For any young (and not-so young) person growing up in 2008, The Dark Knight became an instant, modern classic. People who were experts and had read every Batman comic book and people who had only watched the garish movies from the 90s had all seen the film and weighed in. Every child wanted to dress like Batman or the Joker for Halloween. Everyone was quoting, “Why so serious?” And everyone was talking about Heath Ledger.
Personally, I did not even know that The Dark Knight was meant to be part of a trilogy by Christopher Nolan until The Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012. When I learned that this week’s assignment included watching The Dark Knight, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to watch Nolan’s trilogy from beginning to end. (Of course, my husband, who is a huge Batman fan, did not object.) Although Batman Begins (2005) opened a gap in the Batman genre for Nolan to explore the origin’s of Batman and his fears, it failed to establish an epic villain. Throughout the comic books, Batman is defined by whichever villain he is facing, and the villains really make the Batman story stand out. I appreciate what Nolan was attempting in his first Batman film, but I think The Dark Knight really brought the trilogy back to true Batman-style storytelling. The Dark Knight Rises was also fantastic in its own way. It referenced the first movie in all the right ways and showed us the mortality of Batman with a spectacular ending to Nolan’s story line. I love Joseph Gordon Levitt as Detective Blake (or Robin, as it turns out) and Anne Hathaway (as Catwoman), and Tom Hardy’s excellent portrayal of Bane became a huge pop culture reference. Still, none of the films stands alone as well as The Dark Knight. None of them showed us the same legendary, career-and-life-altering performance that Heath Ledger gave as the Joker.
Nolan is a writer/director known for his focus on topics of time and psychology. In Memento, we see his affinity for non-linear storytelling. Many people are disappointed that Nolan has moved from low-budget, independent filmmaking to Blockbuster director, but I think The Dark Knight showcases Nolan’s unique style while making money. He has a dark, and larger-than-life style that was perfectly suited for making films about a superhero. One thing that really sticks with me about Nolan’s films (from Memento to Inception to The Dark Knight) is his use of color. He uses lot of black and grey shadowing, as if it is always an overcast day in Nolan-land. With the Batman stories, he could have made them vibrant and bright as if they were straight out of the comic book, which is what Tim Burton did in with his Batman films in the 90s. However, Nolan is an action movie director. That is the way he approached his Batman films–not as comic book movies, but as action movies. He stuck with his own style. He was also able to modernize Batman by dealing with themes of terrorism, which we, as an audience can appreciate and relate to since 9/11 and the genuine threat of terrorism that exists in today’s world.
In The Dark Knight, we see Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) at the height of his hero, vigilantism when the city of Gotham turns to him to clean up the city. Wayne realizes, however, that what Gotham needs is someone to stand up for Gotham in daylight, without a mask. That person is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), district attorney and Gotham’s white knight. Wayne works to move Batman out of the spotlight and let Dent take over as the savior of Gotham. The entire plan falls apart when the Joker (Heath Ledger) becomes an agent of chaos for no other reason than he enjoys it. The Joker is a psychopath without a conscious. He is determined to show that everyone is corruptible and breakable, and his one goal for Batman to make him break his rule about killing people. He revels this as he dangles upside down at the end of the film, stating that he and Batman are “destined to do this forever,” because neither will kill the other. In a way, the Joker still wins because he breaks Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, and turns him into the villain, Two Face. In order to save Gotham, Batman must take the fall and become Dent’s crimes. The best thing for Gotham is to have Batman disappear for awhile.
Besides Nolan’s approach to his Batman trilogy, the defining part of The Dark Knight belongs to Ledger’s work as the Joker. As I mentioned before, the best part of the Batman comics is the villains–Bane, Two Face, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, the Riddler, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow–so the role of the Joker in this film was essential. He is written to be a contrasting foil for Batman. Where Batman is, although sometimes misguided, the virtuous hero of Gotham. He stands for everything good and just. He makes the work of the city’s legal team easier. Although he is constantly associated with smooth, put together darkness with his attire and accessories, there is often light associated with the Batman/Wayne. Wayne’s world when he is not Batman is often bright, like his underground office used for hero work. The light used to signal and call Batman for help is also a shining symbol of hope and goodness.
Where Batman is a study of the good and just and is mostly monochromatic in color, the Joker is a character of chaos. As our textbook points out, even his clothes and appearance clash together. The stark-white face, green hair, bright red smile, purple suit, and green vest all contribute to an unsettling image of the Joker. His appearance serves as a glimpse into the psychopathic mind of the Joker, where every thought is loud and conflicting and nothing fits together. Despite his mismatched attire, the Joker is extremely intelligent and calculating. He knows that Batman will choose to save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) over Harvey Dent, so he gives Batman the wrong address, and Rachel ends up dying. Her death hurts both Batman and Dent. He also always seems to have a backup plan, when he fails to break Batman directly, he masterminds the downfall of Dent.
A well-written role is nothing without the perfect actor to bring it to life, and casting Ledger as the Joker is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Dark Knight filmmakers. Ledger became the Joker in every way. In is the goal of the actor to make the character completely believable, and Ledger does so beautifully. As a former theater major and having done quite a bit of acting, I know that putting on makeup and a costume only takes you so far. Of course, those things were invaluable to Ledger, but he really worked from the inside out. Every moment, facial expression, and word was perfectly believable. Ledger was no longer himself and there was no trace of him (other than his stellar talent) in the film. It was all the Joker. The interesting thing for me was that it seemed like he did not have to plan out each twitch and lick of the lips. He honestly discovered the root of the Joker and let it embody him. In many reports, that is exactly what Ledger’s plan was in in preparation for the role. He would lock himself in a hotel room for weeks trying to find out who the Joker was. Most people, including me, believe that the role eventually lead to his accidental overdose. I think when an actor embodies a character as completely as Ledger did, they risk loosing a little bit of themselves, especially when the character is one as insane as the Joker. Perhaps the most tragic part was that in Ledger’s Joker journal, the last thing he wrote before production wrapped up was “bye bye.“