Edited May 2016
Seven years after the rubble has cleared, The Dark Knight feels like a fundamentally different, more elemental film than it did when it arrived in theaters as a sacrosanct mass of loose ends about the fate of the superhero genre and the death of a man who would go on to win an Oscar. Christopher Nolan has released three films in the ensuing years, his cryptic, somewhat belabored style has imposed itself a little more unambiguously onto the viewing public, and The Dark Knight feels like a legitimate product instead of simply a nebulous idea of how to save the comic book adaptation. It also feels, mercifully, like a work that exists on a human plane, and not some sort of holier-than-thou untouchable object, as it has frequently been touted to be by the fan-people of the world.
Admittedly, a sharp, incisive, pointed product when all is said and done, and if The Dark Knight doesn’t conclude the very idea of cinema, its veritable craft is pushed right up to the surface and wholly ready for the tasting. And it’s not all Heath Ledger for that matter, although his maelstrom-of-chaos performance as the evil Ferris wheel of social dislocation named the Joker approaches us more as “villainy” than a specific villain. His performance is also, importantly, a marker for the true essence of The Dark Knight, and the crux of its move away from pure naturalism. We have thankfully moved from the idea that a film being more “realistic” is necessarily a compliment, rather than simply a fact of existence or a feature, and The Dark Knight is at its best when it exists as a parable of the modern age, or a fable, rather than a work of realism. Little about Ledger seems frightening in a naturalist way, because the film doesn’t aim for naturalism; it has much more frightening ideas about the thickets of human nature that can’t be captured in an ascetic commitment to pure realism.
Instead, Nolan adopts a tone of cataclysm, a modern end of the world fairy tale, which goes a long way toward excusing some of the film’s pressing faults. The monumentally off-kilter, somewhat formless narrative, for one, doesn’t tell a stable tale, but it works as a tale about instability. When it careens from sequence to sequence and over-indulges in sub-plot upon subplot, its very messiness becomes a calling card for its explication of a messy society (unlike its follow-up film four years later, it manages to turn this detriment into a positive).
A positive afforded and backed-up by the filmmaking, I might add. This explication of chaos wouldn’t have held-through with more streamlined, safe filmmaking, but Nolan and his crew have crafted a work that feels more like a bundle of wound-up nerves than a conventional film. The skittish, excitable editing by Lee Smith doesn’t depict the film’s copious fights with any eye for complacency or composure; instead, the film shoots from shot to counter-intuitive shot and turning the fights themselves into a sort of high-strung collection of almost abstract images colliding with one another. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, meanwhile, creates an assemblage of hard lines and claustrophobic modern industrial spaces that feels more like a nightmare about corporate modern life than a real city.
Not that these benefits fully excuse the film at the level of craft or commentary. The story, boiled down to its bare essentials, is about a carnivorous puppet master, the Joker (Ledger), turning a city to its knees, tempting billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who moonlights as the titular caped crusader, by proving that he can show that darkness will always win out over the light. His increasingly monomaniacal, Machiavellian plot pursues various avenues for doing so, but the prime fixture is the soul of Wayne’s friend Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s “White Knight” district attorney who is transformed into the schizophrenic, tormented Two-Face, another foe for Wayne/ Batman to tangle with at multiple levels. The film’s one true escape from the doldrums and limits of the superhero genre is in positioning Dent as a work of nihilist Shakespearean tragedy torn down by the excess animalism of the human condition.
An animalism that Nolan is ultimately less tethered to than the film’s defenders may posit. In the end, The Dark Knight is interested in putting the superhero genre through the wringer, but not so that it can be taken to task. Rather, the goal is that it can be saved, so that it can emerge from the ashes of previous films in the genre and rise further still. A questionable impulse, one has to admit – The Dark Knight really doesn’t tackle Batman’s soul as much as, say, Batman Begins, or even the animated fable Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a much more primal and direct tale of personal loss with more pointed knives for the superhero mythos than The Dark Knight can muster. In the end, if The Dark Knight isn’t as openly traditionalist as, say, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman, and the ideological lexicon of individualist vigilante justice against crime he represents in the American mythos, still stands supreme at the end of this dark middle chapter.
Which is why The Dark Knight, ultimately, is just a movie. Not that there is anything wrong with being a movie, for The Dark Knight is a good, and in its better days, great, movie, but it is merely a pretty good pop tragedy, not a genuine treatise on human existence, nor a cinematic manifesto. Frankly though, there’s the rub: its heightened, clearly mythopoetic, frankly allegorical textures, suggesting Joker as a perennial performance, a dissolution of self, and a cosmic id, are both the film’s strength, in its grandiloquent visual wrangles and in the moments where the film is admirably willing to argue with itself, and its weakness, specifically when (as in the deeply specious final half-hour) its hubris totally devours it. Essentially, the film’s reach always exceeds its grasp, but the question is what it is doing with its arm while reaching: bending it and contorting its reach in fascinating new directions in service of an ever-elusive destination, for the better, or simply flexing its muscles at a proverbial cinematic gun-show, for worse.
So it’s an obvious, formally-justified mess of a picture, a jumble of ideas and competing notions that suggest Nolan playing faster and looser with his ideas than usual; as none-too-secret a Nolan-antagonist, myself, I usually find his attempts to iron-out and streamline his themes overbearing. When Nolan is actually “clear”, he merely exposes how little his films actually explore their much-vaunted, grandiloquently-staged themes, and how much they merely launder their “ideas” in capital-letters and even more boldface effects. Tossing any pretense toward clarity aside, The Dark Knight works less as a narrative and more as a centrifuge, a whirling dervish of chaos. Too fast, frankly, to legitimately develop its themes, but when it stops, we notice how poorly developed they are, as in all Nolan’s films, so I for one am happy to indulge the constant spinning of this particular black circle to its own oblivion.
Still, The Dark Knight is extremely flawed, and the only psychic truth it exposes with anything resembling crystal clarity is the unstated paradox that essentially authoritarian personas – ie this film, which is at least authoritarian-adjacent in its morality – that desperately crave order are entirely smitten with chaos so long as they can moralize it and get-off on it, as this film undeniably does. There’s also the nagging and perhaps preordained truth that The Dark Knight continually emphasizes its shattering of the pop-cinema glass ceiling only to reveal the steel ceiling right above it. Despite the flaunting of its own crafty nihilism, there are simply barriers that The Dark Knight will not cross, and its constant teasing of its own courageousness is rather more pretentious and tiring than inspiring, let alone poetically exhausting. In its most banal, overstated moments, which tend to be its cleanest and most Manichean, this ultimately exposes how frightened Nolan can be of legitimately indulging and scrambling his own perspective on the world, a fear late clarified in the potentially mind-bending, modernistic Inception which was curtailed and streamlined into an empty-calorie post-modern exercise in entertaining an audience while pretentiously laminating itself in exorbitant filigrees of overbaked style. For the most part, The Dark Knight more eloquently manages its peculiar, and peculiarly arrhythmic, squishing of the down-and-dirty and high-and-mighty, the grotty and the grand, and it more viciously explores its own knots and thorns with a fearless aplomb. For this reason, despite its numerous flaws, it’s still exhilerating cinema, a thrill-ride to nowhere in particular, although in many moments the sheer bravado of the journey approximates a genuine destination worth arriving at.