Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair. — The Joker in The Dark Knight
Moral darkness permeates Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. The Joker, Batman's antithesis, returns to his unsavory blend of homicidal insanity and nihilistic artistry, first seen in the 1940 Batman comic book, but softened in his subsequent appearances. Gone is the whimsically murderous trickster of precise origin, the clown prince of crime as portrayed in movies, the Batman television series, and many of the DC comic books. Replaced by Heath Ledger's chillingly amoral, incomprehensibly insane, and powerfully corrupting scion of the Devil, no one, including us, is left laughing now.
Throughout The Dark Knight, one question propels the story with its increasing urgency for an answer: how can Batman and Gotham city combat the irreconcilable evil embodied by The Joker without resorting to evil themselves? Batman, Lt. Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) must answer it in their own way as The Joker forces them into an ever narrower space for dealing with his escalating chaos and body count. With his smeared makeup, stringy hair, cruelly scarred mouth — and ever-changing story as to how he received his permanent smile — Ledger's Joker is so evil, so anarchic, and so corrupting in his influence, there is no middle ground for goodness and morality to easily stand on. A human Thanatos unfettered by guilt, he makes Hannibal Lecter and the Jigsaw Killer look like Abbott and Costello. The only way to stop him is to murder him; at least, that's what he really wants. But will Batman put aside his moral code to do it? More importantly, do we want him to?
This is not a film for children. It is bleak and unrelenting in its depiction of endless violence that cannot be stopped by the prescribed ways for superheroes, government officials, and the righteous. Like the senseless violence of our times, The Joker is senseless in his motivations, though they make perfect sense to him. He simply has a need to disrupt and corrupt everything and everyone around him, especially Batman. Alfred (Michael Caine) explains it best: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." And Gotham City, as well as Batman's reputation, and his conscience, is burning.
Batman (Christian Bale), who arose from the first movie, Batman Begins, as a symbol of hope and justice for a beleaguered city, is no longer certain in his actions; neither are Gotham's citizens. First hailed as a hero, his influence has taken a turn for the worse. Denounced as a vigilante by some, while others emulate him and take the law into their own hands, the Joker exploits this uncertainty by threatening to kill Gotham's citizens daily until Batman reveals his true identity. Cue the crisis of conscience for Bruce Wayne, and let the games begin. Seeing salvation in the form of Harvey Dent, both Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman bring him into their ongoing war against organized crime. To Batman, Dent is the more traditional — square-jawed, gleaming smile — hero the people of Gotham deserve. To The Joker, Dent is the man to bring down if Batman will not be so obliging. For comic book fans, Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, so you already know where this confrontation is going.
The crime syndicate, reeling under the unrelenting punishment Batman's war on crime is delivering to them, turns to the "freak" Joker for salvation. In a gruesome introduction punctuated by a cleverly wicked vanishing pencil trick, the Joker persuades the syndicate to make him their leader. The syndicate wants to protect its assets, but he only wants to wreak bedlam and destroy the social order and its strongest proponent, Batman. We are shown this Joker is not fun and games and puppy dogs tails. His preferred weapon, aside from the pencil, is a knife. No glitzy lethal gadgets such as razor-sharp playing cards, acid-spewing flowers, and lethally electric joy buzzers for him; just a sharp blade to etch a permanent smile on unsmiling victims.
The Dark Knight is not a superhero movie in the usual sense, but it is why superheros in comic books were created in the first place. It is a moral dilemma wrapped in entropic reality, stuffed inside an enigmatic situation that has no irreproachable resolution. For every "right" decision Batman makes, The Joker is quick to twist it into a wrong one. For every good deed Batman does, The Joker is sure to dearly punish him for it – -giving credence to The Joker's revealing quip, "You complete me!"
With its ambiguity distilling each situation with an existential heaviness more at home in an arthouse or French drama, the story manages to keep moving at a brisk pace with carefully timed action sequences. Batman makes his appearance in a swirling slugfest, leaving him with a desire to redesign his armor for more flexibility (including a cowl that lets him turn his head). There is an exciting high-energy chase during which part of the Batmobile converts to a fat-wheeled motorcycle, leading to an unexpected bat turn as Batman races toward a solid wall with no room to go around it. Another scene — reminiscent of the Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton long-barreled gun versus Batplane showdown in Tim Burton's Batman — has Batman going full-throttle toward a resolute Joker, who is anxious to fulfill a strong death instinct. While some of the synergy and complexity of The Dark Knight can be seen as drawn from Burton's film, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, along with David S. Goyer, have written a story that extends the struggle between The Joker and Batman far beyond the fictional confines of Gotham City, challenging us with its dilemmas as well as the characters onscreen.
And the dilemmas are plentiful, indeed, as The Joker's schemes are carried out. Not only is Batman faced with the threat of people dying the longer he keeps his identity a secret, he is forced to decide between saving Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) or Harvey Dent, both trapped between drums of gasoline, wired to explode, and placed on opposite sides of Gotham, leaving him enough time to save only one of them. Another dilemma involves Batman's desperate expansion of Lucius Fox's (Morgan Freeman) cell phone sonar technology to listen to every cell phone conversation in Gotham. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but has Batman gone too far? When does it become justifiable to break the law in order to enforce it? Lucius, in a fit of moral pique, threatens to leave if his technology is used in this way. The pulsating visual effect of the sonar, as Batman hunts The Joker, is stunning.
Between the dilemmas and the drama, there is a beautiful scene of Batman gliding across the Gotham skyline, carried aloft by his rigid cape spreading out like enormous bat wings, and a disarming scene of The Joker enjoying the wind blowing across his face as he leans out of the police car he has stolen to make his escape.
The Joker's anarchistic aplomb reaches its zenith when he challenges two packed ferries of people to save themselves by blowing up the other ferry first, otherwise he will blow up both of them. Who will be the first to save themselves? Or will Batman reach the detonator in time and stop The Joker before he kills again?
Hold off on the Coke and popcorn. This is a movie to savor and ponder and feel with all of your undivided attention. Oscar, meet The Dark Knight. I think it's time you two got to know each other.