Every generation gets the Batman it deserves. The television series and movie spin-off of the mid-sixties was pure camp comedy dressed in a pop-art colour scheme. Tim Burton’s cinematic revamping of the late eighties was all gothic style (and little substance). Then in 2003, with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the shadier aspects of the myth came crashing into the politics of the post-9/11 era. That film may have ended with the masked avenger triumphant, but there were also dark mutterings about escalation and the emergence of new, more dangerous kinds of criminal modeled on Batman’s own underground methods.
In Nolan’s The Dark Knight that grim promise is fulfilled, as Batman must confront the other side of his coin, or the inverted face on his card, in a duel that proves as diabolically symmetrical as it is morally challenging.
Despite the usual criminality and corruption, Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been steadily arresting mobsters, the city’s new DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) has been fearlessly bringing them to trial, while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) dons the Batsuit whenever more legitimate means prove inadequate in the fight on crime although he is looking forward to the day when there is no further need for his extra-judicial exertions. Dent, dubbed the ‘White Knight’ by the press, embodies the city’s faith in itself and its hope for a better future. He has also won the heart of Assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who just happens to be Batman’s ex…
The triumvirate’s balance is unsettled with the arrival of the Joker (Heath Ledger) – a hideously scarred (and even more hideously made-up) psychopath who is determined to set a bomb under Gotham’s new-found optimism and reveal how rapidly its people can become uncivilised and ugly in a chaotic crisis. To fight him, Gordon, Dent and Batman will be pushed to their outermost limits, and in some cases beyond, as they face the villainous underside of their own heroic intentions.
Foreign abductions, brutal interrogations, torture of suspects, illegal surveillance on a massive scale yep, all the weapons used in the so-called War on Terror are also to be found in the arsenal of the caped crusader, as he struggles to work out whether he is truly needed to fight Gotham’s problems, or is himself merely a part of them. In his own way, Dent must face (or at least half-face) a similar question about himself, as must many of the civilian (and even criminal) population in the film’s climactic variant on the prisoner’s dilemma.
Nolan offers a surprisingly, almost unbelievably, heartfelt solution concerning humanity’s essential good but through a stunning legerdemain, he simultaneously manages to expose the film’s apparent optimism as something of a fragile, manipulated sham. All of which makes The Dark Knight the most morally and politically engaged superhero film since, well, Batman Begins.
The Dark Knight is a film that finds itself in the unusual position of requiring special pleading for being as astonishingly good as it is. Normally, hype tends to work against one’s enjoyment of a film, but in this case, the film’s very own, very great qualities lend credibility to all the publicity (rather than the other way round). Normally, too, the tragic death of a star can win undue attention for a performance that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but Ledger’s furious turn as the Joker menacing, funny, terrifying and pathetic all at once – would stand out under any circumstances. It is worth adding that the rest of the cast, in their far less flamboyant roles, still acquit themselves expertly.
From its opening, Heat-style heist, via its vertiginous set-pieces and high-octane, low-CG chases, right through to its multi-shaded ending, The Dark Knight never once fails to thrill and with six sequences shot on IMAX cameras, it is also a truly dazzling experience for the eyes. These things alone would suffice to guarantee its status as the blockbuster of the summer but Nolan’s great faith in humanity (a faith that he shares with his hero) lets him trust his viewers to resolve for themselves the thorny moral conundrums that his film merely poses for them. It is this intelligent, remarkably responsible approach to some of the most pressing issues of our times that will make The Dark Knight be remembered, and cherished, long after the summer is over.