Why The Dark Knight Worked So Well
In 2008, the superhero landscape was far different than it is today. Following the likes of Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight entered an atmosphere in far greater danger of reaching superhero-fatigue than in 2016. The Dark Knight is a major reason why the superhero genre was revitalized, and it all came down to the fact that director Nolan and company had a great story to tell. The Dark Knight is not a massive over-blown blockbuster, instead the story plays out as an intense mob-film, while also surpassing that genre due to its masterfully portrayed antagonist. Thought-provoking writing, fantastic direction, and outstanding performances led to The Dark Knight rising above many other superhero films, and becoming a modern classic. (Spoilers Follow)
The Dark Knight opens in the aftermath of Batman Begins. Following the fiasco at Arkham, criminals are loose in the streets and mob activity is dominating the city. But the film decides to open, not with Batman, Gordon, or the Mob, instead, the film quickly displays how the antagonist, the Joker, will lead to the destruction of the old order.
The opening scene is a bank heist, in which several criminals have allied themselves with the Joker. Not only does the Joker attempt to rob a bank operated by the mob, but as the scene progresses the criminals begin to kill one another, both for fear of their own lives and for the reward of a greater share. At the very end of the scene, one of the last robbers aims a gun at his partner, saying “I’m betting the Joker told you to kill me soon as we loaded the cash.” Soon after, a school bus crashes through the building and kills the robber. The bus driver exits the vehicle, and is quickly shot down. It is then revealed that the last criminal standing is the Joker, who makes off with the cash as a fleet of police cars arrive.
Here, Nolan established the Joker as an unstoppable and destructive force. Not only is the Joker a threat to the police and Batman, but he can tear down the criminal side of Gotham as well. The Joker is no mere criminal: he is a threat to the structure of Gotham’s society.
Examining the Joker truly displays the genius of the script. For one, the Joker does not appear again until further into the film, allowing audiences to see the status-quo of Gotham. In essence: Batman and Gordon have been attempting to shut down the mob one block at a time, while the mob has consistently outplayed them. Eventually, with the aid of the district attorney Harvey Dent, Batman and Gordon manage to put the mob in check, giving the legal forces in Gotham months to get ahead of their enemies.
It is from this moment on that the Joker begins tearing Gotham down. Mere minutes after Dent explains his achievement to the mayor, the Joker slams the dead body of a man dressed as Batman against the mayor’s window. He later releases a video of how he tormented the man before killing him. In that same video, the Joker states that “Batman must take off his mask and turn himself in. Oh, and every day he doesn’t people will die, starting tonight. I’m a man of my word.”
A brilliant decision on Nolan’s part was to make the mob antiquated. As soon as the Joker’s reign of terror begins, the pre-existing criminals become dinosaurs. The police also become irrelevant, but at a slower pace. Key in the police achievement is Harvey Dent, who dismantled the mob more than Batman and did so without wearing a mask. What makes Harvey Dent so dangerous to the criminals in Gotham, as Wayne realizes, is that he can tear them down while obeying the law. Because of this, Dent becomes a prime target for the Joker.
Exploring the Joker’s attack on Dent reveals a far darker and deeper study than just crime or law, which many other mob or cop productions place their focus on. Instead, the reason why The Dark Knight was so phenomenal was that it probed into the human condition, and left audiences with ideas to think on.
No one should take the fantastic performance from Heath Ledger for granted, as he is in large part the reason why the character is so well remembered, nor the great performances from Aaron Eckhart as Dent, Christian Bale as Wayne, or Michael Caine as Alfred. But a strong character requires more than a great performance, a strong character needs a great storyline, and The Dark Knight delivered them in spades.
The relationship between Dent and the Joker is more important to understanding the theme than the connection between the Joker and Batman. The Batman-Joker dynamic is far flashier, considering one is dressed as a bat and the other a clown, and the two characters are critical to placing the theme in the forefront (which I will touch on later), but it is in Dent’s rise and fall that we see the message.
In the first half of the film, Dent has nearly everything he could wish for. He is dating Rachel Dawes, he is an extremely successful district attorney, and he has received a donation from Bruce Wayne which will eliminate any financial problems for the rest of his career. Once the Joker enters his life however, he loses everything. In one fell-swoop, the Joker kills Rachel Dawes and burns off half of his face. By doing this, the Joker attempts to illustrate a point he made to Batman in an earlier scene. [what point?]
Before the death of Rachel Dawes, the Joker and Batman share the most famous scene in the entire film: the interrogation scene. After being captured, the Joker and Batman have their first extended moment together, where the Joker explains his motives and beliefs.
The Joker explains his philosophy to Batman, which can be summarized in one line “I’ll show ya. the chips are down, these uh, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” The realization that the Joker, intellectually at least, is more than garbage who kills for money betrays all of Batman’s training. Batman had been taught that criminals were not complicated, and that once the enemy’s motive was found they could easily be stopped. Here Batman discovers that his teachings were incorrect: The Joker is complicated, and he has no specific motive. All he wants is to watch the world burn, and because of this the Joker is a new force that not even Batman can defeat.
As the scene continues, and Batman’s terror tactics fail, he becomes angrier and angrier as the Joker laughs louder and louder. Ledger and Bale masterfully portray the two characters here, as both are aware that Batman’s frustration contributes to the Joker’s enjoyment. But more importantly, this scene allows the theme to rise to the forefront.
The Joker’s thoughts on the human condition, in which humans are essentially a product of convenience, willing to obey ‘morals’ when it benefits them but eager to act like animals when it does not, could perhaps only be expressed during a scene with Batman. Wayne is the only character smart enough to have a conversation with the Joker, and have the resulting scene feel like a confrontation of equals, even though he clearly loses. Due to their interaction, the theme is presented in a far clearer light that allows the film to transcend a typical crime series.
The Dark Knight, above everything, is a film on the human condition. It goes places where very few films in its genre are willing to go, whether that be a superhero film such as Thor or a crime show such as CSI.
After losing everything, Dent is broken beyond repair, and becomes Two-Face. He begins a killing spree in Gotham, searching for anyone who had a connection with Rachel’s death, but only pulling the trigger if a coin flip allows him. Nolan presents a picture of humanity that is not very hopeful, and does so without compromising.
Dent is killed by Batman (yes, he was killed by Batman since Batman pushed him off a building), still evil and still broken. Only by wearing a mask, was Wayne able to escape the same fate. Nolan is telling us that anyone can be corrupted, and that no one is too good to be tainted.
In the final confrontation in the film, not between Batman and the Joker but between Dent and Batman, Wayne explains that the Joker “wanted to prove, that even someone as good as you could fall.” To which Dent replies “And he was right.”
Within the context of The Dark Knight, there is no uncompromising good will within us. The only thing that stops us from becoming like the Joker, or Harvey Dent, or the mob, is circumstance. As the film ends, Batman, as if beginning to understand this, takes the fall for Dent to spare Gotham the heartbreak that would follow his destroyed reputation. Bruce Wayne attempts to alter Gotham’s reality, so that the people within it can be better.
The Dark Knight showed that audiences do not always want the massive explosions of the Transformers films, instead, we can be hungry for interesting and even disturbing concepts. The Dark Knight was the highest grossing film of its year, and helped reignite the superhero genre. Not every film needs to be as dark as this one, but more films should strive to be as thoughtful.