Locus Online
Features Indexes
Sunday 20 July 2008

"Magnificent Obsessions:
A Review of The Dark Knight"

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (screenplay); story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer; characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (uncredited)

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhall, Gary Oldman, Eric Roberts, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman

Official site: The Dark Knight

Filmgoers are lining up in record numbers to see The Dark Knight in order to be mesmerized by Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker and to be thrilled by the pulse-pounding action sequences and state-of-the-art special effects that they have come to expect from the contemporary summer blockbuster; and they will not be disappointed. But for the attentive viewer, this fine film has even more to offer, including an intriguing meditation on the character of one of America's most enduring superheroes, a meticulously constructed argument about conflicting attitudes towards crime, and even a cautionary tale about the use or misuse of advanced technology.

Unquestionably, Ledger's Joker is the true star of this film, but to understand this singular character one must first consider its titular hero, whose variegated history is neatly summarized in a brief sequence at the start of the film. A policeman at a desk is discussing his department's purported investigation into the true identity of the Batman, but a bulletin board in the background reveals how perfunctory and farcical their efforts have been, for under the heading "Batman Suspects" are photographs of three impossible candidates — Elvis Presley, Abraham Lincoln, and Bigfoot — who perfectly epitomize the three basic aspects of his persona. The Batman is like Elvis, a glamorous celebrity whose every move is closely followed by eager journalists and hordes of enthusiastic fans. The Batman is like Abraham Lincoln, a paragon of wisdom and virtue and an ideal embodiment of American values. And the Batman is like Bigfoot, a mysterious, inhuman monster. Over the years, different sides of the character have been detrimentally emphasized: the wholesome, all-American Batman of the juvenile comic books of the 1950s and 1960s was rather too Lincolnesque (there were even stories about the extravagant monuments that Gotham City had constructed in honor of its noble protector, such as the enormous Batman Lighthouse); the 1960s television star was too much an Elvis figure, hobnobbing with celebrities and notoriously observed dancing at a discotheque; and the dark, demonic protagonist of more recent comics can at times be a bit too Bigfootish for my taste. As for this film's take on the Batman, suffice it to say that the glamorous Elvis is only briefly glimpsed in iconic images of the Batman flying through the air, while the character is otherwise a noble Lincoln in his devotion to truth, justice, and the American way, and a monstrous Bigfoot in the ways that he pursues those goals.

In explaining Batman's approach to his career, The Dark Knight is most actively in dialogue, oddly enough, with The Godfather (1972), and not simply because of its sometimes stereotypical mobsters or the fact that the raspy voice Christian Bale affects as the Batman increasingly sounds like a channeling of Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone. For The Godfather and its sequels repeatedly argue that crime is simply another business, another legitimate pathway to the American Dream. Like other businesspersons, criminals make rational decisions in order to earn their livings. To be sure, the peculiar circumstances of the underworld sometimes require unsavory actions, but wise criminals only indulge in as much mayhem as is minimally necessary to keep their operations afloat. Law enforcement officials, whether they take bribes or not, sensibly agree to tolerate a certain amount of criminal activity, recognizing that it would be impractical to eliminate all of it, and they intervene only on those occasions when criminal misbehavior gets so out of hand as to demand some sort of public response. But in general, everybody plays by certain rules, nobody gets hurt, and society functions reasonably well with criminality as an integral part of the social fabric.

But the Batman will have none of this ameliorative, relativistic attitude toward crime. To him, harkening back to older traditions of moral absolutism, all crime is evil, pure and simple, and all criminals must be attacked and brought to justice, from the highest mob bosses to the lowliest muggers. He cannot be bribed, he cannot be reasoned with, he will refuse the offer that he cannot refuse; driven by rage against the street thug who killed his parents, and rigorously trained by Asian fanatics, he despises crime in all its manifestations and opposes it in every way that he can, limited only by his stubborn refusal to kill in the name of justice. Thus, Lincoln and Bigfoot in one body, the Batman seeks to uphold venerable American traditions by frightening criminals or beating them to a bloody pulp to get them to talk.

With haunting clarity, The Dark Knight illustrates one unhappy consequences of the Batman's obsessive philosophy. For if you are fighting crime irrationally, simply because you are driven to fight crime, you will necessarily bring into existence a criminal who commits crimes irrationally, simply because he is driven to commit crimes. And that, in a nutshell, is Heath Ledger's Joker. In retrospect, it was totally fitting that this film's predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), concluded with the Batman's first look at the playing card that has always served as the Joker's calling card — because, as soon as a Batman begins, a Joker is sure to follow.

Through various comments from the Joker and other characters, the film explains that the Joker represents a new, and more dangerous, type of criminal for Gotham City. In the opening scene, when the Joker and his men rob a bank controlled by mobsters, a bank employee laments that these criminals are not displaying the "honor" and "civility" that once characterized criminals, and Gotham City's crime boss Maroni (Eric Roberts) later warns the Batman that "you got rules" but "the Joker doesn't have any rules" — a point made by the Joker himself when he says that "The only sensible way to live in this world is to live without rules." And the Joker's willingness to break all the rules stems from the fact that he has no real reason, no real motive, to commit crimes, and hence no concern for the consequences of breaking rules; while being viciously interrogated, he tells the Batman that "you have nothing, nothing, to threaten me with." Unlike other criminals, he doesn't really want money: he complains to other criminals that "All you care about is money. This town deserves a better class of criminals" — and proceeds to demonstrate his lack of interest in money by burning a big pile of it and by explaining that he is "a man of simple tastes." He doesn't even seem to be overly concerned with his own survival, as indicated by his consistently reckless antics, such as standing in the middle of the street and daring the Batman to run him over. All he wants to do, as Alfred (Michael Caine) suggests, is to "watch the world burn," or, as he himself puts it, to introduce a little "anarchy" into the world and function as an "agent of chaos."

Therefore, while the film repeatedly stresses that the Batman is a "symbol," the Joker is the film's true symbol, a character who is a complete cipher, given no name, no back story, no explanation for his insane, antisocial behavior. True, certain comments indicate that he had an abusive father and an ungrateful wife to possibly account for his actions, but his contradictory anecdotes about his past clearly communicate that nothing he says can be believed. In this film the Joker is purely and simply the anti-Batman, and a necessary complement to him; the Joker tells him that "You complete me," and indeed, each character requires the other's existence. That is, confronted with an implacable and unreasonable foe like the Batman, all of Gotham City's rational criminals will eventually turn to legal activities or relocate, leaving the Batman with nothing to do; to continue to be the Batman, he requires an irrational criminal like the Joker, who will keep attempting spectacular crimes on his watch. Similarly, confronted with a ruthless and relentless criminal like the Joker, all of Gotham City's rational authority figures will eventually capitulate to whatever the Joker demands, leaving him with no pretext for further outrages; to continue to be the Joker, he requires an irrational authority figure like the Batman, who will keep opposing him no matter how intolerable his crimes become. As the Joker explains in a later speech, two opponents of this nature represent an "unstoppable force" and an "immovable object" who are destined to inconclusively battle each other "forever."

Paradoxically, while recognizing and insisting upon the necessity of someone like the Batman to maintain his own career, the Joker, as the Batman's opposite, must simultaneously strive to undermine the position that is the rationale behind his existence: namely, a belief in absolute good and absolute evil. The Joker insists that all apparently good people will abandon their morals "at the first sign of trouble" and repeatedly contrives to force good people to commit evil deeds — for another corollary of the stance of The Godfather is that everyone is a potential criminal, and that actual criminals are simply those normal individuals who were driven by circumstances to become criminals. This is the logic that leads the Joker to argue that he is "not a monster," but merely "ahead of the curve." However, the Joker's efforts to demonstrate the fragility of human morality have mixed results. He does succeed, as anyone familiar with the Batman saga knew before entering the theatre, in transforming the idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into the demented villain known as Two-Face, but he ultimately cannot persuade Gotham City's citizens to become cold-blooded killers and, of course, he can never corrupt the Batman. All of this suggests that the Batman's unconditional devotion to justice, shared by his ally Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), is ultimately correct.

Still, the film simultaneously mounts something of an argument against the Batman's crusading philosophy. At one point, lamenting the Joker's actions, the Batman says that he "was meant to inspire good, not madness," but in the very recognition that he inspired the Joker the Batman is effectively conceding that his obsessive crusade against crime also represents a form of madness (a point also made by psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane [Cillian Murphy] in his brief reappearance as the Scarecrow — when the Batman tells him he "doesn't need help," Crane replies, "That's not my diagnosis"). There are also repeated comments from the Batman that he wishes to withdraw from the scene, that is he is not the right hero for Gotham City, that the city needs "a hero with a face" — someone like Dent who works within the system, to be sure, but also implicitly someone who might seem a little more human and perhaps be a little more reasonable in his pursuit of justice. And tellingly, while the motives behind the turn of events are carefully justified, the film's conclusion is effectively a repudiation of the Batman: he is branded a criminal and pursued by police, and his working relationship with Gordon is symbolically severed when the commissioner destroys the Bat-Signal with an ax. Overall, then, given that Batman's ferocious, uncompromising opposition to crime is not always pleasant to observe, and that his actions have directly led to the Joker's crazed brutalities, The Dark Knight is a film that dares to question the merits of its own hero, and to suggest that, despite its problems with endemic crime, Gotham City might have been a better place if a certain billionaire had never decided to embark upon an unusual second career.

(Interestingly, as one way to make this Batman seem less attractive than previous incarnations, and even animalistic in his furious assaults on criminals, he is repeatedly associated with dogs: in an early scene he is attacked by dogs, he asks his brilliant engineer Lucius Fox [Morgan Freeman] to construct a new suit which will specifically provide better protection against dogs, this suit assists him when he later confronts the Joker's dogs, the film concludes with the Batman being chased by police dogs, and as the anti-Batman, the Joker is once described as a "mad dog." Thus, while director-screenwriter Christopher Nolan and star Bale are understandably resisting the introduction of Robin to this particularly grim series of Batman films, and while one fervently hopes that they would similarly resist additions like Batgirl, Batwoman, or Bat-Mite, this is one Batman who might be well served by the companionship of Bat-Hound.)

So, if the Batman is not exactly the right sort of hero for a city in need of a hero, who can Gotham City turn to? There is always stolid Commissioner Gordon, but the canon has indelibly branded him as a well-meaning public official who can never really accomplish anything in the war against crime without the assistance of someone like the Batman. The film more actively promotes Harvey Dent as the desirable alternative to the Batman; for, while as dedicated as the Batman to the eradication of crime in Gotham City, he is also seems more normal, more human, and he is attractive enough as a person to win the heart of Bruce Wayne's ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall, a woefully inadequate replacement for Katie Holmes). I was especially intrigued by the scene when Dent feels extremely uncomfortable while attending a big fund-raising party hosted by the Batman's alter ego Wayne — Rachel jokes that the "scourge of the underworld" is "scared stiff by the trust fund brigade" — and I was reminded of another prominent hero with a severe aversion to socializing, Superman (as discussed in my review of Superman Returns [2006] [review]). At one time, the two characters even shared a surname (since the deformed district attorney was first named Harvey Kent before the name was changed, commentators assume, to avoid any association with the Batman's then-bosom buddy Clark Kent/Superman). Like Superman, Dent opposes crime simply because he knows it's the right thing to do, not because he maniacally despises criminals, which can make such characters seem more likable. But these nice-guy heroes have one fatal flaw: since they are not demonically obsessed with opposing evil at all costs, there is the possibility that, under extreme circumstances, they might abandon their crusade for justice and turn to the Dark Side. Thus, lurking within the vast and complex Superman saga are rare suggestions that this paragon of virtue just might be corrupted: recall how he furiously disobeyed Jor-El's solemn command in order to save Lois Lane in Superman (1978), or the fact that in Frank Miller's revisionist graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Superman has cut a deal to cooperate with the malevolent officials that the Batman is opposing. In this film, both the Batman and Dent are both put to the ultimate test — the woman they love is killed. The Batman passes the test and carries on with his battle against crime; Harvey Dent fails the test and becomes a vengeful criminal. (Granted, there was the additional factor of a deforming injury, but the film establishes that Dent has chosen to be deformed, rejecting skin grafts to repair the ugly side of his face.) In sum, while there are many reasons to be disquieted by the Batman, he unequivocally remains, as Rachel notes, a man you can always trust.

Still, one series of events that brings the film most firmly into the category of science fiction does raise additional questions about whether the Batman can always be trusted. For the most part, the science-fictional elements of this film are only those forms of slightly advanced, slightly fanciful technology found in technothrillers and James Bond movies, such as a futuristic Batmobile with amazing capabilities, impossibly strong and well-attached wires that enable the Batman to effectively fly through city streets, and a system for getting a fingerprint from a bullethole in a concrete wall. But a more radical scientific discovery is eventually introduced: applying one of Fox's innovations, the Batman somehow figures out how to turn every cellphone in Gotham City into an eavesdropping device, allowing him to effectively spy on every citizen in a desperate effort to locate the Joker. Fox is deeply disturbed by all of this, maintaining that this is "too much power" for one man to have, and while he agrees to help the Batman just this once, he threatens to resign if the Batman retains this technology for future use. Rather coldly, the Batman accepts his resignation. At this moment, we are reminded that this film has repeatedly described the Joker as a "terrorist," and thus is now posing a question currently raised by the questionable activities of the Bush administration: if the goal is admirable (to track down and defeat dangerous terrorists), does that justify wholesale violations of our longstanding civil liberties? The film's answer, again, is ambivalent: we are happy to see the Joker defeated, largely due to the Batman's use of this technology, which makes his eyes glow eerily to suggest that this is the Batman's version of Superman's X-ray vision. On the other hand, one of the film's last images is of Fox typing his resignation and walking away from the Batman's array of monitors and, symbolically, walking away from the Batman himself. (And the fact that the Batman apparently arranged for the system to be destroyed by the typing of Fox's name is not altogether reassuring, since we have no guarantees that the Batman will not set up the system again when another homicidal maniac threatens Gotham City.) We are also reminded of a previous conversation involving Wayne, Dent, and Rachel when the ancient Roman practice of sometimes appointing a dictator to protect the public is offered as a justification for extralegal actions against crime; but Rachel defeats the argument by pointing out that the last person so appointed, Julius Caesar, never relinquished power and brought an end to the Roman republic. Can over-vigilant opposition to crime, then, lead not only to mad, overachieving criminals but also to the death of democracy? It's just another issue incongruously coming up in the summer's biggest popcorn movie.

Still, no matter how much this film cautions us about the dangers of obsession, no matter how chillingly it portrays the consequences of a desperately obsessed crimefighter battling against a desperately obsessed criminal, these characters remain both fascinating and admirable due to one inarguable fact: whatever its drawbacks, obsessiveness gets things done, in ways that are beyond the abilities of laid-back, mellow individuals. The Joker spectacularly succeeds in terrorizing an entire city, and the Batman spectacularly succeeds in rescuing an entire city, due not so much to their technological gimmicks as to their dogged determination to achieve spectacular success. I am bringing this review to what I would regard as a premature end, with several things still to discuss, because my long-suffering wife is complaining that, in writing these Locus Online film reviews, I myself am becoming overly obsessed. Indeed, why should I waste an entire weekend seeing a film twice, taking extensive notes, and laboring for hours and hours to generate a lengthy exegesis when I might emulate other reviewers and get by with a few breezy paragraphs about great acting, a lousy script, and good special effects? The answer is that, whatever my flaws might be, I am always obsessed with doing the best possible job at whatever I undertake — the one quality I share with the protagonists of this film. And only a review written by a completely obsessed person, I would argue, could really do justice to the Joker and the Dark Knight.

© 2008 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.