Scattered Thoughts About The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

• When we talk about this movie, we’re really talking about Heath Ledger. He died in January 2008, six months before The Dark Knight came out, and though he also appeared posthumously in 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it’s The Dark Knight that’s considered his true final role.1 His death at such a young age — he was 28 — gave the film’s nihilistic horror an unearthly sheen; it felt, in a sense, like it was his role as the Joker that had taken him away. He’s absolutely stunning in the part, too, in a way that makes everyone else look drab and stilted by comparison. As a character (often historically but especially, and more importantly, within the specific world of The Dark Knight), the Joker is effective because he’s willing to go farther than others to achieve his goals. He has no regard for human life or society’s structures. He murders with glee. Ledger is smart and strong enough to be able to play this insanity as straight as possible. He occasionally bursts into ugly, shrieking laughter, but more often than not he just smacks his lips and blinks a few times and gets on with it. His performance is anchored in a sense of commitment: this Joker, this unnamed and unnameable killer, believes wholeheartedly in the righteousness and purpose of his destructive causes. There’s a look in his eyes as he cavorts around town that says he can’t believe he’s getting away everything, and that he thinks his opponents are laughably dumb. It’s Ledger’s performance that makes the movie, and his acknowledged absence from today’s world that makes it so haunting.

• If Batman Begins spawned imitators who aped that film’s grim tone and heady self-seriousness, The Dark Knight was responsible for popularizing an even more frustrating trend: the villain’s ludicrously complicated plot. Partly this is because The Dark Knight, as a whole, has a much more sprawling plot than the first film. I am writing this the day after rewatching the movie, and honestly I’m still having trouble coming up with a tidy summary. Here’s what I came up with:

Gotham’s mobsters pool their money to avoid it being seized by Batman and the cops, and their accountant — a CEO of a Chinese company — absconds with a money to keep it secure. Batman captures the businessman and puts him in police custody, but the mob wants him, too, so they hire the Joker to get him and reclaim their money. Along the way, the gangsters realize that employing a sociopath of the Joker’s caliber was probably not the wisest course of action, and the Joker starts to consolidate power so that he can provide Gotham City with “a better class of criminal.” Essentially, Batman’s job is to help the cops and D.A. Harvey Dent preserve a semblance of law and order, while the Joker wreaks havoc to his own end.

I think it’s pretty accurate, though I feel like it’s still incorrect on some level I can’t identify. The movie is more of an experience than a story, like a pop version of Malick.

• Now, this is admittedly a little hairier than the plot to Batman Begins, and one far more reliant on the nebulous conflict between opposing points of view than on action motivated by belief. It also features a series of fantastically executed action set pieces that turn out to be part of a plan for the Joker to allow himself to be kidnapped so that he can then break out of the police station with the Chinese businessman he’s been hired to hunt, a plan that sails right past Rube Goldberg and into all-new realms of luck-fueled machinations. The story manages to hang together because of director Christopher Nolan’s energy and sense of pace, but many action movies that followed failed in their attempts to cook up similarly complex plots. Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness come to mind: both featured villains who acted out ridiculous, billion-piece plans that made almost no sense.

• The film’s convoluted plot does turn out to hold water, but it also works because it’s a structural reflection of the emotional chaos caused by the Joker. This is, after all, a villain whose m.o. is to destroy social order just to see if he can. Batman Begins took story pieces — a toxic hallucinogen, a conspiracy to poison the water supply, a stolen piece of military equipment — and threaded them together in a loose mystery. It was Batman’s job to solve the mystery and, then, to stop the villains from carrying out their plan. The Dark Knight inverts this: the Joker’s goal is clear from the start, and he even telegraphs his moves by leaving notes in which he names his successive victims. It’s anti-mystery. Batman’s job isn’t to solve the puzzle, but to realize he might not be able to stop it. Indeed, while the first film ends with the death of the villain2, this one ends with the Joker surviving after delivering a speech about how he and Batman are “destined to do this forever.”

• The Dark Knight is demonstrably bigger in scale than Batman Begins — tons of location shooting, multiple scenes filmed in IMAX, a larger plot — but it’s also, in its way, less organized and less believable. Part of what makes Batman Begins so strong is its sense of what it is and what story it wants to tell. The Dark Knight, though, is a moodier meditation on the nature of good and evil, and its a bit shaggier as a result. Still great in many ways, and good in many others. But not quite as finely tuned as its predecessor.

• The Dark Knight makes a big deal out of Batman’s “one rule,” which is that he refuses to kill. The screenplay hammers this pretty hard, in more than few lines of clumsy dialogue that make the subtext into just plain old text. Yet Batman Begins ends with Batman essentially murdering Ra’s al Ghul. They’re locked in a fistfight aboard a runaway elevated train when Ra’s al Ghul realizes that he’s been had and that the train is about to go flying off the track. Batman looks at him and says, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you,” then opens his cape and flies away. Boom, train careens into the ground, Ra’s al Ghul is presumably crushed to a thin paste. Pretending this somehow qualifies as not killing someone is a cheap move. One of the points of the movie was about Batman realizing the lengths he would need to go to win against a truly committed opponent. His finishing move here is like saying, “I’m gonna hand you this lit stick of dynamite and let you try to extinguish the fuse.” Maybe the guy has a chance to survive, but who are we kidding?

• The dialogue is often weak here. Characters tend to speak in the kind of aphoristic non sequiturs that litter modern action movies. It’s English, but it’s not dialogue, and rarely recognizable as a conversation. The scene in which the Joker visits a disfigured Harvey Dent and tells him to just go out there and start killing people makes almost zero sense on any level: narrative, emotional, linguistic, you name it. Rather, it feels like one of those things that had to happen to let Dent fully transform into Two-Face and go on a brief murder rampage before being subdued by Batman.3 Some of the actors are better at handling these lines than others. Michael Caine is king — Alfred’s story about the crazy bandit who just wanted “to watch the world burn” is perfect — and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good at it, too. But it’s much more a film of visuals and ideas than Batman Begins, which seemed to have a better handle on actual character.

• This is also when Bale’s voice, when in costume as Batman, was amplified with much more rumble and bass than was present in Batman Begins. In the first film, he speaks with a bit more of a growl, sometimes whispered, to disguise his voice and appear intimidating. Here, though, the postproduction manipulation of his voice is unmistakable, and often overdone. Watching the first and second films back to back really highlights the oddness of the change.

• Some of the visuals, though: damn. There are some fantastic compositions here, and they’re paired with smart soundtrack choices that highlight a few spare instruments or sometimes drop the music altogether. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are what feel like stolen moments — Ledger sticking his head out the window of a cop car as it careens down the street is one of those perfect bits of movie poetry.

• The sequences shot in IMAX are, as would be expected with a filmmaker as skilled as Nolan, stunning. He and d.p. Wally Pfister make expert use of the altered aspect ratio to emphasize the verticality of the frame, packing the images with tall buildings and steep drops. They’re the rare visual gimmick that live up to the hype.

• The opening sequence, in which the Joker and his (soon-to-be-executed) crew commit a bank heist, remains one of the most exciting things Nolan has ever done. It is relentless, energetic, captivating, terrifying, and the perfect way to set the tone of the film to follow. It’s also a clear indication that, whatever the film’s location shoots and visual attempts at reality might attest, we’re in a land of high fantasy. The Joker’s getaway vehicle is a school bus that drives through a bank wall and merges with a line of other buses going past, while cop cars speed in the opposite direction. It’s a great visual punch line, but it also requires ignoring the questions that such an event would raise. Why didn’t the guy driving the bus behind the Joker’s say anything when a bus drove out of a bank and joined their queue? Did he just not notice the hole in the side of the building? (And what kind of gas was in the grenade that the Joker shoved into the mouth of the bank manager?) Tonally, though, it is flawless. Ledger’s introduction when he removes his mask, coupled with the way his dialogue is amplified on lower registers over the film’s soundtrack, is staggering.

• One of the ways in which Batman Begins made its story feel somewhat more organic was the way it downplayed the use of character nicknames. Batman was often called “the Batman,” a reference to character history and a way to turn him into an object: the vigilante, the freak, the Batman. It was as much an identifier as a name. Ditto the way that “Scarecrow” was not used much, and certainly not as a way to address Dr. Crane, even when he donned his burlap mask. Yet The Dark Knight reaches a little harder for these names, notably with the way it makes Dent’s “Two-Face” a nickname referring to his battered reputation among cops he’d investigated for corruption. When he loses half the skin on his face, the name becomes a kind of sick joke. It just feels forced. The Dark Knight Rises backed off a little in this area: Selina Kyle was a cat burglar, and her goggles, when propped upon her head, looked like cat ears, but “Catwoman” wasn’t getting bandied about.

• The Dark Knight is a pitch-perfect continuation of the tone and style Nolan started refining in Batman Begins, and its effect on the superhero movies that followed is impossible to ignore. But many of those movies — your Marvel sequels, your YA adaptations — have imitated the film’s dark tone without being able to replicate any of the other elements that made it work. This is a grim film, but it’s also about redemption. It’s about heroes, but also about the inevitability of losing. It’s bulky, but it makes room for character development. It employs tragedy, but never falsely manipulates. And it has at its center one of the best and most vivid performances ever done in a superhero movie, one so good that it makes everyone else look poorer by comparison. The movie might not be perfect, but Ledger is perfect in it, and that’s ultimately what makes the film.


  1. Ledger died during production of Parnassus, which resulted in a rewrite that saw Ledger’s character played by multiple actors, including Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.

  2. Eleven-year-old spoiler alert, I guess, but if you’ve read this far into a blog post about Batman movies and didn’t know what happened in them, you have only yourself to blame.

  3. Not just subdued, either: killed! Two-Face falls to his death as Batman saves Gordon’s kid. Batman can rig a variety of life-saving ropes and wires when facing off against the cops, and he can fall from a skyscraper and land on a taxi and survive, but he can’t toss a line around Two-Face? Come on.