“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
With the blockbuster success of Batman Begins, anticipation was high for Christopher Nolan’s follow-up. Fans were excited. Even critics were looking forward to it. And Warner Brothers, of course, couldn’t have been more excited about the prospect of even more ticket sales. Most of the stars were returning. Christian Bale would don the Batsuit again, Michael Caine would again serve faithfully as Alfred. Morgan Freeman would return as Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman would again put on the uniform of Gotham City detective Jim Gordon, now a Lieutenant. Even Cillian Murphy was coming back for a brief cameo as the Scarecrow. Of the major cast members of Batman Begins, the only ones not to return were Liam Neeson, as his character arc was done, and Katie Holmes, who had played Rachel Dawes in the first film but bowed out of the sequel to instead star in Mad Money (which may charitably be said to have been a questionable career decision.) Replacing her in the role was Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the transition went off without a hitch; many viewers considered the recast role to be an improvement.
“You know that day that you once told me about, when Gotham would no longer need Batman? It’s coming.”
“Bruce. You can’t ask me to wait for that.”
The film also continues the first movie’s tendency to cast known actors in small but significant roles. The main exception would be Chin Han as Lau, a crooked accountant who works with Gotham’s gangsters and sets the plot in motion. But other roles include Eric Roberts as Salvatore Maroni, the new head of the Falcone crime family, and Anthony Michael Hall as the Gotham News Network reporter who covers most of the events of the film.
But what had the fans most excited about The Dark Knight was a teaser at the very end of Batman Begins, when Gordon shows Batman the calling card — literally — of a new criminal in town. The audience had mostly enjoyed the portrayals of the villains in Batman Begins, but they weren’t major villains, in part to keep the focus on Batman himself. But the end of the film let the viewers know that the sequel would be bringing in Batman’s biggest villain: The Joker was coming to Gotham. And speculation soon went wild over who might be cast for the role, especially as one fan-favorite choice prior to Batman Begins had been Cillian Murphy, but he was already cast as the Scarecrow. Speculation on who would be cast ended when the announcement was made that the role had been given to Heath Ledger. But speculation continued on just how the character would be portrayed. Would he be a gangster in makeup? A deranged psychopath? A comic jester who just happens to kill? Different portrayals on the screen, the television, and the comics could support any of them.
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Even other actors participated in the speculation. Jack Nicholson was reportedly upset that Ledger didn’t consult with him on how to portray the Joker. Instead, Ledger purposefully tried to avoid referencing Nicholson’s version… and any outside input on how the Joker should be portrayed. He shut himself away in seclusion for several weeks, developing every tic and mannerism of the Joker. He took inspiration from Sid Vicious and from Alex DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange. Ledger even designed the makeup that the Joker wears (this version does not have bleached skin as some comics portrayals do) and had input on the suit he wears, which is inspired by the Joker’s classic costume with some contemporary twists. With Heath Ledger’s unfortunate death just prior to the film’s release, some people have wondered if the Oscar he won posthumously for the role was in some ways a sympathy award. Watching the movie should put an end to this speculation for anybody; Ledger completely embodies the personality of the Joker. He may not look exactly like the comic book Joker, but he acts the part in such a way that Ledger vanishes under the Joker in a way that few actors do.
“I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you… stranger.”
The key to the Joker is finding the balance between the method and the madness. What makes the Joker a frightening villain, more so than the other Batman villains, is that his motivations are irrational, even unpredictable. If you see the Joker on the street, he might kill you without a second thought, or he might settle for scaring you with a harmless prank. You don’t know which. And neither does he. He operates on whim and caprice; he makes plans — despite his assurances a few times in the film he’s as much a schemer as anybody — but they are for goals that serve no purpose beyond spreading anarchy and chaos. And no matter what, it’s always done with a laugh. It’s always funny to him. Ledger’s performance is the closest to this that the Joker has ever come in cinema. Nolan gave him completely free rein to develop the personality and mannerisms of the character, and Ledger delivered a true monster clown, where both the monster and the clown are on full display all the time. Nolan also let Ledger direct the two “home videos” that the Joker sends to Gotham News Network, supervising on the first one and letting Ledger direct the later on his own after seeing how well the first one turned out. Nolan have been the director of the film, and it was written by Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and David S. Goyer, but in every other respect, the portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight was due to Heath Ledger.
“You wanna know how I got these scars?”
Most superhero movies show the origin of the villain, or at least hint at it strongly (Batman Begins does not, but the Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul aren’t “created” villains so much as people who simply chose to go down that path). Batman chose to show the origin of the Joker; The Dark Knight chooses not to. He tells people how he got his scars, but he tells a different tale each time; we can assume if Batman hadn’t interrupted him the third time he would have told yet another story, as each time it seems tailored to the person he’s intimidating. It is reminiscent of a line in the comic book The Killing Joke, in which the Joker says “If I must have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” We never see where the Joker comes from in this movie, nor does the Gotham City Police Department find any clues. He has no fingerprints, dental records or DNA on file; no identification, no known aliases. He’s a man without a past. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the writers, and a wise one. Anything that explains the Joker makes him more understandable, and reduces the intimidation factor. The audience doesn’t need to know the Joker’s past, only his present.
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”
It’s important to note that the Joker lies considerably during the film. He tells Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that he doesn’t make plans, but everything that happens in the film shows the Joker as being several steps ahead of everybody else. He might be operating at whim, but there’s an underlying goal behind all of it. It’s just not a rational goal… rather, the goal is irrationality, to prove that society is just an illusion, that deep down everybody is twisted and corruptible. That all it takes is a little push. The other lie that he tells Dent is when he says that his attack on him and Rachel was nothing personal. They may have been targets of opportunity, but when Harvey is left scarred and grieving, the Joker is perfectly willing to take that opportunity to give him that little push into madness, to show that even the “White Knight of Gotham” can fall.
“You were the best of us! He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall.” “And he was right.”
Aaron Eckhart’s role as Harvey Dent is set up in stark contrast to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne. The two are even part of a love triangle, with Rachel Dawes having decided she can no longer wait for Bruce Wayne to stop needing to be Batman, and moving on to Harvey. Dent is Gotham City’s new district attorney, and is rapidly becoming one of the most beloved public figures in the city. He uses the RICO act to arrest over half of the organized crime members in Gotham. Where Batman is “the Dark Knight”, a nickname dating almost all the way back to his first comics appearances, Harvey is Gotham’s “White Knight”. Above even the appearance of impropriety, Harvey sometimes behaves irregularly — such as having 500 criminals indicted in one courtroom — but never acts outside the law. He is a face that the public can trust to lead them to a better future.
“He locked up half of the city’s criminals, and he did it without wearing a mask. Gotham needs a hero with a face.”
Long-time Batman fans, of course, knew it couldn’t last. But while the fans knew that Harvey Dent would be in The Dark Knight, few realized ahead of time that his alter-ego Two-Face would also be making an appearance. It was expected that Harvey would receive his disfigurement somewhere near the end of the film, or possibly in the next film, and that Two-Face would be the primary villain of the third movie. Instead, Harvey is burned about two-thirds of the way into The Dark Knight, with Rachel being killed at the same time. The Joker visits Harvey in the hospital, and inspires him to take the plunge into madness, and Two-Face becomes the Joker’s proof that anybody can fall with a sufficient push. With a flip of his two-headed coin, Harvey begins deciding the fate of everybody who has contributed to his pain. Good head, they live. Bad head, they die.
“The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”
Two-Face’s ruined face is done with a basic prosthetic to indicate where animators need to alter things, and is mostly created with CGI. Nolan didn’t want to create the whole face with prosthetics as prosthetics add matter, while Two-Face needs to have part of his face removed. The end result is a convincing, and unsettling, vision of a man who is horribly scarred. This is in contrast to Eckhart’s performance, which is more subdued and straightforward; per Nolan’s instructions, Two-Face was not to be “showy” in his mannerisms. This helps to drive the notion that Harvey’s insanity is born out of anger, and is not the pure irrationality of the Joker.
The Dark Knight is arguably the darkest film in the entire Batman franchise; possibly even the entire superhero genre. Because it’s the only film in which Batman loses. The villains are all defeated, but Batman loses. Even though the citizens of Gotham prove they aren’t animals, the way the Joker expects, his “ace in the hole” of corrupting Harvey Dent succeeds. He has torn down the best man in Gotham. And if Harvey Dent’s legacy is tarnished, all his good work will stand undone.
“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you.”
In order to preserve the legacy of Harvey Dent, the faith that Gotham had in him, and his conviction record, Batman takes the fall for the killings that Dent committed. It’s not a victory, it’s salvage. The third film, The Dark Knight Rises, will feature the villain Bane, who in the comics was introduced breaking Batman’s back and his spirit. Ironically, his job is already done in the films. By the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has lost virtually everything he can lose. His reputation as Batman is destroyed by his own hand in order to preserve the reputation of a man that Gotham must never know became a killer. His relationship with the GCPD is destroyed, as now-Commissioner Gordon must hunt him down to maintain the front that Batman killed the police officers that Two-Face shot. Neither man wants it, but both acknowledge the necessity. He has lost one of his best friends in the corruption and demise of Harvey Dent; he lost another when Rachel was killed. Lucius Fox, one of his most trusted advisors, has resigned over the extreme methods he used to capture the Joker. The Bat has been broken, metaphorically, if not literally. The Dark Knight is a different way to have a dark take on Batman; rather than the neo-Gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton’s Batman, it tells a dark story that ends on a sad note. There is no victory for Batman in this picture.
“You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me. Set the dogs on me. Because that’s what needs to happen.”
Critical and audience reception for the film were overwhelmingly positive. Heath Ledger won an Academy Award posthumously for his performance as the Joker. The film and cast received dozens of nominations and wins for other awards. The film was not nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but was widely considered to have been snubbed; the next year, the Academy increased the number of possible nominations to ten from five, in part to avoid a repetition of a situation where a highly popular film did not receive a nomination. And it was highly popular — staggeringly so. It was the fourth Batman film to break the opening weekend box office record — after Batman, Batman Returns, and Batman Forever. It also broke the record for the best opening day and the most lucrative single day take. After six days it had earned more money than Batman Begins earned in its entire domestic run. It set records for how quickly it reached $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, $400 million and $500 million, and became only the 4th film to earn more than $1 billion. It also became the first film to achieve the #1 ranking on IMDb within two days of its release; even today, four years later, it has only fallen to #8.
The Dark Knight is a dark and brilliant take on Batman and the Joker, with superb acting and great action sequences. It tells a dark story without ever feeling as though it’s wallowing in darkness for the sake of being macabre. It deconstructs the Dark Knight Detective, tearing down the foundations and setting up the third film while telling its own complete story. It is its trilogy’s equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back, dark and sobering and masterfully done, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”