Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
I wrote a review of Mamma Mia! a few years ago, and now I’m kicking myself for not saving it for one of my unlikely movie pairings to alongside The Dark Knight. The two of them couldn’t be neater fits: two of the top five grossers of 2008, pure crowdpleasers, filled to the brim with unmistakable settings and absolutely overflowing with loud, overacted performances from some of our biggest stars. The Dark Knight blathers on to the point of unpleasantness about how Batman (Bale) and the Joker (Ledger) are polar opposites who still need each other to make sense, with a man who literally gets half his face burned off, Harvey Dent (Eckhart), standing in the middle of them as an extremely subtle halfway point between chaotic good and chaotic evil. I just want to say that in the wake of the financial disaster of 2008, these two movies—which were released in America on the very same weekend!—are the polar opposites who make each other whole. One is all sunshine, the other all darkness, and together they lick the platter clean.
Ten years later The Dark Knight remains an outstanding popcorn movie, and it remains a movie I have a hard time writing about in part because there’s so much going on. In 2019, the most interesting piece of the picture is undoubtedly the fact that Batman sets up the TSA in his basement, has one of his employees, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), operate it for him while he beats up a whole bunch of people and ultimately leaves the Joker hanging from the top of a building, and then turns the whole thing into a feel-good moment when Fox walks away from the device as it sparks out behind him, never to be used again. The ends certainly do justify the means in this movie, don’t they. As long as the Joker is caught for…golly, is it only the second time in the movie?…then what Batman does is okay; as long as the machine breaks down after it’s been used, violating the privacy of millions of citizens is acceptable. (Would love, by the way, to hear a criminal defend himself in a murder case by saying “But I broke the knife in half after I stabbed the guy.”) There’s some mild torture that Batman engages in, kidnapping, and of course the general ass-kicking he deals out to dozens of bad dudes. None of this is new, after all. Go on the Internet any day of the week and some other similarly woke galère will argue that, sure as Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg’s billions could fight climate change and register Democratic voters, if Bruce Wayne just paid taxes they’d be able to manage the crime problem in Gotham. It is chilling to watch, and not in the way the movie intends it to be. My favorite line of the entire picture comes when a would-be vigilante asks Batman why he can do it and they can’t. “I’M NOT WEARIN’ HOCKEY PADS,” Batman replies, a little irked by the presumption of the question. When you put that through a translation machine that can handle the Voice That Summoned a Thousand Cough Drops, what it says is “MIGHT MAKES RIGHT.” Say what you will about how ridiculous Mamma Mia! is and how bad Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice is and all, but at least in Mamma Mia! we aren’t supposed to cheer for the protagonist’s case of mild fascism in the fight against terrorism.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is a repository of missed opportunities, and foremost among them is the loss of Ledger himself. Watching that scene in the MCU (which used to mean “Major Crimes Unit” in 2008—after all, we only had Iron Man at that point) where he’s being interrogated by Batman’s fists and Batman’s friends, the windows and the table and the walls, I found myself wishing for more Heath Ledger as we saw him in Brokeback Mountain. The guy who played Ennis Del Mar a few years earlier, a performance which has to be in the conversation as one of the best of this century, is cackling and nasally making fun of the guy in the cowl. It’s good. It’s really exciting to watch. It’s hammy, admittedly, and I get that there’s never going to be a subdued Joker. The over-the-top stuff is part of what makes him good in this movie, and maybe it’s just that the “Why so serious?” monologue got strangled into seriousness with breathless recitation in the years following this movie’s release, but I can’t say that his multiple explanations of where the scars come from are his best moments, nor do I think much of the scene where he converts Dent to his anarchic evangel. (Again, it’s been said to death on the Internet, but for a guy who says he loves chaos, it sure does seem like he must have spent a lot of time and effort planning, to say nothing of executing, all this stuff that happens in this movie! Batman and his uneasy allies from law enforcement spend the picture reacting to the Joker. He sets the tone. He’s like the kid in high school who brags about how he gets an A on everything without studying, but takes religious notes during class. The movie wants us to read him like he’s the ruby thief in Alfred’s story; how he’s actually presented through his actions, as opposed to his lyin’ sermons and Alfred’s cryptic parables, gives the lie to that interpretation.)
I’d say he’s best when, in accordance with the hamminess, he seems to really be enjoying himself; in other words, he’s best when he’s funny. The Joker as a conduit for ideas ain’t making anything better than a dim lightbulb. The Joker sitting in the front seat of a semi, saying to himself, “I like this job!” is hysterical. The “whoo-hoo-hoo” of his laughs which cover up the pain which he gets off on getting Batman to dish out to him is exciting. The slow clap he does that has become one of this movie’s best memes is fun. There’s even something effective about “Here’s my card,” although the fact that the movie thinks that’s cool enough to keep using over and over again is sort of a bummer. And, of course, there’s that shot where he sticks his head out the window of a cop car like a dog (“I’m like a dog chasing cars,” we get it) and feels the wind against the face paint. There’s something a little uncanny about that shot, something about it that gives you just a teensy chill down the spine. It would be more effective without the immediate preface of “He wanted to get caught,” a line that’s as unfailingly cliché as “The call is coming from inside the house,” but it’s still good. It is reminiscent of—and let me be clear, reminiscent of, not anything near as effective as—that last shot from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which an obvious maniac, with the camera swaying while he sways, lets his freak flag fly. That’s where the chill comes from: the naked feeling on Ledger’s face, the only time we see something like a recognizable person who isn’t doing a bit.
I’ve seen The Dark Knight enough now to know where it goes off the rails: it’s when we lose Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who might be the last sane person in Gotham and whose sanity is very much missed in the rush of stuff that goes on in the back half of the picture. Rachel’s death is the reason that Harvey Dent comes unhinged, which leads to a series of scenes in which someone asks a number of people what’s the most they ever lost on a coin toss. Rachel’s death makes Bruce Wayne sit very still in his penthouse the morning after, and then he sounds very sad about it when it comes up towards the end of the picture, but otherwise our pointy-eared strongman seems largely unmoved by the fact that the woman he loves is collateral damage in a madman’s quest to uncover him. Rachel’s death is also about as clear an example of fridging as you can hate to see in a movie; her death, like her practice of the law, is noteworthy in the ways it affects Harvey Dent. It would be noteworthy for the specifics of how she would change Bruce, too, if he knew just how she felt about him; the letter she leaves Bruce that Alfred (Michael Caine) refuses to pass on to his boss after reading it would no doubt cripple him with all the power of Tom Hardy on ‘roids. Rachel’s death, despite the intentions of its architects to make the picture more interesting, only makes everyone less entertaining by making them sound more like the farting philosophy discussions one typically hears in freshman dorm rooms.