The Dark Knight

I sat down and had another go at Batman Begins the other night. After sitting through the first ridiculous half-hour, it sucked me in. It’s a great looking film, and distinctly Christopher Nolan; he’s only 41 (so says Wikipedia) and he’s been permitted to make a whole lot of frighteningly big-budget films, real close together. How you feel about them depends on whether you feel that his tropes are strongly established (a Kubrickian sense of individuals dwarfed by technology and architecture, organised along ruthlessly symmetrical lines) or all a bit repetitive. I’m willing to ascribe to the former.

That said, I have decided after re-watching The Dark Knight, that it is a masterpiece.

Certainly, it looks great, but the most magnificent feature of the film is that Nolan and his co-writer have managed to structure the story around a highly-sophisticated moral philosophy which is still every inch a popcorn action film aimed squarely at the multiplexes (cue large breath taken post-self-consciously intellectual sentence).

Alan Moore, courtesy of Watchmen, debunked the super-hero genre as fascist and any credibility that could be attached to a man (or woman) in a costume; in a modern day context, it just won’t fly. When Bale turns up in BatDrag in the first, it was all I could do not to laugh. A skilfully plotted script saves the film by delivering a fairly satisfying conclusion, replete with a number of interesting philosophical issues in relation to the use of force in law enforcement and its resulting escalation.

The success of The Dark Knight is dependent on an interesting little trick Nolan performs in relation to the notion of good versus evil. Superhero stories have traditionally represented morality as a spectrum with good at one end and evil and the other. In Gotham City, there is only evil. The seat of good seems to be vacant and Batman kind of ranges along the middle ground, trying to do the best he can. The Joker spends the first half of the film trying to incite Batman to slide down to his position.

Speaking of which, The Dark Knight is blessed with a exceptional villain. Ledger’s performance and the whole concept of the character which coheres around him is spectacular. And it is with The Joker that film really hits its stride as it moves into the second half. When The Joker burns all the money he has amassed in front of the other criminals, it’s a synaptic leap; you realise he isn’t in it for the money. Unlike the other crooks, he’s an idealist.

In fact, I suspect he is intended to be a literal incarnation of Satan. The manifold explanations for how he got his scars make you vacillate between pity for what could either be the terrible cruelty he has suffered, or wondering if his explanations are a kind of particularly cruel ridicule of both his victims and you. When arrested, he has no records, no DNA, no fingerprints or labels in his clothes; he has no past or history of any kind. He is, as he says to Harvey Dent, an ‘Agent of Chaos’. Not to mention the fact that he puts himself at risk of martyrdom when orchestrating his disasters, particularly when he tempts both Batman and Harvey Dent to evil.

The villains of the Batman mythology are all pretty ridiculous. They had already lent themselves to ridicule back when Batman became a television show. Making characters credible, like a guy who gets around dressed as a bat, along with a crumpled, dirty-looking clown with green hair, must have been the most significant challenge facing Nolan et al. How do you sell these kinds of characters?

I think they found their solution by making Gotham City a literal Gomorrah into which Batman’s adversaries spring as literal archetypes of evil.

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