The Dark Knight

directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
starring Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman

the Nolan Batman is as far afield from the old Adam West vehicle as you could possibly get with the same set of characters, and yet they share at least one thing in common: an obsessive focus on symbolism.

this, at least, jives with my own personal experience with the mythology, restricted as it is to the aforementioned Adam West incarnation, Tim Burton's transitional mischief and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth--all of which have that same focus, if at varying degrees. compared with those iterations, what's unusual about Nolan's version is that the symbolism is embedded in a rich layer of realism, adhering to a system of logic that might almost be recognizable as the sort that governs our own world; i believe this was Frank Miller's approach as well, but it's fairly new to my experience of the character.

the effect, i find, is a more subtle, but also more effective, kind of surrealism.

let me reiterate: the symbolism is embedded, not buried. what the Nolans have done is deconstruct the crimefighter/superhero mythos using the fictional construct that is Gotham City as a kind of Cambellian template, each character a kind of Jungian archetype. this manifests in at least two ways in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

one: each character/facet acquires an appropriately (dare i say) comic-bookish two-dimensionality. every surface is flat, like the panels of the Batmobile's armor. 'Criminals aren't complicated,' insists Bruce Wayne, and they aren't. neither is Wayne himself, when it comes down to it, nor Alfred, nor Gordon (even if it is Michael Caine holding that tray, Gary Oldman behind those glasses--gasp!), nor Lucius. no, not the Joker, not Raz Al-Ghul in Begins, not Harvey Dent here.

in fact, even in terms of personality alone (character complexity/depth aside), with the exception of Heath Ledger's Joker, none of the others would be able to compete with RDJ's Tony Stark or Ron Perlman's Hellboy.

and yet the construct the Nolans have created from these surfaces is so intricate that we are presented with a convincing illusion of complexity. it isn't the surfaces, then. examine a facet of the aforementioned Batmobile's armor and you would be confronted with an uninteresting square, or rectangle, or triangle; no polygon with any more personality than that. no, not the surfaces taken by themselves, then, but the way they're put together; the flexibility, the uncertainty, the tension are all in the interactions of symbol and meaning, the ethics of their coming together, the morality.

the Nolans' Gotham is, in effect, an ideological battlefield. and what puts their Batman over other crimefighter/superhero types is that this Batman engages in ideological battles we genuinely feel he cannot win.

two: each character/facet becomes elemental; because they are all symbols, they have the power and awe-inspiring effect of symbols. one complaint i might lodge against the Nolans is the way they've crammed their screenplay with ham-fisted, ideology-ridden dialogue; when i think back to the movie, it isn't the quiet, funny moments i remember--though in fact those are the moments i personally enjoyed the most while i was watching--it's the speechifying Moments every primary character gets at one point or another in the course of the film, scored with slow, magnificent--almost irritatingly so, if only because of their ubiquity in the movie--orchestral swells.

in the context of The Dark Knight, however, such otherwise objectionable oration feels exactly right; this is an ideological battle, after all; any physical damage done is collateral.

in fact, this almost explains the cinematic choices Christopher Nolan made while making this movie, the exhilarating but almost incomprehensible explosions of violence (though not as incomprehensible as the fight sequences of Begins) punctuating and contrasting the unwaveringly lucid (even when delivered by what are ostensibly madmen) dialogue.

no, despite all the madness, there is hardly any gibbering here.

Christopher Nolan, if nothing else, has created an amazingly tight film in a class of its own, entirely confident in itself--its origins, its symbols, its meanings; confident enough to speak in its own cinematic language.


perhaps the most intriguing thing for me about this movie, apart from its deconstruction of the superhero/crimefighter mythos, is the way it resolves--or fails to resolve--the conflict it presents. The Dark Knight is very much a sequel; more than that, it feels very much like a middle film--though a particularly solid one; i find myself having to agree with the reviewers at AICN who've compared this to The Empire Strikes Back--very tight in itself, but hanging open, loose at both ends.

however, i would suggest that the hanging ending isn't the sort that requires closure the way Empire's did. what i find most intriguing is the way it feels as though the Nolans are encouraging us--without being in any way didactic--to resolve the Gotham City conundrum ourselves, that is, off-screen, or, if you prefer to be beaten over the head with it, in the real world.

a third film, while probably inevitable, seems almost a disservice at this point. The end of The Dark Knight makes the diptych of Begins/Knight an interesting exercise in the philosophy of symbols that can be extended beyond the fictional boundaries of Gotham. a third film could only be one of two things: since we already have the rise and fall of the Dark Knight in the diptych, the third would either have to be a repetition of the cycle--a new beginning or an overture, either of which would be redundant--or it would serve to close off the loop, undermining the symbolic power--what some might call 'relevance'--of the two already existing films.

besides, although i would argue that Harvey/Two-Face is the core symbol of the Nolans' Batman, i can't imagine a successful third film without Ledger's Joker. Ledger's performance was so iconic, so perfect, that to alter it by the slightest iota of a twitch of a tic would hurt the character--and the subsequent film. i feel sorry for the next fellow to step into the character's purple suit, even if it is an Arkham-issue straight jacket instead.


Anonymous said...

I doubt that Christopher Nolan would ever dream of bringing the Joker character back. Your posting implies that he has taste, which I also believe that he has. He also has a great understanding of dramatic flow.

Not to bleak, but I don't really see where Batman can go, aside from to make the age-old ultimate sacrifice: to die.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

that would be my conclusion as well, though we ought to remember that being a symbol, death may take on a number of different forms for Batman.

element1133 said...

I know this about a year since it was posted, but I just happened to happen upon this now, and just after I have seen TDK for the eighth time. Great movie, rife with symbolism, almost bogged down by it were it not for the pace and strong performances.

I believe the real problem for the next Batman movie is not merely Batman's arc, but the stakes. The Nolan's did a fantastic, monumental job of allowing the Joker to get the whole city in on his "social experiments." How the hell are you going to top hundreds of civilians on a ferry, and hundreds of prisoners on another ferry with the choice of dying or blowing the others up, or doing nothing and dying anyways. It brought the whole city into the Joker's maddening equation of chaos and the crumbling of morality in the face of psychotic odds. If anything, the Nolans will have to contract the scope back onto Batman; not solely, but to bring such a magnitude of participation would only seem an imitation of their own work, and would probably degrade into some doomsday scenario. The Joker was a run-a-mok doomsday with no real end in sight, because, honestly, he wanted to keep it going as long as possible. The hands of the ticking time bomb always being drawn counter-clockwise, to prolong the fun.

As an aspiring screenwriter, I find the Nolans' script full of flaws (a bus pulling out of a bank and no one noticing?) but not only do they not bother me, they only add to the beautiful absurdity of this movie drenched in realism that is entrenched in symbolism. Is it a masterpiece? Not quite. A masterstroke, and one hell of memorable cinematic experience. When I saw it at IMAX, I did not take my eyes away for a second. You couldn't you'd miss something. I'm happy to report I'm still finding new things, even though the symbolism may not be hidden. Still can't take my eyes off it.

And the brilliance of Ledger's Joker will not be topped. I prefer it even to Nicholson's. Whoever is the villain in the next movie has got to stand on their own, and not seem like they're trying to outdo Ledger. It's just not going to happen.

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