The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
One can usually rely on Anthony Quinn, The Independent’s regular film critic, to write a pithy sentence that sums up what so often goes wrong with movie criticism. ‘The Dark Knight’ (the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) is, according to Quinn, a film with a ‘schizoid personality’ in which high-minded art and blockbusting entertainment are constantly fighting against each other. No, no, and thrice no! What Nolan has achieved here is to prove once and for all that intelligent cinema and populist moviemaking needn’t be two mutually exclusive extremes. That he does this so brilliantly and effortlessly with this film has made me rethink my fears that this once promising director might never make a film as original and effective as ‘Following’ or ‘Memento’ again. If he can work this much magic through merely reinventing a franchise, let him make an entire career from doing so.
Excellent though it was, ‘Batman Begins’ basically elaborated the origins of Bruce Wayne’s invention of Batman that were hinted at in Tim Burton’s film from 1989, albeit with added ninja training. When I first heard that this film would again feature The Joker as its central villain, I feared that it would end up being a straight remake of that more fantastical film. Burton gave the Joker a human identity in the character of Jack Napier, who in falling into a giant vat of acid in the Axis Chemical Factory, became hideously disfigured. This version of the Joker, performed with a combination of maniacal glee and hints of psychological vulnerability by the late Heath Ledger, is a much more complicated beast. Perhaps scarred and traumatised by his father, he has deep-rooted troubles, but his back-story undergoes subtle modifications every time he enthusiastically relates it. He terrorises simply for the fun of it and poses elaborate moral problems for the film’s central characters. With ‘The Dark Knight’, Nolan actually tears up every rule that has ever informed the superhero genre, crafting elaborate situations and personal stories that deeply involve us in the film’s action and themes. By the film’s devastating conclusion, the whole moral compass on which the Batman legend is founded has been audaciously distorted.
Another notable contrast with the Burton films is in appearance. Burton made his Gotham City look like a richly imagined gothic nightmare – Nolan’s Gotham looks more like a convincing modern urban landscape. Whilst the film mostly avoids recognisable landmarks (save for a breathtaking sequence filmed in Trump Tower), it was shot on location in Chicago, and its dizzying aerial panoramas, convoys and chase sequences demonstrate the visible influence of Michael Mann. In fact, in appearance, this film probably most closely resembles later Mann works such as ‘Collateral’ or ‘Miami Vice’. It’s therefore not just the banal day-glo comic book capers of the Joel Schumacher movies than Nolan has succeeded in banishing. He’s also managed to break free from the more credible Burton vision too and, in doing so, has crafted an intriguing and distinct style far removed from any of the previous instalments in the franchise, even his own. The audience for this film will find themselves immediately immersed in a completely fresh world, depicted in a surprisingly vivid and effective cinematic language.
As if to stake its claim to standard action movie terrain, ‘The Dark Knight’ begins with a dramatic and impressively novel bank heist, notable for its succession of domino killings that enable the Joker to be the only participant to leave alive with the money. But this showpiece introduction really only hints at the evil to come (at this stage the Joker is still a player in a Mob crime game) and the movie immediately veers on a tangent to address its first philosophical question. The Gotham City of this movie is one in a state of confusion leading to crisis. The very nature of vigilante justice is being questioned – why has ‘The Batman’ (initially that definite article is crucial) become the self-appointed guardian of the city? Can he in fact be blamed for the deaths of innocents and policemen? Why can other ordinary citizens not replicate his success? (The usually malevolent Cillian Murphy makes an amusing and understated cameo as one who tries and fails).
As the plot twists and turns through an epic 152 minute running time (which turns out to be not a minute too long – every unexpected development is justified), we’re introduced to myriad thorny psychological issues. There’s the love triangle between Bruce Wayne, District Attorney Harvey Dent (played with handsome righteousness by the perennially underrated Aaron Eckhart) and his assistant Rachel Dawes (the increasingly ubiquitous Maggie Gyllenhaal). Then there’s the cumulative self-doubt afflicting Bruce Wayne as Batman: Can he commit the necessary evil in order to achieve the common good? Is it even right that he should do so or does Gotham really need its ‘White Knight’ – protection with a human, democratic and accountable face in the form of D.A. Dent? In between these three is Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Gordon, totally driven in his commitment to dealing with the criminals, but in denial about the corruption in his ranks.
Mapping out a plot summary is pointless, given that this film is not really about its narrative, relentlessly driving though it undoubtedly is. It is instead about the complex nature of moral questions and it paints a daringly intricate and nuanced picture where good and evil seduce each other rather than simply fight it out. The philosophical problem of evil is that we can’t understand what is good without first appreciating what is evil. In Gotham City, it’s clear that this also works in reverse. ‘Of course I don’t want to kill you’, says the Joker to Batman. ‘You complete me.’ The battle of good and evil here is not a simplistic conflict with an inevitable outcome – instead, as the Joker puts it so eloquently, it’s ‘what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object’. It’s never entirely clear which is which.
Thrown into this potent mix is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the nature of which would be far too great a spoiler to reveal. It’s enough to say that it throws the movie on to a major new trajectory, with one of its characters corrupted on a path of targeted vengeance and its supposed hero questioning all his prejudices and preconceptions. What we’re left with is a superhero movie where the superhero is perched on the precipice of abrogating his responsibility – or at best keen to create the conditions where such a renunciation is the best outcome. Then there are the supporting characters – who all play quite significant roles. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox designs innovative technology for Wayne Enterprises but eventually finds his personal principles deeply compromised. Alfred the Butler, played with insight and economy by Michael Caine, hides some crucial but inevitably dispiriting information from Bruce Wayne. Presiding over all this psychological and political mayhem is Ledger’s Joker – a man who consciously chooses chaos, has no rational plan and relishes his own insanity. In some senses, Christian Bale’s Batman is simply a cog in a much bigger machine.
The film’s conclusion is every bit as complicated as it appears – and both the forces of good and evil can lay claim to some kind of victory. But whilst the positive view of the human community holds sway, the individual bastions of moral virtue have all been called into question and been demonstrated to have significant flaws. Some of the lines from the surprisingly poetic script stick in the mind. Alfred claims that ‘some people just want to watch the world burn’ – although in the case of the Joker, he seems to want to ignite the flames too. The Joker himself claims that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger’ and, as part of the final confrontation, Harvey Dent pronounces that ‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain’. It’s a doom-laden proposition that neatly encapsulates the doubt, ambiguity and uncertainty at the core of this film’s unique vision. This film makes the pseudo-philosophy of The Matrix look like a pretentious sham. I need to watch it again – but I suspect it may turn out to be the closest the superhero genre has come to producing a masterpiece.
Even worse than Anthony Quinn’s simplistic assessment is an extraordinarily dim-witted and pretentious article published today on The Guardian website by David Cox, complaining that the film has nothing to say about terrorism and cannot be a fable for our times. On all the key questions, Cox moans, the film is ‘determinedly ambiguous’. Aside from the fact that even Cox himself concedes that this is entirely the point, is it really the job of thriller film-makers to determine what is right and wrong in the current global political climate? The film asks moral questions of its audience as well as its characters, and credits the viewer with enough intelligence to make their own judgments as to whether the use of blanket surveillance, physical abuse and a form of extraordinary rendition are justifiable methods to deal with an unreasonable evil that knows no bounds. After all, in the times we live in now, these are issues we need to consider, rather than merely sleepwalking into allowing our democratically elected leaders to make all the assessments themselves, without being held to account. Ludicrous though it may sound, perhaps this morally complex and inconclusive fantasy might be more provocative than all the sanctimonious preaching Michael Moore can muster.