Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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This Caped Crusader is One Complex Character
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
So deeply does The Dark Knight delve
into the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men that it comes almost as a
shock, bordering on euphoria, to find that it maintains a tenacious grip on
hope in the human potential for good.
is nothing glib or pat about this. The vision of evil is too morbid, the losses
too tragic, the moral choices too murky, the heroes too hard-pressed, too
compromised. Here is evil as incalculable and remorseless as Javier Bardem’s
Anton Chigurh in No
Country for Old Men, as capricious as Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma.
have described those earlier films as nihilistic, and the same word has been
used by a number of critics, both positively and negatively, to describe The Dark Knight. This
is a mistake. The
Dark Knight is darker than its predecessor — but something else is
here, beyond the calculations of men like Chigurh and Wade. Nihilism gets a
hearing but does not carry the day.
years ago, Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman Begins offered a vigorous and
satisfying new reading of who Batman is and what he stands for. It was and is
one of the best super-hero movies ever made, though I noted in my review that
Nolan was evidently pacing himself, laying the groundwork for something grander.
he ever. The
Dark Knight goes beyond Batman
Begins as only a sequel can do, building on the original, in a way
earning comparisons to the grandest of sequels, The Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back.
Though apt, the comparisons are in a way superfluous; the immense ambition and
singular achievement of The
Dark Knight can’t be reduced to a name-checking sound bite.
shadow of 9/11 and the war on terror, subtle but distinct in Batman Begins,
lengthens and deepens here. Then, the enemy was a fanatical shadow organization
dedicated to the destruction of decadent society and ruthless in its tactics
(decapitation, weapons of mass destruction). The Dark Knight plunges us into a
terrifying world in which an incomprehensibly evil enemy has blown away all
semblance of rules while those we look to protect us scramble to catch up. They
hold the risk of failure in one hand and the temptation to corruption in the
side, at least, is supposed to believe in rules.
the old days, even the bad guys believed in rules of some sort. “Criminals used
to believe in things,” blusters a dying mob banker in the brutal opening heist
scene. “Honor. Respect!” That was then. Today belongs to the Joker. Played with
insinuating caprice by the late Heath Ledger, he’s a soulless sociopath with no
motivation but to subvert the dominant moral paradigm, to unmask the chaos and
meaninglessness of men’s lives and the rules they imagine themselves to live
or what is the Joker, with his white greasepaint and disturbing scars
stretching from the corners of his mouth across his cheeks? “An agent of
chaos,” he says grandly at one point, elsewhere dismissing himself as “a dog
chasing cars … I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.”
filmmakers ultimately make no attempt to explain the Joker. Perhaps no
explanation is possible. “Some men don’t want anything logical,” observes
Alfred (Michael Caine). “They can’t be bought, bullied or reasoned with. Some
men just want to watch the world burn.”
does one combat such evil? Three heroes represent three possible approaches.
First, there’s the Dark Knight (Christian Bale), a grim pragmatist who has
learned to do what is necessary, though he sincerely hopes for a day when his
methods won’t be needed. He hasn’t given up hope for a normal life as Bruce
Wayne, possibly involving lifelong friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal,
gracefully taking over for Katie Holmes), who knows his secret.
best hope for retirement may be Gotham’s “white knight,” district attorney
Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), though Dent is also Bruce’s only rival for
Rachel’s affections. A righteous crusader whose campaign slogan is “I Believe
in Harvey Dent,” his moral certitude is slyly symbolized by his habit of
pretending to toss a coin over decisions where, in fact, the outcome is not in
bridging the gap between Gotham’s two knights is Lt. James Gordon (Gary
Oldman), a dogged, good cop who’s in it for the long haul, and is willing to
work with knights of either persuasion, though he won’t pin all his hopes on either.
Joker poses a string of dreadful dilemmas in order to show up the other side’s
rule-bound pretensions as self-deceiving poses: “When the chips are down, these
civilized people … will eat each other. You’ll see. I’ll show ya.”
there’s one line Batman won’t cross — he won’t kill — he does cross others.
Terrible, even impossible choices abound. What rules there are seem unclear,
sometimes with tragic consequences.
amid this virtual symphony of ambiguity and darkness are ringing notes of grace
and redemption. With an immersive, fully-realized world,
stunningly-choreographed set pieces, lucid dialogue and persuasively-drawn
Dark Knight offers a bleak milieu punctuated by hopeful, even
inspiring moments and choices.
may not be untarnished, but heroism is still possible. Good guys may bend or
break the rules, but they may also be willing to fall on their swords for the
greater good, to take a hit for something they believe in. Even when all seems
lost, people may still do the right thing, taking their last recourse in prayer
rather than in Nietzschean ruthlessness. It may be a mistake to believe in
Harvey Dent. But I want to believe in the best of The Dark Knight — and back that against
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
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