Relentless. From the opening bank heist on, The Dark Knight never lets up. There is no climax to this film, just a series of emotional peaks, each more terrifying than the previous. With hardly a moment’s pause—even the Joker gives little comic relief, though Morgan Freeman drops a couple zingers—the flawless action builds uncontrollably to a breathless conclusion as Gotham falls to the brink of confusion and terror. This reboot makes Tim Burton’s Batman seem like a light-hearted farce.
It’s being said that The Dark Knight is as much a crime drama as a superhero movie—and it is—but it’s also a terrifying psychological thriller, reveling in misdirection and reversal. At the heart of all its turmoil, of course, stands Heath Ledger’s Joker, compared to whom all previous supervillains look like sissies. Easily stealing the show from Christian Bale’s Batman, his truly wicked sense of humor and casual disregard for human life makes you believe that absolutely any horrific conclusion is possible.
Jeffrey Overstreet calls him “one of the greatest portrayals of the devil I’ve ever seen” and I must agree. But if Satan is said to be disguised as an angel of light, this greasy clown is what he must look like underneath: appallingly ugly, brilliantly misguided, unpredictably deceitful, delighting not only in chaos but corruption. The Joker doesn’t just want to destroy goodness; he wants to make it impossible. In forcing one terrible choice after another, he dares you to choose evil even while you try to prevent it. He creates fear not just to terrify, but to dehumanize, to make the most horrific sacrifice seem defensible, even necessary. He has no plan, he tells us, but he clearly has a goal—to win “Gotham’s soul,” to ensure that no one is left innocent. And he nearly succeeds.
But he doesn’t succeed, and that is why the film does. Set over against this horrible evil are three men in particular. New District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is tough on crime and puts a wholesome face on justice. Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman at his best) is a tested cop and a family man. And, of course, Bruce Wayne and his Batman are a mystery, simultaneously a playboy and a vigilante to the world, but few know his true identity; in fact, it’s questionable whether even he does. Together these three attempt to restore order to Gotham, and their triumphs and failures form the real heart of the film and keep it from collapsing into nihilism.
Through them, The Dark Knight takes pains to emphasize that even “the best of us” can fall, but it also recognizes the grandeur and complexity of human nature. At one point it is suggested that Harvey Dent is the hero the city wants, a “white knight” they can believe in, while Batman must be more than a hero, a “dark knight” who can make the hard choices that no one else can. What precisely this “more” means is never quite spelled out, but in contrasting these two kinds of heroes (and both Dent and Wayne waver between them), the film seems to be suggesting two very different possibilities. One alternative retains the appearance of selflessness but hides a spreading moral ambiguity leading to the rejection of order for chance and self-interest, as the sacrifices of others are accepted as necessary to defeat evil. Such compromises, made by several characters at various points in film, could suggest that true evil, unmasked and unhinged, cannot be defeated without taint, even if one may appear the selfless hero on the surface.
But the film offers another alternative, a self-sacrifice which embraces the appearance of evil rather than its substance. To face the consequences of the sins of others is seen to be the only true answer to overwhelming evil. In short, if the Joker’s goal is to create a dilemma where the most attractive option is to “do evil that good may result,” several characters reject the appeal of self-interest and choose good even if evil may result. Too much is lost for any tidy dénouement, but in its melancholy conclusion, The Dark Knight suggests that to truly be “more than a hero,” one must be strong enough to take that fall and survive it, to courageously choose the right and noble even at great risk, to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. This is the only ray of hope in the darkness of unrestrained evil.
The Dark Knight is rated PG-13, but it pushes the limit of the rating with intense and gruesome (though bloodless) violence. Do not make the mistake of the several people at our showing who (inexplicably) brought young children—every one of them left part way through with a crying and terrified child.