Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Saturday, September 23, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Dark Knight (2008)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Country: United States, United Kingdom

Some men just want to watch the world burn. There's no logic to it, no central ideas informing it; the chaos of it exists purely for its own sake. If the moral and philosophical questions posed by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight seemed fitting for the first decade of this century, they have only come to seem more so as time has gone on. Although hardly the first superhero movie to actively try to "mean" something, and certainly not the last, I would be hard-pressed to name one that more completely transcended that line between popcorn entertainment and something deeper, more meaningful, and essential in some way to understanding the times in which we are living. The Dark Knight is a film that speaks to the period of history that it came out of and continues to speak to what we're living through today, a film whose influence continues to echo through its genre, and one which is just a damn entertaining watch. No discussion of the movie century so far would be complete without The Dark Knight.

Picking up where Batman Begins left off, The Dark Knight finds Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) doing battle on multiple fronts. Not only is he cleaning up the streets of Gotham one criminal at a time, he's also contending with the copycat vigilantes he's inspired - men less physically capable and more prepared to use deadly force than he is and who demand to know what gives him the right to do what he would prevent them from doing - and questions about whether what he's doing is right. Although he has the support of police Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), there's debate about whether he's a force for good, doing what the law cannot do alone (or what it cannot do at all), or a force for bad, a man exercising a power that does not rightfully belong to him, accountable to no one and acting in accordance with nothing but his own personal set of rules. Into this fraught atmosphere steps an agent of chaos, a man whose is not driven by money or by a desire to get rid of Batman (he sees their future as one of being locked in perpetual combat with each other) or even, necessarily, power. His goal, simply, is to destabilize everything and create madness purely for the sake of madness.

That man is, of course, the Joker, played by Heath Ledger in a performance that never fails to stun. While Ledger already had an Oscar nomination (for Brokeback Mountain) to his credit when he made The Dark Knight, I'm not sure that anyone would have predicted that he was capable of this particular performance, one in which he completely disappears into the character not only through makeup, but also through the way that he carries himself and the way that he talks and engages with the other actors around him. Ledger is utterly captivating in the role, taking a character that can be (and has been) reduced to his broadest, campiest strokes, and turning him into a man so broken inside that he has become all jagged edges on the outside. It's a performance that is funny and sinister and so unforced that, despite the outrageous things that the character does throughout the movie, it doesn't even feel like a "performance" at all.

Because they break the rules and speak to that dormant id inside of us, in addition to the fact that we invariably get to know less about them than about their protagonist counterparts, allowing them to retain more mystery, villains tend to be more interesting than heroes. However, while the Joker is certainly much more flamboyant than Batman, The Dark Knight manages to avoid, as much as possible given Ledger's iconic performance, that pitfall in two ways. One is through its conception of "Bruce Wayne," which reminds me of the Superman speech from Kill Bill, Vol. 2 in which Bill explains that what separates Superman from other superheroes is the fact that his super identity is the real one while "Clark Kent" is the costume. Here Nolan and co-writer Jonathan Nolan conceive of the character in such a way that the Batman identity - a man who will put himself at risk in order to save the innocent and stop the villains - is the one which is more representative of who Bruce Wayne is than the public figure known as "Bruce Wayne," which is more like a character that Bruce is playing - a selfish and careless playboy who's only interest is his own pleasure - in order to protect his true self. Batman is who he really is, Bruce is the costume he wears, and Bale plays that duality excellently, layering a performance atop a performance.

The other way is in how the film uses the Joker to function as a mirror for Batman. Both are "freaks," as the Joker gleefully points out, scarred by events in their past (the Joker literally, Batman metaphorically), one acting out his trauma by attempting to bring order to the city, the other by attempting to dismantle it completely. The mob is willing to work with the Joker only for as long as they need him, just as the authorities are willing to condone Batman's actions only for so long as they have to and then, once the city is cleaned up a bit, he'll go back to the top of their most wanted list. Batman and the Joker are opposite sides of one coin, and the battle between them isn't merely a battle between good and evil, but a battle between our best impulses and our worst impulses. As he faces an opponent who doesn't merely want to defeat him, but wants to push him to such extremes that he compromises the very things he's meant to stand for, different shades are brought out in the character of Batman/Bruce and Nolan uses that shading to bring the film's moral questions into sharp relief. The questions that the Joker maneuvers Batman/Bruce into asking himself are the questions that the film is asking the audience: do the ends justify the means? Should civil liberties be a secondary concern in extraordinary circumstances and the pursuit of a terrorist? What sacrifices are worth making? Nolan uses the framework of a superhero story to explore the discussions that dominated the first ten years of the century.

In the near decade since The Dark Knight's release superheroes have become ubiquitous on the big and small screens and The Dark Knight's influence has been both a good and a bad thing - a good thing because it solidified the idea that a superhero movie could be something that could, and even should, be taken seriously as a work of art; a bad thing because in some cases the wrong lessons were learned from its success. Sold as a "gritty" and "realistic" take on superheroics, the takeaway from this film (and Nolan's Batman series as a whole) was that superhero movies needed to be dark, deadly serious, and explore a character functioning in an ethical gray area. Until Wonder Woman this was an idea dominated the DC movies slate, which is odd because it doesn't even actually apply to Nolan's series. The Nolan films are dark, certainly, because Batman is a dark character, and they're realistic insofar as they aren't cartoonish, but they're also films with a lot of well-placed and very welcome levity that is built upon characters and their relationships. The Dark Knight is a movie that is often funny as Nolan provides some relief from what might otherwise be relentless drama, letting Batman/Bruce crack a joke now and then so that he's not a dour and too-heavy character, and while he does find himself pushed towards ethical gray areas, Nolan finds a way to explore that without compromising the character's moral code. Batman doesn't kill people; he goes out of his way not to kill people, using his skills to outsmart and outmaneuver his opponents rather than resorting to deadly force. Nolan moves the character into these tight corners and then challenges himself to find a way to move him out of them while still allowing him to be true to who and what the character is, which is something that has gotten lost as the character has transitioned to subsequent hands and subsequent stories.

The Dark Knight succeeds because Nolan does a lot of things right. He doesn't do everything right - the film could stand to be shorter, fight scenes are not Nolan's forte, nor are writing female characters - but what he does right is so powerful that it's easy to look past the film's flaws. His focus on world building through fleshing out characters and their relationships creates space for solid performances (Ledger's is obviously the high-water mark, but Eckhart, Oldman, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also get the opportunity to do some fine character work), the film's opening sequence, which follows the heist of a mob-run bank that will get the Joker on everyone's radar, is one of the best opening sequences in film in the last 20 years at least, and Nolan's preference for using practical effects wherever possible creates a feeling of things actually being at stake that's more difficult to achieve when everything on screen is computer generated. Nolan is a masterful craftsman whose meticulousness and willingness to play around with form has created some of the most memorable movies of the century so far and The Dark Knight more than deserves to be considered among his absolute best efforts and as one of the best films of the 21st century.


Dell said...

Yes, yes, and more yes. Fantastic write-up of a fantastic film. For me, it's still the best superhero movie ever made. Love what you said about its influence being both good and bad. DC went overboard with "dark and gritty" and forgot all the nuance of this film. Hopefully, they'll be able to find the right balance and save the grim pictures for characters that actually require them.

Norma Desmond said...

I'm curious to see what lessons the DC film division will learn from Wonder Woman (and whether learning those lessons too late is going to make a complete mess of Justice League).