not in our stars, but in ourselves
It occurred to me just now, in checking my 250 film tag, that my last favorite film was another Christian Bale film. Since I am mostly an old-timey kind of girl, I don’t want you all getting the wrong idea about me. There will be Stany and Buster and Bogie and plenty more coming up soon. I’m a (wo)man of my word. But it’s such a hot stinking day here, and it reminds me so much of another hot stinking July midnight almost exactly five years ago: when I saw The Dark Knight (2008) at the stroke of twelve, and discovered the rare superhero movie that has not only stayed with me all this time, but that seemed, and seems, to have surprisingly important things to say. You’re welcome to disagree, and to dismiss me as a nitwit, but I cannot tell you the hours I’ve spent considering the Joker, and what he means, and what an angry little summer blockbuster this film really is. Christopher Nolan often seems to think he’s the Orson Welles of the action flick – but here, he’s actually really good.
Not too long after the final events of Batman Begins (2005), Gotham is in an uneasy state of flux. Batman (Bale) arose and saved the city, but the city’s supple and responsive criminal network has resorted to any and all measures to ensure its survival. Copycat (copybat?) Batmans (Batmen?) have begun to try to step in and “assist” in beating back the rising tide – but their efforts are ineffectual, at best, and public sentiment turns against the caped crusader. None of this is helped by Gotham criminals’ desperate alliance with the Joker (Heath Ledger): a man dressed as a shabby clown, with knives in his shoes and a penchant for stupid jokes. Where the criminals are all clearly seeking more power, money, etc., the Joker seeks only to “introduce a little anarchy.” This he duly does, despite the best efforts of Batman, beleaguered Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is meanwhile still all hung up on Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) – who is soon to be engaged to Dent, Gotham’s White Knight. The Joker isn’t unaware of Rachel’s importance to Batman and/or to Dent, and of Dent’s importance to Gotham, and he uses this tool to further his agenda: essentially, tearing Gotham’s soul to shreds. Just for the fun of it, really.
I’ve spoken of this before: the Joker is one of the top-five greatest villains in all filmdom, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, there are great scheming psychopaths, cunning Nazis, cultured cannibals, sadistic Fascists – all compelling antagonists, to be sure. They’re all men (I don’t mean to ignore female villains, but I think that will have to be a post for another time) with plans, however. As the Joker says to Dent, while the Joker is dressed in a ’40s-ish nurse’s uniform, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” He isn’t even evil, because evil is itself a plan of some sort. He’s simply an “agent of chaos.” Others have disagreed with me on this point, and you’re all welcome to do so as well, but I take him at his word. He’s not interested in doing anything for personal gain – just interested in reminding the universe that there are forces they cannot control, however hard they try, and he’s one of them. He articulates his world view better than anyone, during a fight in a prison interrogation room:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak – like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out. Like a leper! You see, their morals, their code – it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these – these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
And he’s right. That’s the terrible thing. During his “social experiment” with the two ferries, the boat full of ordinary taxpayers turns into a would-be lynch mob – with about three-quarters voting to blast the other boat, full of prisoners, to Doomsday. These are people who go to church, who consider themselves highly moral, who probably have spouses and kids and pets. And, when the chips are down, they do try to eat each other.
Neither of the other two Nolan films in the trilogy is as dark and furious as this one. This is not a film that ends with promise, redemption, or hope. This film shows us that when a mad dog is let off his leash – whether it’s the Joker, or the Taliban, or the Nazis, or any other person/group whose ascendancy led to ruin and despair and chaos – the results are complete devastation. Not only in terms of lives, but in terms of souls. Think of how you saw the world before 9/11; think of how you see it now. Ask older people how they saw the world, before and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I realize that I’m getting pretty worked up about a stupid summer flick, but it’s the same principle. If you play with forces you don’t understand, and they get out of control, the consequences can – and usually are – worse than you could ever have imagined. That’s what The Dark Knight is about, really: in the Joker’s words, once more, “Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” With the slightest nudge, “civilization” crumbles, and we all turn into bloodthirsty fiends – even while we think we’re all still operating according to the rules.
To close on a slightly lighter note: if you didn’t know, the soundtrack is EXCELLENT gym music. “And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad” and “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” are particularly good for injecting some extra fury into a lagging workout.