The Dark Knight has raked in obscene amounts of money this summer, becoming the most popular movie released in recent years. Capitalizing on the more modest success of its precursor, Batman Begins, the sequel engages the viewer with a terrifying and senseless villain for Batman to tangle with—the Joker.
With an overly-complex plot involving at least five or six different storylines, the ongoing battle between the Joker and Batman sits as the centerpiece of the film. While Batman attempts to pass the baton of crime-fighting on to Harvey Dent, the Joker wants nothing more than to unmask the caped crusader. And the Joker makes clear early on that he will stop at nothing—not destruction of property, not kidnapping, and not even loss of life—to achieve his goal. The violence and destruction that come as a result take on increasingly senseless proportions, given his desired outcome. Using crude and simple technological elements, he exists solely to create chaos, to push against the rules, and to react against the modern, technologically-advanced world.
Batman on the other hand stands as a symbol of justice. He works hard to avoid killing people, uses the latest technology to aid his crime-fighting, and declares that he lives by a set of rules that govern his behavior. In this sense, Batman is that modern hero of yesteryear; the one who inherently knows what justice is and will stop at nothing to make sure he carries it out to the letter. However, as Joker’s attacks become more and more vicious and unsettling, Batman’s entire position and ethos is called into question. Does he allow this killing to continue in the name of conscience and his own personal rule? Or should he kill the Joker and end the suffering of his victims?
The film has no answer to this question, at least explicitly. We are left with a world of confusion and chaos, one in which the Joker still lives. One could presumably make an argument that due to our implicit knowledge of Batman as the “hero,” we know his way is ultimately the right one. This would all be well and good, except for one significant problem. The Joker has shown that his simple rules do not work. Further, at a formal level, the film leads us to sympathize with the Joker. The plans of the Joker are so cleverly wrought and well-carried out, that we are dazzled by the violence that results.
For instance, in the opening bank robbery sequence, one leaves that scene never really worried about all the criminals that got knocked off one by one. Instead, the thought is—what a great plan. We admire the sharp mind it took to conceive of such a raid. This seems true of most of the violence throughout, where we laugh at the Joker walking away from the hospital in a nurse’s uniform, feel the rush of adrenaline at the close-up fight scenes that offer no sense of perspective and no opportunity for contemplation, or chuckle at his deft ability to use a pencil (or was it a pen?). The excitement brought on by the violence in this film troubles me precisely because the ways in which it excites are more formal than content based.
The film has been popular, I think, because it has pinpointed our times. We live in a confusing world, where people have lost a sense what’s right and what’s wrong. We no longer know who we can trust. Our fathers leave. Our leaders lie. And our nations seem headed for self-destruction. Batman portrays a world that has lost its way. Does anyone know the way back?