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Special Review: “The Dark Knight” – An Essay on Ethics and Excellence

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Produced by: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer (story)
Cinematography by: Wally Pfister
Music by: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Ng Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell
Year: 2008


Can a film based on a comic book superhero really be considered a “masterpiece”? Even up until and including the amazing Batman Begins, this was a hard question to answer. While certainly a great feat of audience-pleasing entertainment and thoughtful craftwork merging together, Batman Begins was certainly more like a skilled adaptation of a popular character’s story than it was a profound examination of humanity. While this doesn’t inherently disqualify it, the film’s appeal and impact is limited somewhat as a result. The film was largely a study on how one man is driven to the point of becoming a masked vigilante, striving to become a symbol of hope and justice in a city infested with criminals and the morally bankrupt. Yes, Begins had scatterings of a universal message regarding the redemptive ability of humanity, but overall, it really was mostly Bruce Wayne’s story — and that’s really all it had to be.

With the introductions out of the way, however, the sequel takes the opportunity to take this hero and pit him against one of the greatest challenges he will ever face, one that threatens not only his purpose and his morals, but also puts the lives of those who supported him on this journey in danger. The resulting film, The Dark Knight, is a film that is philosophically deeper than not only its predecessor, but pretty much any comic book film, even to this day, four years later. (Of course, by the time I publish this review, The Dark Knight Rises will have been released, and I may have changed my tune, but for now, this statement is true to what I currently believe.) As a result, The Dark Knight ultimately proves to be far more universal in its application to society, and indeed shows that even a summer blockbuster based on a comic book can be a masterpiece.

Taking place an undisclosed period of time after the first film, though it must have been quite some time after since Wayne Enterprises is now in a new, black building. While it’s nowhere near ideal conditions, we get to see that Batman’s presence has, in fact, had a positive effect, as criminals loose on the streets flee at the sight of Batman’s signal in the sky. However, as Jim Gordon predicted, his presence is also having undesirable consequences. Like a bacterial infection, with the weaker criminals disappearing, stronger ones  are taking their place. Not only that, Batman’s hopes to inspire the citizens of Gotham to rise up has backfired, with groups copycat vigilantes using his image are taking to the streets and taking on more than they can handle.

Having believed that one day Gotham would be able to redeem itself, Bruce’s hopes of one day being able to hang up the mantle of Batman and settle in to a normal life with his childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, are beginning to wear thin, with every passing day proving to him that his mission is far from over. There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the new Gotham District Attorney, Harvey Dent, who has been the only man able to stand up against crime as bravely and effectively as Batman could, only he’s able to do this without wandering into the darker shades of grey, and he’s even been called Gotham’s White Knight, standing up face-to-face with criminals, no masks or makeup needed. Being more than capable of taking Batman’s place in Gotham, Harvey even becomes a symbol of hope for Bruce, as well. The only thing Bruce has against him is that Harvey is dating Rachel, and she no longer seems content to wait for Batman’s retirement when Harvey already possesses all the best qualities of both Bruce and his alter ego.

Of course, The Dark Knight wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as it is if it were solely a love story, and what kind of Batman movie would it be without a pivotal villain or two? As suggested by the end of Batman Begins, here we are treated to a whole new interpretation of Batman’s arch nemesis and most iconic rogue, the Joker, played, of course, by the late Heath Ledger. Ledger was only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of Joker, previously portrayed on film (amazingly, I might add) by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, after Peter Finch in Network, and the first actor to win an Oscar for a film based on a comic book property, officially signalling to critics that comic book movies weren’t just making money, but were also becoming spectacular works of art.

The Joker of The Dark Knight is unlike any interpretation before it. He has no true gimmicks to play up the clown theme beyond a smattering of messy makeup, a crudely restitched Glasgow smile, and a dark wit that’s more menacing and disturbed than it is amusing. However, at the same time, you could hardly call him insane. That would suggest that there’s very little rationality or reason behind his actions. Men who like to think of themselves as “good men” tend to believe that only insane individuals could commit such horrors as the Joker does, but, as Alfred poignantly points out to Bruce, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker portrayed here uses chaos and destruction as his tools, but he uses them to spread a rather sobering philosophy: When given the chance, even the best of us can be driven to do terrible things.

The philosophical themes of The Dark Knight are never clearly defined in terms of black and white, never quite making the distinctions between good vs. evil quite so easy to define. Batman may be fighting crime, but his methods are outside the law and fall into ethically questionable territory, as he is seen extraditing a suspected criminal from Hong Kong and even taps citizens’ phones in the name of public safety. (This has, of course, caused many to see parallels between the film and the American government post-9/11, and rightfully so.) The Joker, meanwhile, may be working with criminals and is labelled a terrorist, but his perception of man’s inherent corruptibility is supported by the fact that Gotham, the very society that has embraced a vigilante who operates outside their laws, was largely responsible for allowing itself to fall into a state that necessitated his presence in the first place.

With that in mind, Harvey Dent’s image as the “White Knight” of Gotham becomes a lot more questionable. Sure enough, his outward goodness gradually gives way to what society would call madness as the world around him begins to crumble. For the Joker, that’s really the point of it all. Men like Harvey Dent may fight for what is right for a time, but only “Until their spirit breaks completely. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent.” To him, morality and society’s laws only perpetuate the false ideal that man is able to be truly good. “You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness,” he accuses Batman, “and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun.” What he does to Gotham, to Harvey, and to Bruce throughout the film demonstrates his belief that this struggle against corruption is a futile one, a battle that only the truly insane will continue fight — “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

The final climax of the film is not the typical fight between hero and villain, but rather between Batman and Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent, three men who formed an unstable alliance against the mob and the Joker, each of whom had broken their own personal morals and society’s laws in the name of the greater good only to be left struggling with the ethical, personal, and, in the case of Harvey, the physical consequences of their actions. Though Batman and Gordon still mostly believe that they acted for greater good and believe that Harvey can come back from his corruption, for Harvey, his face half mangled and his plans for the future stolen from him, this is no longer about what is right, but rather what is fair. In working with Batman and Gordon (and, in essence, society), he believes that fate has left him with nothing despite his efforts to do what was right. His now twisted rationality leads him to believe that chance is the only thing that determines what is truly right, and with a flip of a coin, any action can be justified.

It would be an oversimplification to say that the message of The Dark Knight is that morality is rarely easy to define, but it is a perfectly succinct way to shorten the surprisingly complex and ambiguous message put forth in this comic book movie. Of course, this being me — and I am admittedly a fairly wordy writer, so I apologize if you are dozing off by this point, but please allow me to further elaborate — I do want to expand on this just a bit more before bringing this review to a close, and I do appreciate your patience, as I cannot help myself! (I obviously love this film a lot, so you can probably guess the score, go check to confirm, and come back to this point if you wish to continue.)

In the end, Batman finds his own redemption comes at the cost of his reputation. So important to Gotham’s safety was Harvey’s image as their White Knight, he decides to take on the blame for everything that Harvey did after the Joker pushed him over the proverbial edge, working with Gordon to cover up Harvey’s tragic fall from grace and the circumstances of his death and turn the former savior into a martyr. For Batman, a hero who works outside law and order to return society to safety, what is one more lie if it’s for the greater good? In the end, he may look like the villain, but in truth, he believes that he will be the hero that Gotham needs him to be, working in shadow as their Dark Knight.

The film pulls no punches in remaining ambiguous in its own moral philosophies, if there are any to be truly had. As with the Joker’s actions toward Gotham, the film acts as a test for audiences. It reveals not only the intricacies of these characters interactions with each other, but what they mean to us. That, to me, basically seems to be the ultimate goal for most great works of art.

In the four years since this film’s release, we’ve seen the mainstream acceptance of comic book films and other forms of “low” art become recognized for their academic worth. I can say with certainty that The Dark Knight was a great influence on that movement — the Academy’s recognition of Heath Ledger and snubbing of the film for a Best Picture nomination are the perfect simultaneous examples of this transitional period of time. (Audience reaction resulted in the Academy expanding the film nominations to ten the following year, resulting in nominations for two sci-fi films, one animated film, a comedy, and a film based in alternate history. They didn’t win, but it was a start!) The film has its flaws, absolutely — the script sometimes finds itself putting rather unnatural pontifical words into characters’ mouths, and we never do see what happens with the Joker during that dinner party — but, as with its basis in comic books, this shouldn’t exempt this otherwise sensationally crafted, wonderfully acted, action-packed film from being recognized as a masterpiece. Bring on the inevitably pale-by-comparison (but undoubtedly excellent) third film!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5


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