Superhero films have gone beyond a trend now, and are probably here to stay, as (maybe you've heard) they've been extremely successful recently. But after seeing The Dark Knight twice now, I'm wondering if the genre should be retired. Walk out on a high note. Because I'm not sure it can ever get any better than what Christopher Nolan has done here.
The storyline is dense, fueled largely, of course, by good guy trying to catch bad guy. But there's so much more going on. As with any action movie, there are spectacular set pieces involving bank robberies, drug busts, kidnappings, hostage rescues, and stand-offs. But rather than provide the foundation for the story, those scenes supplement the complex impulses of an unforgettable cast of characters, each of whom is after something more than the typical motivations of hero defeating villain, villain confounding hero, power, money, love, and acceptance.
These people are pursuing loftier, more abstract goals such as order, chaos, contentment, and normalcy. (Okay, love should be thrown in there, too.) Altogether, it gives us the fully developed sort of superhero movie we say we've always wanted. And that's almost a backhanded compliment. The Dark Knight is just a great crime movie - period - whose main character happens to be wearing a mask and cape.
But a crime story wouldn't be any good without a memorable villain, someone who the protagonists have no idea how to stop and makes the audience squirm in its seat because neither has any idea what will happen next. Heath Ledger has created a nihilistic, anarchistic force of nature that can't be figured out because he doesn't want to be the town's biggest, megalomanical bully. The Joker just wants to mess with you. He can't help himself. He wants to touch your nerves and take sandpaper to them. He wants to see how far you can be pushed before you'll let go of the ideals and morals that define you. Punching him in the face or throwing him in a jail cell won't stop that.
Ledger's best scenes are when he finds his adversary's sensitivities and pokes at them. And instead of being a flamboyant clown, the Joker's playfulness comes from refusing to be ignored, persistently causing an itch that he knows has to be scratched. Yet he's also terrifying because he'll stick a knife in you just to watch you die, and won't have a bit of remorse over it.
Another fantastic aspect to this version of the Joker is how he mocks our desire to have our villains explained psychologically. What made him that way? Why does he do these things? A running gag, if you will, throughout the film has Joker telling his story to his victims just before he's about to injure or kill them. But it's a different story every time. Maybe there's some truth to each tale, but maybe he's also making fun of your attempt to understand him.
Altogether, Ledger and Nolan have created one of the great villains ever seen on screen. And maybe the posthumous Oscar talk leading up to The Dark Knight's release seemed premature, if not a bit exploitive. But if you consider the recent history of these awards, look at how memorable villains have been honored. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for becoming Hannibal Lecter. Javier Bardem was awarded for being Anton Chigurh. Daniel Day-Lewis got the prize for giving us Daniel Plainview. Who knows what else we'll see in the next six months leading up to the Academy Awards? But will any of those performances or characters be more memorable than Ledger as the Joker?
I disagree, however, with those who say that the Joker completely overshadows Batman in this movie. Sure, he's the flashier, more interesting presence, the one you're talking about when leaving the theater. But I also think Nolan and Christian Bale (along with Nolan's screenwriting brother - let's give the writers credit) have created a more compelling Batman and Bruce Wayne than we've ever seen before.
One of the tragedies of the character that hasn't been depicted in these movies before (and not that much in the comic books, either) is that there's not going to be a happy ending for him. Batman has created an impossible task for himself. He's never going to completely rid Gotham City of crime. And even if he comes close, what he's been through will never allow him to just settle down into a normal life (even one as a millionaire playboy). But Wayne is portrayed as someone who can see the day when Batman is no longer needed. Maybe this makes him seem more selfish, and less heroic, but to me, it makes Batman far more relatable. He's just a more extreme version of ourselves, someone who wants the world to make sense, so he can find his place in it.
When he meets Harvey Dent, the kind of man who should clean up his city, who should make people feel safe because he's fighting crime lawfully, Batman yearns to build him up. Because if someone doing this the right way can get it done, that creates hope. And if there's hope, there's no more need for Batman.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way as Dent suffers a tragic downfall, both emotionally and physically, brought on largely because he's made himself such a large target. The villain Dent becomes, Two-Face, is my favorite adversary for Batman because he remembers the person that Dent used to be and is always trying to save him. There's nothing close to that sort of empathy between Batman and Joker, and this story nails those dynamics perfectly.
That brings me back to my original point, which is that there will likely never be a better Batman movie than this. For one thing, any villain will absolutely wither in comparison to the Joker. Even Two-Face. But in terms of story, I'm not sure where else this can be taken. As Joker says at one point, "we're destined to do this forever." These two characters have a symbiotic relationship, in which one begats the other, something Joker comprehends far better than Batman. Another version of this story could be told, but should it be done? I don't mean that literally, in regards to re-casting Ledger's role. (Good luck trying that, by the way.) I'm talking creatively.
Of course, there will be another Batman movie, whether or not Nolan chooses to do it. And the ending of The Dark Knight almost demands a more satisfying conclusion. It's reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, in which the bad guys appear to have won (if you haven't seen the movie yet, I don't think that's a spoiler), leaving the heroes to deal with the aftermath. When I saw Empire as a kid, I hated that sort of ending. Because the good guys are supposed to win. And there's supposed to be resolution.
Yet maybe that's the point Nolan is trying to make here. This isn't the sort of story that can end, but it doesn't have to keep being told. But if he figures out a fulfilling way to solve that dilemma, I sure as hell want to see it.