Assessing the Themes of The Dark Knight

I hauled my ass out of bed at 7:30 AM ton Saturday morning and saw The Dark Knight at 9 AM in a packed IMAX theater, and boy was it was worth it. From the opening establishing shot, which was incredibly vivid and breathtaking, I knew that this film would be something different. It’s been said dozens of times already, but Nolan truly uses the entire screen (six-stories tall as it is) as a canvas to paint a rich and dramatic tale. My podcast review will have to wait for Monday night, but I felt the overwhelming desire to write something about the subject.

Please note: The following is not a review. I will not be discussing Heath Ledger’s tremendous performance, nor Nolan’s directorial choices, nor my problems with the film (yes, I did have some). It’s an attempt at coming to grips with some of the themes in the movie, a cathartic but not exhaustive brain dump. So here we go…

[From here on out, SPOILERS ABOUND. DO NOT READ THIS ARTICLE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT YET]

The Symbology of Batman

The final monologue that Commissioner Gordon brings the themes from Batman Begins to their logical conclusion: Namely, that as a man, Bruce Wayne’s powers to evil crime are rather limited. As a man, he can be corrupted, he can be killed, and ultimately, he can be defeated. As a symbol he can become far more, and at the end of The Dark Knight, he becomes, to society, an uncontainable force in very much the same way the Joker was. He becomes hunted, making people believe that he cannot be controlled, that he has lost all respect for societal norms and the rule of law. As Gordon realizes he needs to blame the murders on Batman, he acknowledges not only the need for society to push their fears onto something, but their hopes as well (which he allows them to do by preserving Dent’s good name).

In order to keep from tearing itself to shreds, society needs to believe in the incorruptibility of good and the relative remoteness of evil. The Dark Knight points us to ways in which we cope with this need.

Simultaneously, it’s also made clear that, in fact, Batman never succumbs to his own dark, inner urges. In the movie, Bruce Wayne says the line, “I’ve seen what I have to become to fight men like him,” and he rejects the path he has to take to stop Joker, a man who has no rules whatsoever. In one of the more memorable scenes from the film, the two have a showdown in Gotham’s city streets, the Joker manically screaming “Hit me!” as Batman is propelled towards him in the bat pod. As much as Batman wants to annihilate the Joker, he knows he can’t violate his own moral code, and almost sacrifices himself to prevent this from happening (albeit as part of a broader ruse to capture him). Still, Batman doesn’t seek to kill evildoers, but to bring them to justice. The dichotomy that the film sets up between Joker and Batman is one of chaos vs. order. The dichotomy between Joker and Dent is one of good vs. evil…

The Triumph of Evil Over Good

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

These words, spoken by Harvey Dent in the film and its trailers, portend the inevitable corruptibility of heroes in the Batman universe. At the beginning of the film, Dent represents absolute good, a goodness that’s so pure, that has so much potential to change Gotham, that even Batman is thinking of hanging up his spurs.

Dent is referred to frequently as Gotham’s “White Knight,” a term used throughout the course of the film. I was speaking with a friend about this movie today and he pointed out that when he went to see the movie he did not anticipate “The Dark Knight” could actually also refer to Dent, a clever yet profound subtext to the film (and that’s not even mentioning the night/knight pun, which I will choose never mention again after this sentence). Indeed, Dent’s journey from light to darkness is handled plausibly and adeptly in the film, which makes his story arc monstrously tragic.

Many people have remarked on how depressing the film is and I would say that I mostly agree: The Joker’s ability to destroy that which Dent loves and turn him to the evil that he becomes is sad in a way that can only be experienced by seeing the film. But the apparent relative ease with which Joker does this is what makes the Dent storyline strike so close to home: The film makes us realize that we, as humans are limited, and that our capacity to be good is subject to the vagaries of fate and whatever the hell else decides to destroy what we love. Dent is not just a proxy for hope, he’s a proxy for us as well, reminding us of the duality that lies within each of us.

The Thin Line Between Anarchy and Order

As Nolan has stated in interviews, this movie was not meant to explore the Joker’s backstory because it’s really not that important to the film. Simply put, the Joker represents anarchy and chaos, a constant and near-unstoppable force whose origins are inexplicable (something which is made clear rather explicitly when the Joker delivers two creepily different monologues as to his scars’ origins). Many people compare Joker to other film and comic book villains but the one that I think he can be most closely associated with is Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, who is a force of nature. His origins are unclear but his actions are strongly felt by those around him (to put it mildly).

The Joker is unpredictable and can’t be reasoned with, nor does he have any broader goals except to create chaos and destruction. When I saw the movie Funny Games and watched an interview Michael Haneke, I was struck by something he said: To paraphrase, he said that we as individuals have personal spaces that go unsaid but are accepted by almost everyone. When people violate this personal space, the results can be terrifying. In a similar fashion, the Joker upends the genre conventions of a villain in that he has no inhibitions and refuses to hew even to the ultra-basic moral code of criminals (see: the opening scene). When a character has no values that you as a viewer can relate to and hold on to, the results are extremely disorienting. This unmoors our basic assumptions of the person’s capabilities.

All of this comes to a head in the hospital scene, when Joker gives Harvey Dent the “It’s all part of the plan” monologue, a speech that’s chilling not just for its content and delivery, but also because of its incisive commentary for us as Americans. I will not make any overtly political statements here, except to say that the complacency with which we as Americans have accepted atrocities and miscarriages of justice committed around the world as well as right here at home may have consequences beyond what we can imagine. The Joker’s monologue points to our baffling perceptions and reactions to the events that disrupt our lives. In our society, what exactly constitutes cause for alarm? And how much sense do those standards really make?

The Terrible Logic of Human Nature

What do people do when they are put in the worst of situations? What would you do if you were given the ultimate power over someone else? The movie touches upon these questions of human nature, but they are perhaps its least developed.

We see this theme pop up several times, most notably in two separate instances. Firstly, it’s evident when Batman breaks into Wayne enterprises and gives Lucius Fox fee reign of the cell phone hackery he has perpetrated upon all of Gotham. Fox demurs, believing that one person should not have this power. People are so easily corrupted that even an initial desire to do good can ultimately lead to evil, the film seems to be saying. This is further confirmed as the entire video interface comes to a fiery end, in a spectacular Batman-programmed self-destruction.

We also see it at the very end, when two separate sets of people are given the ability to destroy each other. Given the lead-up to the film’s climactic action scene, it’s a little bit strange that the boat-bomb storyline ends in the way that it does: With both criminals and everyday citizens concluding that they won’t take another’s life just to preserve their own. Throughout the whole movie, Nolan seems to be trying to tell us we are all easily subject to the temptations of the dark side, but the rest of the movie is already so relentlessly dark that perhaps this ending was more palatable to general audiences.

Humans can’t handle power responsibly. But maybe, in our shared humanity, there is still hope for compassion.

***

At its best, The Dark Knight holds a mirror up to us as viewers and asks us to look closely, to examine ourselves as humans and as citizens. It doesn’t always do this gracefully, but it tries far more than any comic book movie in recent memory has ever done. The fact that it succeeds most of the time is a testament to Nolan’s script and artistry.

Discuss: What themes did you see in the Dark Knight? How well did you feel the film explored them?

Make sure to tune in on Monday night, 7 pm PST / 10 PM PST to Slashfilm’s LIVE page to hear us review The Dark Knight with Kevin Smith!

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