Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger's Joker is not actually in The Dark Knight as much as the film's marketing would have one believe, but he is nevertheless at the film's core, as its motivating spirit and one half of its dualist moral compass. If director Christopher Nolan's first Batman film, the origin story Batman Begins, took as its model the famously dark Frank Miller stories of the mid-80s, and especially Batman: Year One, this new installment takes off from Alan Moore's even nastier The Killing Joke. Miller's Batman may have launched the darker, grittier take on the bat-eared crimefighter, but Moore's slightly later short story considerably ups the ante, positing a Joker who only wants to prove that anyone can be driven to madness, and a Batman who exists as a moral flipside to this evil clown, only a few short steps from the same fate. In Moore's story, the Joker's origin becomes a dark mirror of Batman's own, as hero and villain are linked by the kind of circumstances that drove them to what they eventually became. As far as the Joker is concerned, it only takes "one bad day" for an ordinary person to be pushed over the edge into insanity; the story's ambiguous ending suggests that, while the Joker was proved wrong in this particular instance, there might be something to his theory after all. The infamous final panels show Batman and the Joker laughing together over a joke, cackling and doubled over, sharing a moment of insanity together.

There is no such moment in The Dark Knight, but Moore's ideas drive the film and underpin its moral inquiries. A great deal of the well-earned praise being heaped upon Ledger's portrayal of the Joker stems from the fact that this performance completely nails the qualities of the character in his most iconic comic book appearances. This isn't the dapper, mannered Joker that Jack Nicholson brought to the screen in Tim Burton's original Batman. Nicholson's performance was too controlled; he's scary, but only in the way a typical criminal killer is scary. Ledger's Joker, on the other hand, perfectly captures the unpredictable menace of the Moore/Miller Jokers — this is a villain who is motivated by a warped ideology, who only wants to introduce chaos into the ordered lives of the people around him. Even the catchphrase the character uses reflects the differences in the two portrayals. Nicholson's Joker famously asked, "Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?" It's a great line, poetic even, and so memorable that it's probably my strongest memory of Burton's film today. But Ledger cuts to the chase, and there's no poetry when he asks his victims, before giving them knife scars to match his own: "Why so serious?"

In keeping with this anarchic, ragged outlook, Ledger's face is smeared with greasy makeup, his lips permanently twisted upwards in a sinister smile by the bright red scars stretching off the sides of his lips. His green hair is similarly unruly, long and unwashed and twisted, and his makeup gets progressively messier the longer he's onscreen. This film's major theme is chaos versus order, and the Joker is a true apostle of chaos, positing unsolvable moral dilemmas for both Batman and the citizens of Gotham City, encouraging the spread of his own nihilistic philosophy. Ledger is so terrifying here because he truly inhabits this spirit. His cackling laugh, his halting speech, the way his tongue is continually flicking against his lips; it all adds up to a performance of uncompromising rigor, a truly inspired image of madness. His Joker is believable, realistic even, in a way that the clownish Nicholson performance never was; this Joker seems to have leapt from the comic pages to take on corporeal reality, and he's much creepier for the naturalistic touches that flesh him out. He's also often hilarious, and some of the best aspects of Ledger's performance are pantomimed. The actor reportedly spent the most time working on the Joker's voice, which is perfect with its slightly whiny, hesitant rhythms, but he's at his best with the physicality of this character, the way he moves, the way he cocks his head, the way he telegraphs his actions like a stage clown. When he's approaching Bruce Wayne's childhood friend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, improving upon Katie Holmes' dismal turn in the first movie), he clumsily brushes the hair away from his ears with his fists, a gesture of suave seduction made gruesome and slimy. In a later scene, he turns the Joker's demolition of a hospital into farcical slapstick, dressed as a nurse, fumbling with a reticent detonator and then nervously skipping and flitting about when the explosives belatedly go off. The character is exactly how he should be, both funny and sinister, eliciting gasps of horror and nervous laughter in an early scene where he performs a "magic trick" involving a pencil for a group of mobsters.

The enormity of Ledger's phenomenal performance — and, let's face it, his tragic death — have tended to overshadow the rest of The Dark Knight, but there is a lot going on in this film that doesn't involve the Joker. In fact, Nolan's second Batman movie is in every way an improvement on the already auspicious Batman Begins, building upon the first film's establishment of the Batman mythos to further riff upon the ideas of morality and justice inherent in most superhero tales, and doubly so in the Batman legend. In keeping with the film's emphasis on pairing, much of the film's drama stems from the contrast between Batman (Christian Bale) and the new Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For Batman, Dent represents a way out, a chance to retire the costume and the vigilantism in a city that no longer needs his services. Nolan's Batman is perhaps most unique, most differentiated from other incarnations of the character, to the extent that he does not want to continue bearing this mantle. The ultimate goal of this Batman is to bring his city to a place where he is redundant, where civilian justice can resume its ordinary workings free of corruption. If Batman and the Joker are two sides of a particularly ugly coin, then Batman and Dent are similarly related, both seeking justice in fundamentally different ways, one through the law and the other with his fists.

This theme of duality is carried through the film in various ways, from the Joker's either/or moral dilemmas, to Dent's eventual fate that causes him to encompass both sides of a scarred coin in one person. Nolan's choice of comic texts to work from was wise, and he draws liberally from the best Batman stories in order to explore that archetypal superhero subject, the nature of good and evil. The film's view of these opposing forces is not always black and white; the Joker's treatises on disorder and anarchy often have a subversive logic to them, while Dent and Batman sometimes seem to be slipping away from unambiguous goodness. This is especially true of the film's unexpected political undertones, in which the superhero turns to warrantless electronic surveillance of ordinary civilians in order to apprehend the Joker. It's hard to tell exactly where the film stands at times like this, though Bruce Wayne's advisor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is an uncompromising voice against such questionable methods. The film is hardly an unqualified endorsement of Batman's exceptionalist pursuit of his own brand of justice. There's a suggestion, carried over from the Miller and Moore comics, that the appearance of Batman as a figure of good in Gotham City gave rise to corresponding figures of evil, equally stylized and exaggerated villains who responded to Batman's dress-up games and took them to even darker places. The Joker intimates on several occasions that he could not exist without the Batman, and he seems to be right. It's easy to see how the outrageousness of a crimefighter dressed like a bat would inspire a new breed of evil to oppose him. The Joker and Batman develop in relation to each other, inspiring each other's methods. When Wayne says, "I see what kind of man I would have to become to defeat him," he's only mirroring the Joker's own development as a response to his bat persona. The film's basic thrust is a vicious circle, in which the villain and the hero must constantly morph in response to each other, moving ever closer to one another as they battle. This is the trap for goodness that the film posits, a trap that casts Batman's endorsement of illegal law enforcement procedures in a new and more sinister light.

The film is continually underpinned by such moral inquiries, but its main appeal still lies in its energy. It's a dark and potent thrill ride, even more exhilarating than Nolan's first Batman film. The director seems to have learned some lessons from that first effort at helming an action movie. His fight sequences are still brutal, kinetic, and rapidly edited, but they're also much cleaner and clearer, not as hazy and confused as the action sequences from the first film. Nolan's direction has improved tremendously by the simple step of pulling his camera just slightly back in these scenes, giving his fight scenes greater spatiality and clarity. There aren't as many of the "who's punching whom?" moments that sometimes marred Batman Begins, and the car chase scene is equally improved, as well as being intimately connected with the plot here; the similar scene in the first film just seemed like gratuitous eye candy. The film also shares its predecessor's deliberate sense of timing. Nolan instinctively recognizes what many other action directors never do, that an action movie works best when its thrills and violence are modulated, not delivered nonstop but with careful timing. The Dark Knight is just as carefully paced as Batman Begins, letting the plot develop naturally, and not milking too much screen time from its two sensational villains. The temptation might've been to smear the screen with Ledger's terrifying Joker, or with Dent's transformed visage in the second half, but the film is better for its restraint. This is a smart, exciting movie that hits all the right notes.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Basically he's doing Dwight Frye.

Craig said...

Great review that nails what I sort of flailed blindly at. It's a very good movie whose fever-pitch intensity grows wearisome (for me) only near the end. You may give Nolan more credit as a filmmaker than I do: though improved, as you said, from Batman Begins, he's still made a bit of a patchwork here; but even then I find his blend of heavy thematic moralism and visual unselfconsciousness oddly appealing, like that of a 50s film noir director or a modern pulp writer. As for Ledger, there's not much left to say except that were he still alive this would be hailed as a great performance anyway. Now it's myth.

enandrews said...

You've pretty much summed up what made the film such a buzz for me.

welcome to my google reader.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Hey Ed,
Just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your posts on THE DARK KNIGHT. I am still frankly so overwhelmed by it that I can't bring myself to write's the kind of flawed (but masterful) and near heroically ambitious film that I will have to see at least a couple of more times to let it all sink in. I actually think that its flaws (which don't at all take away my love and admiration for it) make it even more interesting than a more 'perfect' film would have been. your posts on it and I can't wait to see it again.

Shubhajit said...

Thats a fine writeup. I watched the Dark Knight last Sunday, and found it to be a very good movie even though made within the confines of a Hollywood blockbuster.

I agree, before the movie had released, the movie was being equated with Ledger's Joker. And he has truly lived up to the massive expectations. But to me Nicholson is still THE Joker. Nicholson's character was more comic book stuff, i concede; but Burton's Batman was intended to be closer to the comic book feel. Despite Ledger's firebrand performance, Nicholson was far more creepy and hostile for the simple reason that his Joker indeed acted like a clown, a bufoon, and he countered that with maniacal psychopathy. The contradiction, thus was more glaring. Ledger, on the other hand is damn terrifying, but he could have been as terrifying without being a Joker. And finally, Nicholson at his best is an exceedingly imposing task to match. His cruel grin, spontaneaous histrionics and THAT quintessential Nicholson voice - are all incomparable. And another point that is while Ledger took tremendous preparation for the role, Nicholson's performance seemed absolutely natural. But my saying these in no way are meant to undermine Ledger's terrific effort. That was just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Heath Ledger's Joker must be the overrated performance of the year. It's certainly a good performance, and the product of immense work, but somewhat underwhelming.

You praise the film's conception of the Joker for matching with that of the Killing Joke, but Moore's story was powerful because we saw WHY the Joker believed one bad day could reduce anyone to madness. In the film, the Joker serves to move the plot forward, rather than as an actual character. He's opaque and arbitrary in his existence.

And Moore's Joker was also dapper and mannered, like Nicholson's, rather than Ledger. I never really got the sense of Ledger's Joker taking perverse, flamboyant joy in the suffering he causes--a crucial characteristic of not only Nicholson's Joker but the best of them all, Mark Hamill's animated Joker. Ledger's grimy, shrunken, nerdy-voiced Joker is a reductive version of the character, reduced to little more than an ideology and lip-licking tics. Were it not for the near-Godlike powers the script gives him over the story, he'd seem more like a crank in makeup. Ledger's performance is ultimately far more controlled than Nicholson's--it's so tightly held that it somewhat hampered the film.

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff, even if I don't agree with much of it.

I can see Ledger's Joker having the moves and attitude, but without Moore's flashbacks, I feel he's a shell of the character that Moore fleshed out.

Good stuff on Dent and the gasoline.

Still not a big fan of Nolan's action filmmaking; I keep thinking of Del Toro's action scenes which, while they're not the heart of his film (action not at the heart of a superhero movie--now there's an idea), are so much more graceful, and coherent. I think he's channeling Tsui Hark, frankly.

And David--you go, guy! Dwight Frye forever!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. I guess I just don't agree that the essential thing about Moore's Joker was the origin story. The origin was there primarily to further tie him to Batman, to emphasize the parallels between them -- they both had traumatic events happen to them, and as a result went in different directions, though not necessarily as different as Batman would like to think. A lot of the same points are made in the film without the flashbacks, and I don't miss them. The Joker works best as a shadowy allegorical figure. Even in Moore's story, the Joker is humanized more than usual but still not given a name. The way Nolan handles his origin is perfect -- the Joker as unreliable narrator giving different versions of his own creation. It doesn't matter what triggered his madness, only that something did. The point of the Joker is to break through the fragile moral boundaries that people have; he aims to make others like himself through trauma and violence. As such, I found him all the more terrifying for his opaqueness and abstraction.

Henry Chamberlain said...

Hi Ed,
I appreciate your comprehensive review. I recently saw The Dark Knight and Ironman and, of course, these movies are as different as night and day, they are, in fact, two outlooks, one dark and one light. In many ways, I think Ironman strikes the most satisfying notes for an all-around superhero flick. I'm considering all the under-age fans. To me, The Dark Knight is great but it crosses a line into adult fare and really should have gone ahead and gone for the gold and an R-rated movie. I don't see how the makers, the movers and shakers, behind The Dark Knight can or should have it both ways. Search around a bit and you'll find marketing and products for The Dark Knight aimed at kids. Case in point, Dark Knight Kiddie Bat Wings you can currently purchase at any of your friendly Wall-marts. So, you really can't have it both ways. I think the movie suffers for it because it can't really go all-out since it has to keep in mind it is saddled with an under-age demographic. Ironman, on the other hand, has no regrets. Its content, its vision what have you, works with adults and kids, at least overall.

Anonymous said...

i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted...