Thursday, July 19, 2012
This dynamic has been part of the Batman-Joker relationship since the start in 1940, except the Joker is the predator. He knows he can't win face-to-face. "You didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with you?", Heath Ledger's Joker asks Batman. He notches all of his successes with the things he does when Batman's not around. He, like the Joker in Batman #1, conceals death traps so sneaky that they kill his intended victim even when the cops are standing guard nearby. He consistently plants bombs where he needs them, and when he delivers an ultimatum, he conceals reality, creating reverse appearances. His thugs are really hostages. The address where he says Rachel is being held is actually where Harvey is. His phone is a detonator.
Reversing course is built into his goals as well as his means. He twice hopes for Batman to kill him, and once puts a loaded gun to his head while someone with excellent reason to shoot him has his finger on the trigger. He accumulates a mountain of cash, then burns it. How does he get the upper hand on Batman in the locked room interrogation scene? By not minding how badly he gets beaten.
How does he walk into a room full of mobsters and walk out unharmed? With explosives under his jacket. The Joker is a suicide bomber who wants to watch the world burn. Yes, this movie was made with the September 11 attacks in mind. The Dark Knight shines in part because of the haunting performance by Ledger, who didn't live to see the film debut, giving demonic conviction to Christopher Nolan's vision of a Joker for the post-9/11 world, and to beat him, Batman has to employ the wiretapping tactics of the post-9/11 authorities, with all the moral uncertainty that Morgan Freeman voices as Lucius Fox.
But the Joker, like Batman, is a comic book character, and The Dark Knight succeeds most because it is the first comic book movie to completely cross genres into the crime thriller. There are brilliant comic book moments along the way, not least when Batman snags a criminal mastermind from a skyscraper in Hong Kong.
But for a large fraction of the film, there is no masked crimefighter or crazy clown on the screen, and in those scenes, this is not that kind of movie. When Aaron Eckhart portrays a district attorney and Gary Oldman portrays a cop, these are performances that could fit right into a Martin Scorsese film and no one would doubt the actors' or the script's or the direction's credentials. This is a good film without asking us to forgive the pandering to comic book conventions. Never better, in fact, than when Christian Bale's Batman stands on a rooftop with the aforementioned pair and brings a moment from the graphic novel The Long Halloween to the cinema and makes it work when Commissioner Gordon reacts to Batman's sudden disappearance by explaining to Harvey Dent, "He does that."
Bale succeeds again by playing Batman smart, and playing him sane. He has no wild compulsion to play Batman and is driven more than anything else to find a way to stop having to be Batman, by finding a better hero, a non-comic-book hero, in Harvey Dent, whose nickname The White Knight provides the real foil to the title. It's a heady moment when a super hero film ends with the hero telling the man with the gun, "You were the best of us." And as Batman takes the rap and flees the scene, we get a murky ending where Batman, with inspired fisticuffs and a couple of lies, won the battle for Gotham's soul, but is now on the run, and has begun a disappearance from his hero identity that will give the Nolan films an opportunity to conclude by showing us what happens when the Dark Knight returns.