city – and, by extension, society – as a whole is full of self-serving animals who, when the chips are down, are just as rotten as him, that there is no such thing as true goodness. If he were to be proven right, this would have completed the tragic arc of the story: after all Batman has sacrificed to lead Gotham’s people by example, they instead are lead by a symbol representing the opposite of everything Batman stands for. When we see how one man and his threats can have the city running to evacuate, moving where The Joker wants them to like puppets on a string, it seems this could very well be the case. But at the last moment, Nolan pulls back, giving both the prisoners and the ordinary people on their respective barges moments where they choose to sacrifice themselves to save the other barge, suggesting a conclusion that goodness still does exist, even though it might be worn and beaten down by the badness all around. This is the moment where The Joker is defeated, even before Batman physically topples him, when after assuming the worst of everyone and being proven right time and time again, he is finally shown to be wrong. Tragedy averted, and once The Joker exits the film stage left, the fourth act ends and we enter the final stage of the film.
The fifth and final act of tragedy, recognition, was often the shortest act in Shakespeare’s plays. Typically, the narrative continues on past what would be considered the climactic action of the previous act, as ultimately these are stories less about incident than about character, and how they respond to what has happened to them. As a result, the true climax of this kind of narrative tends to revolve around the protagonist coming to full realisation of their downfall, often just before dying or killing themselves. Then, things come to a close with the survivors mourning all that has been lost over the course of the story, speaking of what hard lessons they have learned, and looking ahead to what must be done going forward. So, in the context of The Dark Knight, what might have initially to some seemed like a strange choice for a “final battle” (much smaller in scale than the “Batman must stop Ra’s al Ghul from wiping out Gotham City!” drama of the previous film) actually makes perfect sense in the context of the 5-act tragic structure, and proves to be one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole film, as Batman, Commissioner Gordon and Two-Face gather together for the first time since the film’s first act, each having suffered and lost something in the intervening time, with them recognising their own culpability in the tragedy that has befallen them. “What happened to Rachel wasn’t chance,” Batman says, “We decided to act, we three.” Of course, Batman doesn’t die, and the previous act stopping short of total catastrophe allows a small note of optimism amidst the recognition of what their decisions will cost them. In the end, Batman and Gordon come up with a way for good to prevail over evil, but though it might not be entirely tragic, it’s certainly no happy ending either.
So, why go into such detail about this 5-act structure? First, it serves as an introduction (Crikey! 3000+ words in and we’re still saying introduction!) to the scope Nolan brings to this story. This film made it clearer than ever to mainstream filmgoers what us comic fans have long known: that the Batman lore can be much richer, darker and more complex than throwaway children’s fare. These stories can be modern Shakespeare, only where those tragedies of old used gods and kings to play out human drama on the rankest of scales, today superheroes work well as their cultural successors. Furthermore, discussing the structure is important as I feel that, perhaps more than anything else, it is the truly masterful structure of this narrative that holds the key to the film’s greatness. While in fact a tried-and-true method of wringing out the maximum amount of emotion from audiences of centuries pat (with knowledge of comics canon even serving as a substitute for dramatic irony, in the case of Dent’s arc), such a structure is so unusual in today’s cinematic market (particularly the blockbuster market) that it caught audiences by surprise. But it makes The Dark Knight an experience unlike any other film of its kind, engineered for excellence from the very building blocks of the script.
But as strong as the core foundations of the film might be, it would all have been for nought without a quality cast of actors to bring it to life. Thankfully, The Dark Knight, like Batman Begins before it, is blessed with an all-star ensemble that any Oscar prestige picture would envy. But unlike Batman Begins, The Dark Knight comes armed with a Joker in the pack, in the shape of Heath Ledger’s indelible, instantly iconic depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime. With Heath Ledger’s tragic death, it’s a performance that will never be revisited, making this film the sole document of his astounding work with the character. As a result, even as the middle instalment of a trilogy, The Dark Knight was always going to stand as a cinematic one-off.
It’s funny to think it now, with how universally acclaimed his Joker is even amongst many who dislike the film as a whole, but at the time of his casting Heath Ledger was actually a deeply unpopular choice for the role amongst a large and vocal portion of the fanbase. He was dismissed as a young pretty boy actor, or as “that guy from the gay cowboy film” (cue groan worthy “Brokebat Mountain” puns), much of the denigration of his acting prowess evidently coming from those who hadn’t seen him act, or at least only see him act in the undeniable stinkers on his CV. Even amongst those who were more optimistic and supportive of the Ledger casting, there was still a feeling that it would be a hard task to top Jack Nicholson’s take on The Joker from the 1989 Batman film, a scene-stealing dynamo of a performance that until that point was widely regarded as the high watermark of comic book movie villainy. But as enjoyable as I still find Nicholson’s performance, I’d argue that Ledger topped it, giving us not just undeniably the great comic book movie villain ever, but one of the greatest movie villains, full stop.
A big part of what makes The Joker such a mesmerising presence in the film is the layers to his character, the way each layer gets peeled back, revealing something worse and worse each time. The Joker has no real character arc to speak of: the narrative doesn’t change him, he doesn’t have any development or make any personal journey. He remains utterly the same throughout, and the journey comes from us, the viewer, gradually learning more and more of is true nature over the course of the film.
The first layer of The Joker we are exposed to presents him as a master criminal for hire, driven by money. This is The Joker who gatecrashes the mob council meeting with an offer to kill Batman for them in exchange for half of their pooled resources. “If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” he says. Thus, while certainly presented as a formidable threat – if the spectacular bank robbery prologue didn’t convince you of this, his “magic trick” with the pencil here certainly does – he’s still an understandable one, apparently motivated by a common goal. With the story he tells Gambol about how he got his scars – a sob story of childhood abuse – we even get a tragic past, increasingly obligatory for iconic villains, it would seem, at a time when the likes of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter had been recently deballed in prequels exploring their tortured younger days.
But then The Joker tells a totally different story about how he got his scars to Rachel Dawes, and we realise – in a neat callback to The Killing Joke – his past is multiple choice. After this initial confrontation with Batman, Bruce Wayne has a conversation with Alfred that begins to reveal the second layer of the villain. This is not a regular criminal, someone with relatable wants and needs. This is someone who “just wants to watch the world burn,” a psychopath driven by his obsession with Batman. He’s a character with no weaknesses, and no limits to how far he’ll go to get what he wants.
When The Joker gains access to the mob’s mountain of cash and opts to burn it all, his cause more important than any personal gain, we get a peek at the third layer. In his next appearance, dressed as a nurse to have a conversation with Harvey Dent in hospital and nudge him completely into the dark side, The Joker “candidly” explains who he really is to Dent, saying that he has no plans or grand goals, that he is merely an “agent of chaos.” Here, he sets himself up as an almost primal force of nature, beyond good and evil or any such antiquated notions of morality. He’s not evil. He’s not crazy. He’s just out to prove how evil and crazy “normal” people can become under the right circumstances.
Some viewers come out of The Dark Knight thinking this is the core layer of The Joker’s character, and it is a reasonable stance to take. But I’m inclined to think they are wrong. It may be how The Joker views himself, but I believe there’s one more layer underneath this one, which we get a glimpse of when his plan for the barge goes awry, and that Batman recognises. “What were you trying to prove?” Batman asks, in a rare moment when he has one up on The Joker, “That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone.” And I think this is The Joker, at his core. He’s a petty, hateful little man that needs to prove that everyone is as miserable and rotten as he is. Everyone wants something, even the worst people, even The Joker. He’s put through the emotional wringer, but when he weathers the storm, Batman is eventually proven right: criminals aren’t complicated.
Much of this talk about The Joker regards the depiction of the character in the script, and so credit must go to Jonathan Nolan for having The Joker steamroll through the narrative the way he does. But Heath Ledger in particular must get the lion’s share of the kudos for breathing life into The Joker in such a unique way. From the constant licking of his lips, to the slight limp, Ledger imbues the character with ticks and quirks that lace this ball of big, frightening ideas with humanity. This is a performance of such intense physical control that Ledger even gives The Joker a barely noticeable lazy eye that must have been agonising to maintain take after take. He found a voice completely unlike his own, totally immersing himself in this character. And though much has been said about how dark this vision of The Joker is, it should not be forgotten that Ledger nonetheless made him very funny. It’s in the little moments – the facial expressions, the body language, the bits of business in between lines – that The Joker draws many of the film’s biggest laughs, giving us brief respite from the tension when it’s at its most unbearable. Some have cynically pointed out that Heath Ledger only won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in this role because of his untimely death. Sadly, there’s a chance that might be true. But that says more about Academy politics than the quality of the performance, as there is no doubt whatsoever that this is an Oscar-worthy performance.
All this gushing praise for Heath Ledger’s Joker brings to light another criticism some have levelled against The Dark Knight: that The Joker overwhelms the film, and much like the earlier Burton and Schumacher films, Batman himself becomes an afterthought. Not true. As I said above, The Joker has no arc. He’s a fixed point in the narrative, one who facilitates the development of other characters. In its own way, The Dark Knight is as much Bruce Wayne’s story as Batman Begins. Though Heath Ledger’s is the performance that makes the big impression on first viewing, on repeat viewing it becomes increasingly clear that it’s Christian Bale’s performance is the backbone of the film.
In my review of Batman Begins, I talked about the defining moment for Bruce Wayne in that film. It’s hard picking one out in The Dark Knight, as Christian Bale gets so many great little beats: dropping the playboy lush persona and chucking his booze over the edge of the balcony as soon as he’s away from the crowds at his fundraiser party, sitting slumped in his chair in the wake of Rachel’s death (the dialogue between Bruce and Alfred here is a great recall to the scene between Alfred and young Bruce after his parents’ funeral in Begins), his simple “It wasn’t,” in response to Two-Face’s claims that he was the only one who lost everything. But if I had to narrow it right down, I think I could pick out two defining moments for the character’s arc in this film. The first of these comes during Batman’s unsuccessful interrogation of Sal Maroni. As an injured Maroni taunts Batman with the revelation that The Joker has no weak points, no limits, and as such no one is going to cross him for Batman, the camera slowly zooms in on Batman’s face. We see a look of growing horror in his eyes, realisation not just that The Joker is a threat he could be unequipped to face, but that Gotham’s criminals are “wise to his act”, aware that he is unwilling to kill, and that this could be less a heroic ideal than an indulgent chink in the armour he can’t afford. With the optimistic note Batman Begins ended on, what followed could easily have progressed into standard superhero fare. But The Dark Knight combats this by challenging the resolutions Bruce Wayne came to in the previous film.
The second defining moment is a little beat immediately following the Batman/Joker interrogation scene discussed above. Batman is rushing out of the room, knowing he only has time to save one of the two hostages, and Gordon asks him what person he’s going to rescue. Without hesitation, Batman immediately replies with, “Rachel.” Of course, when he discovers that The Joker has pulled a cruel switcheroo on the locations of the two victims and that he has actually arrived at the location where Harvey Dent is being held, Batman doesn’t hesitate to save his life. But that doesn’t change the fact that he chose to save Rachel over Harvey. We’re used to our superheroes being selfless, but this is a selfish act, choosing his own childhood sweetheart over the person he’d talked about Gotham as a whole needing as their symbol of hope. In the context of the film as a whole, it’s ironic to consider that, if Batman had chosen to do the right thing for the city rather than himself and opted to save Harvey, then he’d have arrived in time to save Rachel instead. That way, Harvey would have died a martyr and a hero, his reputation preserved, without Batman and Gordon having to lie to make it that way, without Batman being made a pariah in the process, and without Rachel having to die.
The more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that there’s actually quite a lot Bruce Wayne does in this film that’s selfish. He wants to steal away Rachel for himself when she’s in a relationship with Harvey, and knows he loves her. He resolves to give himself up and unmask to The Joker, when he knows this won’t stop his reign of terror, because he doesn’t want the deaths of innocent people on his conscience. And the big one, the very fact that he’s grooming Harvey Dent to take over his war on crime for him so he can stop being Batman: he’s so intently focused on his exit strategy that he doesn’t recognise the threat of The Joker until it’s too late. This could be Batman’s “tragic flaw” over the course of the film: an inability to see things through, to stay the course. He latches onto the first half-decent replacement to give him an out that will let him stop being Batman, refusing to recognise that Batman may be needed more than ever, that this might not be a finite mission. In this sense, perhaps Rachel needed to die, to take that exit plan away once and for all and show him that this symbol he has created is bigger than him and his own wants and needs.
Bruce Wayne as presented here is certainly a flawed figure. But by the end of the film, Batman comes to a new, less optimistic resolution. He can still play his part to save Gotham, give it hope and make it better, but he may have to choose between this and being recognised as a hero. There is a certain selfish quality inherent in Batman, someone with the wealth and resources to enact real change in Gotham, but who decides the only way to make the city better is to dress up as a bat and beat up criminals himself, one by one. He’s feeding a need. And perhaps he’s become attached to what people think of him, that people see him personally as a hero and an icon of good. But he realises the truly heroic thing to do is to sacrifice that heroic status for the good of the city, cheat The Joker out of his victory and prevent Gotham’s spirit being broken by letting himself be viewed as a murderer, taking the blame for Two-Face’s crimes to salvage Harvey’s reputation. In this grounded take of the comic mythos, this is what Christopher Nolan envisions as being truly “super-heroic”, casting aside all thought of yourself in favour of the greater good.
I love that Bruce Wayne didn’t just have a complete arc in Batman Begins then stop, breezing through The Dark Knight as a fully-formed, stationary character. He’s still growing and evolving throughout The Dark Knight and beyond the end. Where does this arc take us? Where does it ultimately end? We’ll find out in The Dark Knight Rises, and something tells me that when we look at the overall arc of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne over the whole trilogy, it will be truly remarkable.
At its core The Dark Knight may be Bruce’s story, but beyond that it’s the story of three men. Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent: this is the central trio whose journey shapes the film. The very first line in the movie, uttered by one of the faceless bank robbers, is, “Three of a kind, let’s do this!” This could be viewed as foreshadowing of this central relationship in the film, of three men who have much in common, who are driven by some similar demons. And of course, by the end of the film everything is boiled down to just these three, and the consequences of their actions.
Aaron Eckhart proves to be a very impressive addition to the cast in his performance as Harvey Dent, whose downfall many argue is the true tragedy of the narrative. At the end of the film, when Two-Face demands to know why The Joker chose to single him out for ruination, Batman replies with, “Because you were the best of us. He wanted to prove that someone as good as you could fall.” Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, as regards Dent in this film, is that he’s never quite as pure and good as everyone thinks he is. Nolan cast the role quite cannily in choosing Eckhart, an actor who certainly embodies old school American square-jawed heroism, but who in roles such as his In the Company of Men career-best turn has shown an affinity for perverting that charm and imbuing it with a sinister quality. Harvey might be a good man, but even from the beginning there’s something not quite right about him. He’s aloof in his initial dealings with Gordon, and there are allusions to a shady past working in Internal Affairs. He’s quick to anger, almost unravelling as he holds The Joker’s henchman at gunpoint a good while before Rachel dies or he’s disfigured. Ironically enough, as much as Bruce Wayne yearns to relinquish the Batman persona and let Harvey Dent take over as a legitimate inspiration for Gotham, you get the sense that Harvey Dent secretly wants to cast aside the rule of law and be Batman. There’s the glowing admiration for Batman during the roundtable dinner with Rachel and Bruce. There’s his brash takedown of the would-be assassin in the courtroom. There’s the gun-in-the-alley incident. And there’s the point where he falsely confesses to being Batman and makes himself bait in a high-risk ploy to lure The Joker into a trap. But, of course, he can’t be Batman. When Rachel dies, Bruce buckles, but Harvey breaks, and he is utterly lost in a scramble to make himself feel better and make others suffer for his pain. The idea of characters being unable to stay the course in the face of adversity seems to be a recurring theme, as The Joker successfully breaks Harvey’s will.
Gary Oldman gives an understated but brilliant performance as Jim Gordon. Relegated to comic relief status in the third act of Batman Begins, here he is required to do some real dramatic heavy lifting as the film enters its endgame. One of my favourite moments in the film comes when a desperate Gordon draws his gun on Batman, screaming, “We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!” Why does he have to save Dent? Because he feels responsible for all that has happened to him. Not just because he’s not Batman, and so he wasn’t fast enough to save Rachel when Batman was off rescuing Harvey Dent, but because he failed to heed Harvey’s warnings about the corrupt officers in his Major Crimes Unit task-force. It’s bubbling away in the background, and so it might not jump out at you as a major point in the film right away, but in amidst all this talk of tragic flaws, this is Gordon’s fateful act of hubris. Another example of inability to stay the course and follow through on your convictions, at the end of Batman Begins Gordon had seemingly learned from Batman that true change for the better was possible, that there were genuinely good people willing to help him enact that change, and that he didn’t have to settle and compromise on his morality anymore. But come The Dark Knight, he’s still compromising, still making do with officers who may or may not be corrupt and in Maroni’s pocket because he feels he can’t afford to expect better from the police in Gotham City. It’s an oversight that costs him dear, as it’s corrupt cops in Gordon’s unit that deliver Rachel and Harvey into the hands of The Joker’s men. Similarly, his inability to trust Dent continually causes problems: first in letting Lau slip from their grasp and return to Hong Kong, and later in leaving Lau in the MCU (he doesn’t trust Dent to keep him save at county), where The Joker can snatch him. Gordon is not a larger-than-life hero like Batman, or someone who wants to be a larger-than-life hero like Harvey Dent. He’s just a good man who is caught out of his depth dealing with good and evil on this grand, operatic scale. And so he is perhaps the most relatable of the central trio.
The other actors carry themselves well. Maggie Gyllenhaal does more with less in the role of Rachel Dawes, giving her more spark and life than Katie Holmes even when the character herself seems to serve little purpose here other than to die. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman perform as admirably as ever as Bruce’s respective mentors. Alfred doesn’t have quite so big a role as he did in Batman Begins, but does get a couple of great monologues about his time working with mercenaries in Burma, which bear eerie resonances with the present day plight Bruce faces with The Joker. Morgan Freeman brings an enjoyably wry quality to Lucius Fox, deadpanning some of the film’s better one-liners. But he also gets more dramatic material to work with here than in the first film, questioning if Batman has lost his moral compass in his obsession to bring down The Joker. Fox’s smile as we discover he hasn’t, as Batman’s narration says, “Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” is one of the most triumphant flourishes of the film’s final moments. Eric Roberts brings a surprising amount of roguish charm and even likeability to what could have been the rent-a-thug role of Maroni. Really, no matter how big or small the part, the whole cast is pretty much flawless here.
But again, perhaps the biggest star of all is director Christopher Nolan. I recently watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight back-to-back, and watched this way, it’s clearer than ever what a quantum leap Nolan made as an auteur in between films. The Prestige fell in between these first two Batman films, and I feel that surprisingly personal film about the nature of performance and how much of yourself you give to your audience taught Nolan a lot about cinematic storytelling. He brought from The Prestige into The Dark Knight a coolness of tone that has evolved into something of a signature style. We open with a slow zoom through the city, honing in on the key location of a window that’s about to shatter. Seeing this for the first time on a massive IMAX screen, it really does feel like you’re soaring through Gotham. Nolan employs such shots a few times to potent effect, such as slowly honing in on the Wayne penthouse immediately after The Joker’s homemade video, the nasty intimacy of that scene in stark contrast to the sweeping beauty of the cityscape. Nolan’s passion for IMAX is understandable: he loves to craft images that feel big on the screen, even in smaller films. And in bigger films such as this, he contrives to create an experience that feels like an event.
In this goal, he is ably assisted by regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to deservedly win an Oscar for his work on Inception. Also worth mentioning is the musical duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, the composers of The Dark Knight’s pulse-pounding score. They did quality work on Batman Begins too, but at the time people were more preoccupied with it not being Danny Elfman’s iconic theme. In The Dark Knight, though, the score comes into its full power, building on musical motifs established in the previous film’s score, and establishing themes set to become iconic to a new generation of Batman fans. In particular, the hundred-hornets screech of string and the shattering two-note sequence that mark the presence of The Joker never fail to send chills up my spine, serving as the heartbeat of the movie.
Going back to Nolan, I mentioned in my review for Batman Begins that it was at least comfortable when trying to be a regular superhero film, following the beats expected of it. But in The Dark Knight, any such attempt to follow convention is almost entirely abandoned, in favour of Nolan doing his own thing. Some have said The Dark Knight isn’t a superhero film at all, but rather it is a crime movie that happens to have Batman and The Joker in it. I wouldn’t say that. This is still very much a superhero movie, but one that largely dismisses the narrative shorthand and cinematic language we’ve come to expect from a superhero movie. This is a director coming into his full power, with the faith in his ability to do his own thing with the material rather than be beholden to what is expected.
That’s not to say Nolan abandons the trappings of the genre altogether in favour of character drama. One particular area where he shows more confidence is in his handling of action scenes. Batman Begins featured an entertaining but flawed car chase sequence, suffering from an over abundance of cuts and a jumping back and forth between dire peril and constant cheesy one-liners that resulted in an unevenness of tone. The car chase here is much better crafted, not devoid of the odd funny beat, but mostly focused on the ramping up of tension, both more ambitious in how it draws in several key players, but also simpler, and crucially, more clearly shot.
But quite possibly my favourite action sequence, one not really discussed much, comes near the end: the impressively elaborate sequence where Batman has to simultaneously fight The Joker’s henchmen and the police, settling henchmen disguised as hostages while trying to prevent police from erroneously killing hostages dressed up as henchmen. It’s stylishly done, giving Batman numerous badass moments, but it isn’t mindless. It isn’t, “Let’s stop the narrative for a bit while these guys fight”. It’s character driven, and foreshadows Batman’s renewed opposition with the police as established at the end of the film.
As much as people talk about how The Dark Knight was robbed of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, I think the bigger crime is that, to this day, Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director. It’s an amazing achievement to see that, with The Dark Knight, he made a sequel bigger and better than the original, one that is so utterly rooted in the key themes of the best comics, but at the same time is utterly its own beast. This is very much Nolan’s Gotham, and fits as well in Nolan’s canon of psychological crowd-pleasers as it does as a faithful interpretation of the Batman comics.
Which brings us back, at long last, to expectations. As a lifelong Batman fan, I came out of The Dark Knight feeling like I had just been given the ultimate cinematic experience for a Batman fan: a truly excellent film featuring my two all-time favourite Batman villains, telling a gripping story up there with the best comics, one of the greatest Batman tales of any medium. I remember saying that night that even if we never got another Batman movie, I’d be happy. But now we have The Dark Knight Rises on the way, and I’m not going to say no to that! What, then, are my expectations for the third and final film of Nolan’s trilogy? I think that what made The Dark Knight such a resounding success is that it took the tantalising questions raised at the end of Batman Begins and answered them in the best possible way. At the end of Batman Begins, we were left asking how Gotham would respond to the presence of Batman, and more directly, what The Joker would be like in this vision of Gotham. The Dark Knight gave us that answer. The question The Dark Knight left us with might not be so immediately clear, but it would seem the question we were meant to take away from it is, if Batman isn’t “the hero Gotham needs right now”, then what kind of situation would arise where Gotham would need Batman? Is Gotham better off with or without Batman? These are questions I’m excited to see The Dark Knight Rises. Do I think it will top The Dark Knight? I doubt it: The Dark Knight is my favourite film. But still, I’m keen to see it try!