The Dark Knight (2008) is the best of the Batman films and maybe the best film in general based on a comic book hero. Dark, brooding, and suffused with repressed energy that breaks out at predictable and unpredictable moments, the film is exciting and disturbing. It is disturbing in its refusal to adopt pure moral positions and in its insistence on portraying a world where good and evil are confusingly and increasingly intertwined, where truth and fiction cancel one another out.
The Dark Knight is clearly a post-September 11 statement. The Joker in this film is the agent of chaos, anarchy. He repeatedly insists that he has only one purpose—to cause chaos. He does that effectively. His misdeeds increase and multiply. A corps of supporters and assistants out there in Gotham City aid him in his evil doings, and as the film progresses the crises he causes deepen and darken. There is a moment in the film when, after things at last seemed under control, all hell breaks loose, and we see for an instant a panic-stricken look on Commissioner Gordon's face. All the institutions of government are failing, breaking down. His cold rational commitment to law and order is challenged to an extreme he has never experienced. This moment reminded me, emotionally, of that day when the towers fell in New York, when as things seem to have descended to a profound nadir they kept getting even worse. These moments in the film were actually frightening.
Another post 9-11 reference comes in a surveillance system that Batman's colleague Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) develops to allow him to listen in on the words and doings of every inhabitant in Gotham. The system, which exploits cell phone networks, is so insidious that Fox vows to resign when he finishes designing it. This is, of course, an implied reference to the Homeland Security Act of the Bush administration. It is also a sign of how Batman's obsession with defeating the Joker has led him to compromise fundamental principles.
The film ends with an agreement between Commissioner Gordon and Batman that the citizens of Gotham need to be protected from the truth of what happened to the young district attorney who had vowed to purge crime from the streets of the city. The truth would be too dark, Batman insists, and the citizens need someone to believe in, as well as someone to hold up as a villain. This agreement reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where Marlow protects Kurtz's Intended from the truth of how he died by telling her that his dying words were her name. (There is a Kurtz-like character in the film who is wholly corrupted by how the Joker preys on his pride and ambition). It reminded me as well of Freud's observation in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization is a network of laws and restraints that protect humanity from its essential savagery. Ironically, a certain truth is withheld from Batman at a crucial moment in the film.
Heath Ledger is excellent as the Joker. One can imagine, and be tempted to believe, that the power of the character he was playing lured him into madness and drug abuse, leading to his death from an overdose of prescription medicine. I don't believe that, but whatever demons he may have been wrestling with energize his performance. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how the Joker keeps insisting to Batman, to the new district attorney, and to others that they all have much in common, that they all are alike. The film insists on a fundamental moral ambiguity in all human beings, a state of perpetual compromise.
As the Joker in the 1983 film Batman Jack Nicholson improvised on the role played by Caesar Romero in the 1960s Batman television series. Nicholson was excellent, but his character was never more than a comic book parody. Ledger gives the Joker depth and three-dimensionality without ever really hinting at the events that made the Joker what he became. In his ability to prey on the deepest psychological vulnerabilities of his opponents and victims, Ledger's Joker is more the descendent of Hannibal Lecter than of any character in the comic book series.
The Dark Knight is not perfect, by any means. For me, the sudden emergence late in the film of a second arch-villain is a weakness and a flaw. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman is effective, but he growl too often when in costume. His flickering romance with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is confusing and frustrating. It is also not a film with a happy ending—this is not a weakness.
The Dark Knight offers some wonderful visually operatic moments. Better than any of its predecessors (and some of them were successful on their own terms), it illuminates and inhabits and magnifies the mythology of the hero it brings to life. Director Christopher Nolan, both in this film and its predecessor Batman Begins (2005), brings true vision and power to his subject.