July 19, 2008, updated August 26) -- I've been hearing for weeks about how great “The Dark Knight” was going to be when the public finally got a chance to see it. The hype on this film has been overwhelming. When I looked at its ranking at the Internet Movie Database today, it was ranked the fourth best movie of all time by fans. It has been compared to “The Godfather Part II.” It is overrated. It is over two and a half hours long, and it seems like three hours when you are watching it. You keep thinking it is going to end, and it just keeps going. Then you think you've reached the end again when a particularly nifty plot twist comes to fruition, and it just keeps going. After a while, you begin to think this movie is never going to end. Mercifully, it does end without descending into total nihilism.
Much has been made of the late Heath Ledger's turn as The Joker, a role defined in 1989 by the great Jack Nicholson. Nicholson's Joker was half comic. Ledger's Joker is much darker and more threatening, a craven psychopath. It is a very good performance indeed. He is the film's central, most fascinating character.
The Joker announces that he is an agent of chaos, but he is really an agent of evil, since chaos, by definition, is neither good nor evil, just as order, the opposite of chaos, can be either good or evil. The Nazis maintained order. It wasn't good, but it was order. The trains ran on time. The other thing about the new Joker is that he brags about his ability to turn plans against him to his advantage. He claims not to plan anything (agent of chaos, remember) yet he in fact does make intricate plans that work. He strings cables between buildings at the exact height to snag a police helicopter, which does, in fact run into the cables as planned. In another case, he plants a bomb in an unexpected location and manipulates the police into letting him blow it up, engineering an escape. He carries out other elaborate schemes involving explosives, deadlines and telephone calls placed at just the right time to achieve his desired results. His plans are carefully considered and elaborately staged, not chaotic. The point of his plans are to prove that human beings at their core are concerned only with self-preservation. They are not altruistic. If he were truly an agent of chaos, as he claims he is, he would not feel the need to prove anything to anyone.
One of the Joker's more interesting schemes involves two large boats full of people near each other. On each boat are enough explosives to blow it to smithereens. On each boat is a detonator. The Joker tells each boat full of people that the detonator will blow up the other boat, saving them. Amazingly, both boatloads of people assume the Joker is telling them the truth. You can imagine what happens, but the way this scenario plays out in the movie is very interesting, especially the dramatic way it happens. Another scheme by the Joker is aimed at one of the film's heroes, resulting in a total personality change which I did not find believable. I can't go too much into the dynamics of this scheme without giving away too much of the film's plot. Suffice it to say, it is a very intricate scheme that works perfectly, the opposite of chaos. In one of the Joker's narrow escapes, the police have ample opportunity to kill him, but instead allow him to escape, now that's more chaotic, but also hard to believe.
The Joker and Batman (Christian Bale reprising his role from “Batman Begins”) have an interesting relationship in the movie, almost symbiotic, a yin and yang sort of thing. The Joker believes that he and Batman are very much alike, but he's about the only one who thinks so. The film makes it pretty evident that they are very different people. Despite its nihilistic tendencies, real heroism and altruism abound in the movie. Heroes rise from the streets in Batman costumes to fight crime, emulating the real Batman. Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart of “The Core”), the district attorney of Gotham City, is another hero, along with honest cop Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman, reprising his role) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal of “Secretary”). For some reason, it seems, most viewers, and critics ignore all these heroes and instead revel in the so-called chaos of The Joker. Perhaps that is the secret to this film's historic success: it is morally ambiguous, offering both old-fashioned heroics based on altruism, and cynical villains and fallen heroes. Most viewers have chosen to concentrate on one side or the other of this divide and ignore the other side. The movie thus becomes all things to all people.
The film explores the moral concepts of eontology and teleology. Eontology is the position that moral values are absolute. Teleology is the position that morality is relative, dependent on the outcome of moral decisions. It is the position that the end can justify the means. For instance, the argument that killing people can be justified by a positive end result (the argument made for virtually any war, abortion or capital punishment) would be teleological. While the position that killing can never be justified (no sanctioning of abortion, war or capital punishment) would be eontological. The error in teleology, of course, is that it is pretty hard to know the consequences of one's actions. The odds against an immoral course of action having a moral outcome are pretty slim. As Emma Goldman once wrote: “There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another.”
In the film, eontology is represented by Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman). Fox never compromises his principles, while just about everyone else in the film does, even Batman. The implied argument being made in the film is that the Joker is powerful because he has no moral beliefs to hold him back. Those who have strong moral beliefs are portrayed as being weak. In order to combat The Joker, the film implies, one must descend to The Joker's level. You have to fight fire with fire. Political leaders and generals have argued the same thing for thousands of years. It isn't necessarily true. There are numerous examples of successful political or religious movements using non violent means. A striking example of this is Christianity's triumph over the Roman Empire, one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world. Another example is the overthrow of British rule in India. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot easier to persuade people to kill than it is to get them to pursue the risky, complicated, difficult paths to peace. As H.L. Menken once wrote, “War will never cease until babies begin to come into the world with larger cerebrums and smaller adrenal glands.”
There is enough plot in this movie for three movies. A climax arrives and you think the movie is over, but it is just another wrinkle in the Joker's many schemes. These wrinkles keep getting harder and harder to believe as the movie grinds on and on. When the final battle between Batman and the Joker arrives, it is anticlimactic. The actual end of the movie is very interesting, however, and it is worth sticking around for. Faced with a moral dilemma (one of many in the film) Batman chooses an interesting and lonely path. It is not a path to salvation or honor, but is a path that works. It is also a typical path for a hero. I wish these kinds of ultra-dark plots were a thing of the past, but they are probably here to stay (in response to the Batman's success, the makers of Superman are going to make their next movie darker too), at least until there is a new “morning in America.” These nihilistic films mesh well with the pessimism of the times and with a world view shared by many film critics. I find it wearisome. This film rates a B.
Recently, I had the occasion to watch the original “Dirty Harry” film again, starring Clint Eastwood in the role he made famous, Inspector Harry Callahan. This film, made in 1971, covers the exact same moral ground as “The Dark Knight” does, with Dirty Harry playing the part of Batman and Andrew Robinson brilliantly playing the crazed, but clever Scorpio Killer, the equivalent of The Joker. Dirty Harry tries to put the Scorpio Killer away by the rules, but the law turns him loose on a technicality. Callahan is finally stuck with a choice of obeying the law, or possibly letting a clever, manipulative killer loose. He makes his choice clear with a shot from his .44 magnum and tossed away his badge. I was amazed after watching this film, made 37 years ago, at how many times it has been copied. “The Dark Knight” is also a copy, but compared to “Dirty Harry” it looks pretty wimpy. That because “Dirty Harry” makes its choice, while “The Dark Knight” dithers and tries to have it both ways. You can't be a vigilante, and be law-abiding at the same time. Dirty Harry knew that, but The Dark Knight hasn't figured it out yet.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.