Yes, kids. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stranger.
Let’s get the proverbial elephant out of the room first. Watching Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight made me sad. It made me sad not because of all the future work he won’t do. One could feel a similar sadness watching James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, but the knowledge that Paul Newman is the one who came along to replace him in his next film assuages that feeling. Then again, Christian Slater replacing the departed River Phoenix in Interview with the Vampire doesn’t set quite such a soothing precedent. Anyway, what Ledger would have done as his career aged remains the great unknowable mystery. What is less of a mystery, though, is what he may have done in another Batman movie. It’s not a spoiler to say that Batman leaves the Joker alive in The Dark Knight. As any Batman Begins aficionado knows, the Batman has only one rule: he doesn’t kill people. Oh, I know, he doesn’t have to save people, either. But The Dark Knight is coy about the Joker’s fate. He could live to see another sequel—or could have. Given the control director/co-writer Christopher Nolan clearly exercised over The Dark Knight, it’s pretty safe to assume that he could veto any notion that the part be recast. And so the sadness: Ledger’s Joker is a spectacular sparring partner for Christian Bale’s Batman, but we’ll never get to see just how far he can bore into this Batman’s already warped brain.
Why is Nolan’s creative control so apparent? Well, regardless of what commercial and toy tie-ins there may be (Fruit Roll-ups? Really? Yeesh, start saving for therapy now), they never come to mind while actually watching the film. It’s not one big glossy advertisement. Nor is it a film for children, as certain idiot parents have complained. It never resorts to the immature simplicity that transforms Iron Man from clever to stupid. Wanted may have the more restrictive R rating than The Dark Knight’s very hard PG-13, but it is by far a more infantile endeavor. Sure, The Dark Knight has plenty of crash-bang-speed-fly-shoot-punch action shot in inky noir shadows and steely bright sun light on glorious enormo IMAX. It also has some moments of gut-churning violence that would have pushed it over the forbidden R edge if not for judicious editing (seriously, I don’t want to think about what the gangstas do to each other with the broken pool cues—or where that pencil is). And it has that rad Bat pod as well as a very pretty Lamborghini. Gotta keep the weekend teenagers happy, especially if you’re going to make them contemplate madness and civilization in a manner that is remarkably unsettling for a blockbuster movie. For in a summer of angsty superheroes, Batman is perhaps the most troubled of all. When the Joker earnestly (crazily, but earnestly) co-opts the ne plus autre of romantic lines to argue his vitality to Batman, it isn’t just a moment for a cheap giggle. The Joker doesn’t merely complete Batman as the yin to his yang. They are a matched set of freaks.
This isn’t necessarily a surprising revelation. What is impressive for those of us who like an occasional thimble of substance with our big budget sheen is how far Nolan takes this idea. The Dark Knight is all about the very, very fine line between the Joker and the rest of us. One of the kicky chills driving the opening bank robbery set piece is how the Joker lurks unknown among his masked gang of thieves, making sure that they are picked off one by one as they each calculate how their shares of the haul will increase with each death. Each one knows he has been assigned to kill another by the supposedly absent master planner. What they don’t know is that the master planner is already there to guarantee they all die except him. We know he’s there: a skewed camera angle, dissonant music and Ledger’s physical command of the screen tell us everything we need to know long before we see his face. Some of the Joker’s creepiest onscreen moments aren’t even directly connected to the violence he inflicts. His slightly blurry rictus blinking on multiple TV monitors in Bruce Wayne’s stark new lair, and his face appearing to float in the darkness of Lt. Gordon’s interrogation room are almost worse (almost) than his knife work on a Gotham mobster. Visually he’s become the amorphous threat of chaos inherent in his actions. He’s potentially always there and ready to strike. Mm, sleep well, kids. Why so serious?
Ah, but Batman is also there in those shadows (literally). Arguably, Nolan and company didn’t have to include the ferryboat challenge or the doomed Harvey Dent to make the point that everyone is capable of madness given the right push. Then again, without Dent, we wouldn’t have the sublimely twisted image of the Joker in a nurse’s dress and all the disruption of the norms that implies. Dent also becomes the vehicle for revealing Batman’s, well, darkness beyond the Joker’s heartfelt come-ons. Not everyone is as convinced about Bale’s performance as they are about Ledger. Bale’s Bruce is one cold customer, and his Batman sounds like he has an iceberg permanently lodged in his throat. But isn’t that the point? One doesn’t have to be as flamboyant and high-voiced as the Joker to be judged insane. Bruce’s lack of affect, as they say, is also a pretty strong indication that there are bats in his belfry. Not to mention his single-mindedness about the entire Batman endeavor, dressing up in the suit, assuming a different identity, yada yada yada. After all, as we’ve seen from Batman Begins, all of the horrible things Bruce Wayne experienced on his way to becoming Gotham’s dark bat knight didn’t kill him. They made him (a) stranger. Instead of the antique splendor of the destroyed stately Wayne Manor (yeah, you try saying “Wayne Manor” without the modifier), Bruce now exists in the ultra-modern minimalism of a high-rise penthouse and a stark concrete Bat cave. These are not warm spaces full of fuzzy love and joy. Wayne doesn’t exist in that psychological space anymore (except when he speaks to mentors/guardians Alfred and Lucius—hey, it’s hard not to love the wry Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman). He also takes pleasure in being a suave asshole to his beloved Rachel’s new, honorable beau Dent. Golden boy Dent is Wayne’s opposite, not the Joker.
It isn’t just that Dent has Aaron Eckhart’s blond hair, a functional personal life, and the legal authority as district attorney that vigilante Batman overtly lacks (except with Lt. Gordon). It’s that he can do his thing in the daylight, and he is precisely who he says he is (until the Joker gives him that push). Wayne’s initial suspicions about Dent’s sincerity as a crime-fighter prove to be unfounded. When Batman and Gordon make the decision to preserve Dent’s “shining knight” reputation after he succumbs to his fatal Two-Face madness, they are sincere in that description of the sane Dent. The discourse about the hero Gotham wants vs. the hero Gotham needs further underlines this opposition between Dent and Batman/Wayne…and doesn’t say anything particularly happy about a society that has this divide. Batman’s status as the hero Gotham needs rather than wants brings to mind Jack Nicholson’s monologue from A Few Good Men about how civilized, cultured pantywaists like Tom Cruise’s lawyer need hardcore bastards like Nicholson’s colonel “on that wall” in Guantanamo Bay to protect them. Nicholson’s the villain for pointing out that people are willing to close their eyes about the seamier aspects of the Leviathan who protects them because they don’t have the collective wherewithal to stand up to the violent state of nature on their own. Cue the Joker’s ferryboat face-off between criminals and civilians (Joker, Nicholson—yep, there’s a method to the associative madness). In The Dark Knight, however, Batman is the purported hero because he’s the hardcore bastard willing to stand on that wall and have the kind of obsessive insanity necessary to keep the mewling masses safe.
Nolan nods to the unfortunate contemporary aspects of such a view with Lucius’s objections to Wayne’s enormous phone tap gambit. Nevertheless, as Gordon and his little boy tell us in the final moments of the film, this Batman is still supposed to be our hero even as he turns himself into a villain fugitive. But what kind of heroism is this? It’s lies upon lies because apparently we still can’t handle the truth the Joker delights in exposing. By conspiring with Gordon to uphold the image of the blond, crusading Dent, Batman essentially acknowledges that the Joker is right about humanity’s inherent capacity for evil, as well as his own questionable personality. Thus he goes running off into the same darkness where he left the Joker hanging. Too bad we’ll never get to see what else they could find there together.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.