Take 96: The Dark Knight
It’s October 2021, and I’ve decided it’s finally time to pull up a film I love and have been looking forward to revisiting — the second installment in a trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 epic, The Dark Knight. I prepped for my rewatch by doing my first installment homework and watching Batman Begins. This was the Batman reboot we needed, a return to the dark, depressive, Batman; even while I admit to having a sweet spot for the goofy Michael Keaton and George Clooney takes on the DC classic. This is one of very few true action films on this list (Westerns excluded) and certainly the only superhero film to make the cut, so forgive me a digression about the place of superheroes in the American psyche.
The modern American superhero (while largely inspired by versions of ancient tales repeated across many societies) is arguably our first cultural mythology as a nation. Comic heroes originated in the late 1930’s, and gained popularity during World War II when Americans were ready to embrace any fictional character powerful enough to vanquish a super villain that seemed equally incomprehensible, the Nazi regime. As the decades progressed, the general public’s appetite for masked crusaders has ebbed and flowed in tandem with our national anxieties. And thus, it’s fitting that the 80s and 90s heroes were confronted by truly comic villains — Danny Devito as The Penguin, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Michelle Pffiefer as Cat Woman. There were certainly traces of angst, but mostly it’s goofy, gadgety, fun — very similar to how I remember the 90s myself.
When Batman Begins premiered in 2005, our country had entered a different era. We were post 9/11 and reeling from a war that created an, as of yet, unbreachable schism in national consciousness. When The Dark Knight came out three years later, those rifts were even broader, and the villain was, in my opinion, the best I’ve ever seen on screen. Heath Ledger as Joker was transformative. He is terrifying but also complex and compelling. I can’t think of another superhero film where the first thought when the topic is raised goes to the villain and not the hero. The Joker manipulates the gangster muscle of Gotham, the police, and the Batman with utter control.
Joker first comes off as unmotivated, mindlessly cruel, and psychologically damaged to the point that he wants to illicit random and deranged violence. But Heath Ledger unveils the character’s gracefully, showing not just that he does have an extrinsic target in his sights that is much more interesting than the normal seed of evil in American cinema (power and/or money); but he also possesses his own intrinsic psychic makeup that establishes him as the immovable object attempting to withstand the unstoppable force of Batman. It has become nearly impossible to extract this role from Ledger’s shocking death of a drug overdose in 2008 at 28 years old, six months before the film was released. Many have argued that this performance cost Ledger his life as it was so all consuming and evocative. It’s certainly possible Joker played a part in Ledger’s death, but regardless, there is an element of quiet, seething, desperation, that transcends reality and fiction.
Ledger was preceded by Jack Nicholson, who played the role with the same measured, confident, persona that is the bedrock of his career, and succeeded by Joaquin Phoenix who is the only Joker to get top billing and not be accompanied by Batman. As much as I enjoyed that perspective, part of The Dark Knight’s brilliance is the woven similarities and extreme discrepancies between hero and villain. In 2005/2008 American audiences were not only eager for increasingly complex villains, it was also the dawning of the age of the antihero. 2005 brought us the first Daniel Craig James Bond movie, and with it a haunted, multifaceted 007. 2007 ushered in Don Draper of Mad Men, followed by 2008’s ultimate dark protagonist in Walter White, star of Breaking Bad.
Christian Bale meets the demands of a flawed hero admirably, and his dark, damp, urban, depression reflected the psychology of a country ravaged by attack and anxiety. Again, the reality of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado in a sold out opening night screening of the film was another line item adding to the national travesty of gun violence in this country — and another reflection of Gotham through the looking glass of our reality.
Ultimately, this film is a question of idealism versus nihilism, and Batman rightly realizes he’s not the hero Gotham needs — that responsibility lies with Harvey Dent, who is the ray of hope in the bleakness. Batman’s moral line in the sand, that he won’t kill even when threatened, is the one foundation of humane goodness that Joker cannot abide and he plots the final scheme to prove that goodness is always corruptible. I won’t risk spoiling that climax which showcases director Christopher Nolan’s incredible deftness with tension. Nolan creates a unique atmosphere by leveraging groundbreaking performances from his actors, and manipulating the camera, the score, and the special effects to establish taut friction that enhances, without distracting from, the unfolding narrative. Nolan proudly stands on the shoulders of giants and willingly throws in dashes of genres and mediums spanning both the globe and history past — there are elements of Kung Fu, classic romance, thrillers, and Shakespearean moralism that stew together to create the perfect backdrop for Batman and Joker to return to the most tired question of all time, what is more powerful, good or evil?
Revisiting The Dark Knight in 2021 made me grateful for the Nolan trilogy, sandwiched between the ridiculous (Batman and Robin) and the heretical (Batman vs. Superman, starring the Batfleck who has no qualms about killing, and I am finding it difficult to continue giving the benefit of the doubt). Seeing the reflection of the sadness, fear, confusion, and anger in this film was validating, and the beam of hope that cut through the cloudy Gotham skies reminded me that our stories might not save us, but they can be the oasis in the desert.