Until last week SFFMedia’s Law of Hype gave a certain reassuring predictability to Hollywood. If you’re unfamiliar with this law it states in its simplest form that hype = disappointment and that an increase in hype therefore leads to greater disappointment. Long experience has proven the truth of this. That is until The Dark Knight came along and blew that seemingly invariant truth out of the water! Chris Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2005) has been breaking all the rules, not least in the amount of hype generated.
There’s something poetically just to this rule breaking as the success of the movie is due in no small part to the late Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, a super villain whose forte is the subversion of Order. Along with the rules The Dark Knight has been breaking all the records. According to Variety the movie earned US$66.4 million in the US alone in its first day, an “unheard of” figure for a non-holiday weekend, easily surpassing the previous record set by Spiderman 3. Its total for the three day weekend was a staggering US$155.4 million, the highest earning ever.
There’s little doubt that Ledger’s unfortunate death in January fuelled the hype about the movie and his performance, but it would take a very cynical viewer to believe that talk of a posthumous Oscar is undeserved. If Batman Begins was Christian Bale’s movie, The Dark Knightis Ledger’s. His performance as the movie’s sociopathic super villain is mesmerising and disturbing in equal measure and will surely stand the test of time as a testament to his acting talent. Despite the hyper-reality of the comic-book setting, his performance is convincingly real, extreme but utterly believable. Growing warnings in the press that this movie is not suitable for young children might sound like an over-reaction, but they are well justified.
Having so successfully brought Batman to life in Batman Begins, this time around Bale’s challenge as Batman and Bruce Wayne was to slip further into the shadows, literally and morally, and somehow retain the audience’s sympathy. Bruce Wayne wears a social mask that is even more inscrutable than that worn by Batman, while Batman has slipped further from the light, shining darkly forth from the shadows; Bale fully inhabits both personas and brings subtly and depth to this evermore morally ambiguous superhero.
If Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, The Joker is the inevitable consequence of Batman’s existence. They are two sides of the same coin. Batman is an extreme response to rampant crime and disorder, well-nigh fascist in the pursuit of Order at any cost. The Joker is Chaos’ organic response to that. Order and Chaos, Batman and The Joker, trapped in a cycle of escalation. It comes as no surprise then that we find Batman’s pursuit of Order at any cost taking him down a pathway of increasingly extreme choices and attacks on civil liberties with a disregard for the rule of law.
Which is an irony all too apparent in the post 9/11 world.
In response The Joker turns the established order upside down, fomenting Chaos, and the cycle spirals onward and outward.
Despite his utter scorn for plans and order, The Joker nonetheless controls events and people completely in his desire to demonstrate the truth of his dark view of human nature: his social experiment, with Gotham as his laboratory, is to make the best of us, into the worst. And to a great extent he succeeds. Batman slips further into the shadows and Gotham’s White Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent (played superbly by Aaron Eckhart) falls from grace under The Joker’s careful manipulation. This is very grim stuff indeed. Not one of the central characters is above reproach and of all the characters only Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) stand as pillars of untainted moral strength.
In the end the movie does come down on the side of optimism for the human race, but this race between the best and worst in us is closely run indeed.
Clearly, the cast were gifted with that rarest of things in this genre, a truly intelligent script that is both willing and able to pose complex moral questions. As it should be it is the script, written by brothers Chris and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by David Goyer, that is this movie’s hidden strength. As we’ve seen, it’s a sign of the writers’ integrity to their vision that no single central character earns or deserves our sympathy entirely. This is a morally complex world in which no action in the fight against evil is untainted, and in which no central character is easily defined or simplistic. Even the Joker, an agent of Evil, has a past and though we don’t know the truth of his upbringing, we can take it as given that it was horrendous. And more than that, he has an integrity and commitment to his own beliefs that no other character can match.
The greatest irony: of all of them, only The Joker is incorruptible.