By far the most interesting thing about The Dark Knight is the fact that its principal conflict is not between Batman and the Joker. That particular face-off comes third.
In second place is the fight between the Joker and Harvey Dent. Dent is, by all accounts, a straight arrow who has the guts to take on the criminal underworld and a corrupt system that supports it (or at least turns the other way). The Joker knows this, and decides to hoist him on the petard of his own zeal. You can see in him, echoes of Bruce Wayne’s own history in some ways. And Wayne recognizes this better than anyone else.
The winner is the conflict within a man’s own self. The Joker’s specialty is to up the stakes to the point where ethics begin to seem like negotiable quantities. Towards the end, he rigs up two steamers full of people with bombs and tells them that he will blow up both, unless one blows up the other first. For students of game theory, the term Prisoner’s Dilemma might come to mind. Movie villains have created this sort of situation before, but rarely have they been this effective. Little wonder then, that the most “superheroic” gestures in the movie are also the most human ones, whether or not they come from men wearing superhero suits.
And now for the Joker himself. The more I think about this movie, the more I realize that a certain duality exists. There is the character on screen, who confronts his enemies in any circumstance with an unnerving, jaunty self-confidence. That he is insane is without doubt. What his adversaries cannot understand, however, is whether or not his confidence comes from knowing something they don’t, or simply from the fact that he is mad.
Then there is the Joker as a plot device. Much of what he manages to accomplish even in adversity seems so fiendishly clever that it is barely plausible. It is as if the writers created the plot as a series of situations designed to put impossible ethical choices before the protagonists, and simply used the Joker as the face of that dilemma. This sort of thing can often stretch credibility and weaken the impact of the movie.
However, in this case it works. Why? Two words: Heath Ledger.
The John Malkovich character in Con Air is described at one point as a poster child for the criminally insane. Compared to the Joker, that guy is a choirboy. You want competition, look at someone like Hannibal Lecter. What Ledger creates is the sort of riveting portrait of manic evil that you rarely see, and rarely want to see. If he doesn’t get on every nominee list for Best Actor by the end of the year and win at least half of them, it will only be because Marlon Brando rose from the dead and redid A Streetcar Named Desire.
Pitted against him is a trio of actors: Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman as Gordon and Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. Of the lot, Eckhart has the meatiest role in this movie, and delivers perfectly. Lt. Gordon has had more to do in the rebooted franchise than earlier, and Gary Olman brings the perfect level of world-weary idealism to the part.
As for Christian Bale, he is probably the first actor who has made us care about the man under the mask. Traditionally, the Batsuit has had the ability to make the most charming of actors look wooden (even George Clooney looked like a lawn ornament, for heaven’s sake!). What Christopher Nolan has done is, quite simply, make Bruce Wayne the hero and Batman simply a suit with Wayne inside it. And that, dear reader, makes all the difference in the world.
There are other supporting actors with not much to do, but they all do it well. Michael Caine plays Alfred with more bite than Michael Gough did, probably because, well, you can’t put Michael Caine in a movie and give him nothing to do. Ditto for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and brings the sort of sassy sexiness to the part that Holmes never could. As for Morgan Freeman, playing Batman’s Q is sort of like a pleasant diversion, both for him and us.
Ah yes, for those of you who are action movie fans: The action is spectacular, the scene where the bike makes its entry simply rocks, and there’s sufficient coolness in both stunts and gadgetry.
Only one question remains: Is this the best superhero movie made so far? I don’t know. It certainly qualifies, and quite handsomely at that. What stops me is a matter of definition.
Superhero movies are usually about men doing seven impossible things before breakfast. The good ones are about the men who do them rather than what they do. This one, on the other hand, is about these men being asked to make just one impossible choice before breakfast. Except that it really does turn out to be impossible.
ps: There’s a nice discussion of the game theoretic aspects of the Joker’s trick here.