By Tim Barlow
Long before I ever saw The Dark Knight, I loved it. True, I’ve always loved Batman, from the classic campy TV show, to the religiously watched after school cartoon. Even the various big screen blockbusters of the late 80’s and 90’s each gunning to out-celebrity the last. But all this history would simply place me in the theater on opening night, not necessarily declaring The Dark Knight a favorite movie. But still, before I ever saw it, I knew I would love it.
I think that love was really formed as soon as the credits rolled on Christopher Nolan’s 2005 release of Batman Begins (to which The Dark Knight is a sequel). In his version of a superhero movie Nolan blends thematic elements and a deeper purpose seamlessly and unpretentiously into a traditionally pretty cliche and predictable genre, all without compromising any of the action or fun people expect from a summer blockbuster. In short, it’s a better class of superhero movie.
I actually re-watched that first installment in the trilogy while preparing for this post, and what struck me was the theme of fear, bobbing above and below the surface throughout the movie. There are the more obvious manifestations, like Bruce’s fear of bats, or the chemically induced fear the Scarecrow uses as a weapon. But there’s also the fear of action, of standing up against corruption, the fear of good people who do nothing, to which Bruce struggles, ultimately leading him to establish the Batman, an anonymous symbol with nothing to lose, nothing to be leveraged against, and therefore, nothing to fear.
With The Dark Knight, we again get Nolan’s take on a superhero movie, but this time, instead of fear, Batman is up against his own morality. And similar to in Begins, Batman squares off against a villain that personifies these of-the-moment inner demons – this time another non-negotiating symbol with truly nothing to lose, and nothing to fear… a fellow freak.
In the Joker, Christopher Nolan (in collaboration with Heath Ledgers absolutely stunning performance) creates a dynamic character. Even down to his incessant lip licking, it’s the subtle nuances that give depth and provoke questions of the audience. Take for example how the Joker relays competing origin stories for his ‘Glasgow smile’ scars. As if to say, why he has the scars doesn’t even matter, we all have scars, but its his realization of the inescapable randomness of life’s scars that sets him free. Where Bruce Wayne has created the Batman and his morally righteous code to bring order to a world that scars with the selection of a coin flip, the Joker has set aside rules, realizing their futility.
So what is Nolan doing with this Nihilistic villain? Is Batman’s line in the sand where it needs to be?
During what winds up being their final encounter, Batman has just knocked the Joker from the edge of a building, but saved him as he fell, by shooting a rope around the Joker’s leg. Pulling him back up, they eventually face one another, with the Joker hanging upside down. They square off over the Joker’s vision of humanity, but instead of filming the Joker upside down, as he would have appeared to The Batman, Nolan flips the camera so that the Joker is right side up. It may be just as likely that Nolan thought this view better for the audience to connect with Ledger’s expressions, but I prefer to think of this as Nolan’s shrewdly orchestrated final question to the audience. Is the Joker really that crazy? Maybe he isn’t so upside down? Am I a little too serious, working like crazy to create order and manage through the chaos, feverishly making my own luck by sneaking in a trick coin? Could I stand to put a smile on my face? Is my morality line in place? Do I have one?
The Dark Knight is brilliant not just for asking these big questions of its audience, but successfully doing so not in some laurel-wreathed art house darling but a mega-grossing superhero summer blockbuster.