The Dark Knight

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Dark Knight

  1. Sagarika says:

    Such a rip-roaringly fantastic write-up — subtle charms and all (hmm..evolving a new signature, are we?). And oh-so-stylishly laid out too.

    I must admit, I tried and tried and tried to make this one impossible choice — NOT to read the review before I saw the movie (the fact that I’ve recently hit rockbottom, resolve-wise, notwithstanding). 🙂

    I kept lazily dragging the scroll bar…up and down and up and down…wistfully waltzing with my mind (you know how one tends to, sometimes, while on the cusp of a virtually-impossible-to-resist reading temptation?) before these words/lines literally lunged at my eyeballs: “Two words: Heath Ledger”…”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.” Whoa! “Throw in the towel, and right now,” is how that translated on the other end of the optic nerve!

    And I did…only to arrive at (among other awfully nice notions) the forgone conclusion that this clearly is the week of sensational closing lines in reviewland.

    “I am improving as a reviewer,” did I hear you say? Oh by leaps and bounds, if I may add!

  2. patrick>> I doubt they’ll come out with another one too soon. I can’t see Nolan going for it at any rate.

    NK>> Nearly every reviewer is echoing the same thing. Even the ones who weren’t so impressed by the movie are fulsome in their praise for Heath Ledger’s Joker. He is by far the best reason to watch The Dark Knight.

    ~r

  3. Sanket>> Considering that most movies *are* at least partly fiction, including those based on true stories, that narrows the field down considerably, I think.

    I didn’t know cartoons were non-fiction, though 🙂

    ~r

  4. Amrita says:

    I LOVE this movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal was saying on Letterman the other day that Nolan decided to make this movie as a drama rather than a comic movie and a decision as simple as that has completely changed everything! I love it!

    I sincerely thought, going in, that this movie was going to be a let down coz hype of this kind often is but man, everything they said about this movie didn’t do it justice. I’m winding down now so I’ll probably calm down a bit in a while and have more perspective (hell, it’s been days since i saw it!) but i keep replaying bits and pieces. this is the movie i wanted to see as a batgeek, you know?

    I love the fact that you took the time to note both gyllenhaal and eckhart who were fantastic in it but got overshadowed by Heath (deservedly so – he’s a lock for best supporting nomination if not a win imo).

    Oh and that third movie might be coming sooner than you thought – word is eckhart just said yes to it. oooooooooo!

  5. You’re right: it plays as drama, and it makes all the difference in the world.

    Am a huge fan of both Gyllenhaal and Eckhart, so I couldn’t not mention them. The former, especially — she made me positively drool in Stranger Than Fiction, and overlooking her performance in Sherrybaby at Oscar time was nothing short of criminal.

    Eckhart’s, I thought, was the central performance on the good side. Like Batman and Gordon say, Dent was the best of them and they knew it.

    When I think about the scene where Batman has to choose between Harvey and Rachel, I realize that it is really a choice between Batman and Bruce Wayne. Bruce would’ve gone after Rachel, but Batman knows that he ought to go after Dent. Considering that Bruce saw Dent as a way to hang up his Batsuit, it is especially ironic and poignant how that choice eventually played out.

    ~r

    ps: I am actually a bit apprehensive about there being a part 3. Third parts have let me down often in the past (Spider-man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Revenge of the Killer Mutant Teddy Bears (Return of the Jedi, in case you were wondering :-D)… Then again, all the pre-Nolan Batman movies have been let-downs, so maybe he’ll surprise me one more time.

  6. Sagarika says:

    Gyllenhaal – wasn’t she the one in that black comedy Secretary? (Probably the only movie I’ve seen her in…goes to show just how much I’ve missed over the last 6 years!). Haven’t even heard of Stranger than Fiction. I’ll add it to my list of must-watch movies that’s getting longer and longer and longer by the day…

  7. Yep! She was the one with James Spader in Secretary. What a trip that movie was! There was something about her that was simply mesmerizing. She and Spader in that movie would rank as one of the more interesting yet successful pairings I’ve seen.

    ~r

  8. THANK you! I’ve been telling people about Sherrybaby and their eyes simply glaze over. Cretins.
    I was not a fan of the Spiderman movies. They were timepass but Kiki Dunst and Tobey Maguire do not make it for me. At all. But I’m with you on the XMen movies and the Killer Mutant Teddy Bears 😀 But I honestly think, if the expectations don’t crush him, the third time could could work for this franchise. But no Gyllenhaal in the next one 😦

    Sagarika – Secretary is small, weird and fabulous. It was also the last time James Spader was hot.

  9. I know, most people don’t even seem to know about that movie. Sometimes, being in a blockbuster or two is what it takes for people to notice you, and therefore your indie work. If Sherrybaby had been released later this year, I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she had gotten an Oscar nod.

    You know, I wonder if Nolan and the studio would have the guts to make a non-action superhero movie. Where one of the characters can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the situation is such that it doesn’t demand that.

    I know I already got my wish with Unbreakable, but I’d like to see Nolan do something like that.

    ~r

  10. Wandered over fron Rangan’s archives. There was something surreal about Heath in that nurse uniform trundling down the road playing with the remote to an explosive. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it and failing miserably. Probably just a case of acting elevating the words off a page.

    The villainy is so ridiculous (in a good way), that not just Nolan, but the character see’s itself as a plot device. “I’m an agent of chaos” – he just see’s himself as some sort of facilitator, keeping things interesting. There’s a story about an abusive parent and one about an insensitive spouse offered as the source to the facial scars so he’s possibly lying about both. I liked that the movie offers nothing in the form of placation for his actions making him a pure plot pusher. It is to Ledger’s credit that he doesn’t leverage that to chew up the Chicago scenery.

  11. Clearly, Heath Ledger took what was a well-written role and made it a superbly acted one. Like you said, he’s written at one level as a plot device, a sort of nemesis that haunts the heroes at every turn somehow or the other. But all those little quirks that the writing and his acting invest in the character make him real to us.

    What makes it so interesting and scary is that the Joker is someone who is twisted, evil and psychopathic but also is clear-headed enough to see himself as he is. That is what makes him so scary — if he has a weakness, it is too well-hidden. All you see is what he chooses to let you see.

    The multiple contradicting stories he tells about his own scars, for instance — he sees them as an opportunity to pander to the pop-psychologist in people (while of course cutting them up), not as an opportunity to justify himself. Even his conversation with Dent in the hospital (which begins with a priceless mock-sympathetic “Hi” that brought the house down) isn’t him being honest about his motivations, but him manipulating Dent and twisting him to his will.

    I guess the joker also sees himself as a sort of joker, and his “performance” as the nurse was his way of expressing that side.

    ~r

  12. BTW Since I didn’t explicitly state it before- great write-up. I’ve this weird idea brewing in my mind about hindu dialectic, the trinity and a analogy to Batman, Joker and Dent but it hasn’t vitrified yet. Your post helped move the idea along significantly.

    And thanks for mentioning Gyllenhall prominently. I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen her in ever since I first saw her in Donnie Darko, except Mona Lisa Smile.

  13. Thank you!

    I like your idea — it sounds pretty interesting. Will await your post on this.

    I thought Gyllenhaal was one of the few watchable things in Mona Lisa Smile — she had more sass than the rest of the cast put together. And considering that the cast included Julia Roberts and Julia Stiles, both of whom have a nice line in sass, that was something.

    Donnie Darko, on the other hand, didn’t work for me. Somehow, I never really got what the movie was about.

    ~r

  14. If I had to to a one word review of Donnie Darko it would have to be “Futility” – as exemplified by Gary Jules’ lines from Mad World (which is part of the soundtrack):

    ” I find I kind of funny, I find it kind of sad
    The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had
    I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
    When people run in circles its a very very Mad world ”

    Yea, I’d say that movie was a bit of a downer 🙂 .

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