#3 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
The marriage of the crime epic with Batman was kind of perfect in concept from the beginning. Batman, as a superhero, was always more commonly concerned with more down to earth problems, so taking those down to earth problems in the direction of something like Michael Mann’s Heat was such a natural fit that it’s a wonder no one really thought of it before in cinematic terms.
Hinging on the final exchange in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes on the idea of escalation, extending it into absolute chaos as manifested by The Joker. Heath Ledger’s Joker is fantastic, and I’m far from the first to note it more than a decade after this movie’s release, but it can be said again. This Joker is intelligent, methodical, and vicious while also ideologically driven. He’s an anarchist who wants to bring Gotham to him, having it abandon its thin veneer of society that hides their true nature. When a gangster says that he’s crazy and he responds, very quietly but earnestly that he’s definitely not, I totally believe him. I think he’s in complete command of his faculties with a vision for the world that he wants to implement. That the vision is awful doesn’t mean he’s insane, it means that he’s evil.
In order for Batman to face this rising threat, he must test his limits. That happens most obviously when he must go to Hong Kong. The mob, having been beaten back since Batman arrived and in tandem with the rise of the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, are at risk of losing their cash holdings, so their accountant Lau, a Chinese national, hides all of their money and flees back to Hong Kong. Gotham’s law enforcement can’t reach him because of their limits within the law, but Batman operates outside the law so he can go to Hong Kong, break into Lau’s office, and essentially kidnap him back to Gotham without concern for legalities.
That testing of Batman’s limits is what The Joker becomes concerned with, and that’s one of the joys of the movie for me. The Joker starts the movie seeing the Batman as an impediment to his chaotic schemes, being the symbol of order, but Batman’s incorruptibility gives The Joker a new purpose. He begins to see Batman as a plaything, pushing him closer to The Joker’s own madness and anarchy with every encounter. That central relationship, bred from decades of history in the comics and made exquisitely real by Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan, is the marvelous core of this film. It’s a fight between two opposing ideologies that will be in perpetual conflict, touching on central themes from reality about the tension between order and chaos.
One of the central ironies of the film is that while Batman ends up being the incorruptible one, in part because of his status as a symbol rather than just a man like Bruce Wayne, as opposed to Harvey Dent. Dent is the White Knight of Gotham, the new district attorney who is unafraid of the organized crime families and their efforts to outright kill him. He can’t be bribed, but he contains a dark side that is evidenced by the nickname the police officers at the major crimes unit had for him: Harvey Two Face. After The Joker assassinates the police commissioner and a judge, he attacks the public funeral and Dent gets one of The Joker’s men off alone where he threatens him with a gun. It’s dark stuff, not quite so dark since Dent is using a two-headed coin to determine whether he shoots or not, but it’s the sort of thing that you would never expect to see from the White Knight.
The Joker, in his effort to bring down Gotham into anarchy, targets the two most prominent saviors of the city, Batman and Dent. He discovers that Batman and Dent, whether they are the same person or different people for all he knows, have affection for Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and Dent’s current girlfriend. In an elaborate scheme that influenced action movie conventions for a decade in stuff like Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, The Joker gets himself captured in order to free Lau from captivity. He also kidnaps both Dent and Dawes, forcing the choice on Batman about whom to save, the White Knight or Batman’s personal connection. Batman chooses Rachel, but The Joker switched the locations of them, so he saves Dent instead who ends up so scarred by the explosion he barely escapes from, along with the news that Rachel is dead, that he rejects everything he held dear before. The Joker guides him to accepting anarchy’s lack of meaning as the only source of meaning, turning him fully into the coin flipping Two-Face.
That underlying conflict of ideologies that colors every major interaction is what gives the film so much of its depth. These aren’t just well-written protagonists and antagonists against each other, they are at the same time representative of something greater than themselves as just characters. They can be read as just characters or as vehicles for greater ideals, and that provides a lot of the fun of watching as the two layers of the individuals are so well thought out and executed that they exist on both levels comfortably at the same time.
This is also Nolan embracing the spectacle of Hollywood filmmaking to its utmost. The capture of the Scarecrow, the kidnapping of Lau in Hong Kong, the transportation of Dent and subsequent attack by the Joker, and the fight up the tower to get to the Joker before he blows up two ferries are cleanly filmed, edited together clearly, and scored excitingly by Hans Zimmer. They’re pulse-pounding sequences that are buoyed by the great character and thematic work around them. The sequences can stand on their own as entertainment, but as extensions of the actions of everything else, they gain even greater urgency.
This is really top flight entertainment. With wonderful, multi-faceted characters, incredibly well-filmed, and a great score, The Dark Knight is probably the pinnacle of the superhero genre. Not every superhero movie needs to be dark and brooding, but The Dark Knight does it better than the rest while functioning as a great thrill ride at the same time.