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The second film in director Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, The Dark Knight is often considered the best in the three-part series, mostly due to the casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker, a figure of such great menace and intrigue, he nearly overshadowed Christian Bale‘s Batman. The story is rather simple, with The Joker planning on destruction, but it’s not about that really. This is about characters and their journeys, as is typical with Nolan. Aside from the two leads, there is the introduction of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the headstrong District Attorney out to clean up the street who will meet his own fate at the hands of The Joker, an event that will shape his own villainy.
The film is richly layered and challenges audiences to think about what is good versus what is right, while these deeply drawn characters combat each other with increasing ferocity. Comic book adaptations are inherently a good fit for film but few rarely do it right, thinking all it takes is the right look, but Nolan understands the humanity behind the figures and creates a universe unlike any before or since, setting a standard for the genre yet to be duplicated.
The Joker is a relatively new guy on the block but he’s making big impressions and after initial resistance by mob bosses, his offer to take out Batman in exchange for half their money is accepted. Now all he has to do is follow through. When Harvey Dent publicly takes credit for begin Batman, he gets thrust into protective custody and marked by Joker for assassination. As Dent is being transported in an armored car, The Joker and his goons attack, using RPG’s and submachine gun fire. They follow in an unmarked semi truck and Batman is right behind in his Tumbler, itself a massive armored vehicle. But, when the Tumbler takes a hit from an RPG, it shuts down, forcing Batman to eject in a two-wheel motorcycle-like bike that speeds up to the semi in pursuit, eventually stringing up a cable that, when struck by the truck, completely upends it, flipping it straight up and over onto its back.
The Joker survives and manages to climb out, gripping his machine gun, his body roughed up and his adrenaline pumping. At the end of the street, Batman swings around and races back to the mangled truck and his target, all the while, The Joker scattering gunfire at approaching cars, clearing a path for Batman, taunting the Dark Knight to ‘come on’ and ‘hit me.’ As Batman gains, and it’s clear what The Joker wants, he screams with indecision and at the last second jerks the steering and skids past The Joker and straight into the truck wreckage, knocking himself out. Joker’s henchman leap onto his body and try to unmask the downed man, but an electrified current sends one goon flying, much to Joker’s delight. At last his turn, he takes out a switchblade and seems ready to cut open the mask when a rifle barrel enters the frame and jams into his head. Commissioner Gordon, thought dead, is on the scene and we realize it was all a trap.
Madness. This is the underlying tone behind everything The Joker seems to do, but naturally there is much more. The character is unhinged, expressly devoted to anarchy and chaos, and he revels in spreading it. It feeds him and his need to rule a reign of terror in those names is not just necessary for him, it’s addictive, a fever that courses through him with savage results, his own followers, themselves unbalanced, are expendable. And, as he realizes here, also himself.
The chase is one thing for The Joker, but it’s the toying he much prefers, as demonstrated numerous times before. He is a theatrical man, the flare for the performance as important as the outcome, though the outcome, as long as its decidedly out of control, is best.
Up to this point, we’ve seen The Joker display a growing breakdown of sorts. His introduction as the start of the film saw him overseeing a bank heist, where one by one his own henchmen were taking each other out, a clue to the incredible manipulative powers he has over the weak. Yet, despite the clearly unstable man he appeared to be, he was organized and on plan. There was a tinge of imbalance but one still maintained. A bit later, when he crashes the mob bosses meeting, he displays a surprising disregard for authority and respect, even murdering one of the lesser men as a gesture of his power. He gets attention. He even recites a little exposition behind his facial scars.
Then we get to a party hosted by Bruce Wayne, it also crashed by The Joker, and we see he’s slipping a bit more into darkness, especially with a larger crowd in attendance. He meets Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a one-time lover of Wayne’s a current girlfriend of Harvey Dent. The Joker is smitten, as much as The Joker can be, and again, brandishing a knife, tells a tale about his scars, but this time it is different, and we learn just how unreliable the man is. This is key in defining the character, more interested in the performance and its impact than in the results.
The Joker sees the Batman as his reflection, that they are a destined pair, one created by the other and locked in an eternal struggle. He senses a bond with the figure in black, a man hiding for similar reasons but bound by a different set of rules. Yet Batman has remained in the peripheral, a shadow he cannot grapple into his net. With all efforts, the Dark Knight is never within grasp, always leaving The Joker unsatisfied.
In a man where disorder lies the only salvation, the failure to destroy the only thing of value he sees worthy of his energy leaves him scattered. On the streets, chasing one Batman but finding another, his truck flipped and his plan falling into disarray (both a problem and a powerful stimulant), he is recognizing just how equal the Dark Knight is to himself. And more so, how important it is they come together. That is the thing now, not a confrontation but a collision, like celestial bodies in a cosmic eruption, a long slow dance of deathly destruction. Hunched on the road, steadfastly holding his feet to the street, he fires his gun not at his nemesis, but at those in his way. He welcomes the speeding impact and perhaps an end to the reign.
This moment is crucial in establishing just how far The Joker has devolved. It creates the final persona for the third act, a character now willing to do and be anything to see the end of his schemes come to fruition. The remarkable thing is just how much this moment matters in revealing how desperate The Joker is to see his own end at the hands of the only one who he feels is fit to do so. With his elaborate plan in works behind the scenes involving Dent and Dawes that we won’t see until later when The Joker is interrogated by Batman at police headquarters, it’s a testament to his commitment. But what if Batman had actually struck him? Had destroyed him on the street? What then? The misshapen figure of The Joker is as much on the inside as out, and his tragedy and sense of incompleteness is made all the more impactful by his longing for Batman to destroy him. That would be the ultimate chaos, right? The unfinished work lying in wait, with no one there to direct them but their effect long lasting. Perhaps that is The Joker’s greatest wish.
Jonathan Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan(screenplay)
Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal