Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight released 10 years ago. Looking back at it, it seems like a far cry from today’s superhero movies, with their alien villains, god-like superheroes, universal-level stakes and so forth. Indeed, even after having one of the most popular superheroes in the world, the Batman, and his iconic archnemesis, the Joker, along with well-known supporting characters found in comics like Harvey Dent/Two-Face and James Gordon, everything about The Dark Knight screams action-crime-drama and not comic books.
The Dark Knight presented an incredibly grounded Batman. Although the DC superhero is just a man in comics too, he has fought villains like Darkseid (he was the Thanos of DC Comics before Thanos existed) and has accomplishments that are plain impossible for a normal man. In The Dark Knight, however, Nolan took the superhero to his roots and focused on the human part. So he is just a man but at the natural pinnacle of human development and perfection.
The motif that being a superhero takes its tolls on individuals is something that’s common now (last time it was done well was in Logan last year), but The Dark Knight first explored how and why being such a symbol of hope could be a double-edged sword. The Joker, who came alive thanks to a transcendental, career-defining performance by the late Heath Ledger, is often considered the polar opposite of the Batman.
But in The Dark Knight, Nolan and his co-writer David S Goyer, reimagined the Caped Crusader and the Joker as Yin and Yang – two opposing, complementary forces of nature who are not so different after all. Batman, too, is a psychopath – he just doesn’t know it. There is even a nice piece of dialogue to that effect that the Joker speaks towards the end. “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”
While the film was centred on Batman and his befuddlement in the face of an enemy unlike any other, it is really about the relationship between the Batman and the Joker. Alfred warns Bruce Wayne that the Joker is a man he does not understand fully. “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn,” he says. Just like Batman, the Joker is not simply a man. He is a symbol of chaos.
For most of the film, the Joker unleashes a wave of violence upon Gotham city. But his biggest achievement comes when he manages to bring out the second, uglier face of Harvey Dent. It is established in the very beginning that Harvey has two personas. Mostly he is a calm, soft-spoken man. But he does have extreme anger issues and when he’s angry there emerges a darker persona. We see that before he gets a literal two-face when he almost kills one of Joker’s accomplices.
The Joker, devilishly smart, realises that and somehow convinces Dent that everybody except him is responsible for his fate and the death of his girlfriend. In the last scene in the movie, when the Joker is defeated and captured, the real plan of the Clown Prince of Crime comes true. Harvey Dent, previously called the White Knight of Gotham and thought to be incorruptible and pure, has killed a bunch of people and has James Gordon’s wife and adolescent son at gunpoint.
The Joker, probably on the way to prison, must have been laughing. He may be locked for the rest of his life, but he brought down the Batman. To uphold Harvey Dent as a symbol of justice and goodness, the Batman takes the blame on himself and disappears into oblivion. At least, until Bane storms the Gotham City with his army of mercenaries.
The Dark Knight is often accused of glorifying the Joker. Sure, he is given easily the best lines in the film, but ultimately, he is proven wrong. The clown is annoyed to find out in the end that his theory that people are only as nice as the world allows them to be does not pass the criteria of truth. The people on the two boats (one of which is filled with convicted criminals) refuse to blow each other up, even to save themselves.
The Dark Knight was a humdinger of a movie. It has a lot of stunningly mounted set-pieces, there are car-chases, explosions, bazookas, fancy vehicles, and almost every action-crime genre staple. But it speaks volumes about an action-crime movie when its best scene is propelled by only sharp dialogue and the brilliant delivery of it.
Batman, still confused as to who the Joker is, simply asks him, “…why do you wanna kill me?” To which the Joker replies with an eerie, high-pitched laugh. “I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do without you? No, no, you complete me.” And later, “Don’t talk like you’re 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.”