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JFR FEATURE 001 | The Dark Knight (2008)

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Themed party hats and garish balloons have likely become a recurring sight at Marvel Studios this year, as they continue to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It is a singular accomplishment, made all the more impressive by the inability of their competitors to establish a viable alternative. The most egregious of these failures belongs to DC Comics, and their cinematic partners at Warner Bros. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered, with nothing but a plethora of ugly notices and the excellent Wonder Woman (2017) to show for it. The pressure to adequately rival - let alone surpass - Marvel’s achievements remains daunting, and the weight of past glories only adds to the pressure for renewed success. In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man began Marvel’s cinematic odyssey, but that same year a DC Comics movie stole all the headlines, garnered unparalleled praise and took its place as arguably the greatest comic book film of all time: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).

Ledger’s Joker was apparently a radical take on the character, rendering the man behind it unrecognisable.

Owing to the quality of Batman Begins (2005) - the first instalment in Nolan’s Batman reboot - The Dark Knight was eagerly anticipated and always likely to enjoy success. However the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who had been controversially cast to play Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker, placed instant and significant scrutiny upon the forthcoming sequel. Though Ledger had finished filming his role there were some frankly inane discussions, concerning the ethics of continuing to use a now-deceased actor as a ‘bad guy’ within a fictional presentation. Worse still was the pernicious speculation that the strain of inhabiting the Joker persona had in some way negatively contributed to the actor’s mental health, prior to his death. Director Terry Gilliam, with whom Ledger was working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) at the time of his passing, described such intrigue as ‘absolute nonsense’.  

Though Ledger’s tragic death left his family, friends, fans and fellow professionals shocked and grief-stricken, it served to pour kerosene on a burgeoning hyperbolic inferno. Heath Ledger was a surprising and not especially popular choice to play the Clown Prince of Crime. His image was that of a heartthrob, whose recent efforts to expand his dramatic repertoire still did not qualify him to portray a character once immortalised in silver by Jack Nicholson. Christopher Nolan was effusive in his praise of both Ledger’s credentials and the likely quality of his interpretation. Such bullishness was aided by the pre-release buzz surrounding the performance, which was unusually intense. Ledger’s Joker was apparently a radical take on the character, rendering the man behind it unrecognisable. ‘Mind-blowing’, was how one anonymous source described the transformation.

[Nolan] sought to introduce a real world aesthetic, featuring tangible characters in realistic environments ... There was no place for the fantastical.

In a typically sad indictment of human nature, Ledger’s sudden death magnified interest in his performance, and by extension the film itself. The aforementioned salacious tabloid rumblings certainly played their part, but people seemed almost morbidly keen to view the portrayal that had ‘pushed’ a charming, well-adjusted family man over and into the abyss. In truth though, no amount of hype could have adequately prepared you for the sight and sound of Heath Ledger’s Joker. It remains an astonishing performance, made all the more powerful by the element of surprise. Ledger is indeed unrecognisable under the scars, paint and garb of the legendary character he had sought to embody.

Ledger’s Joker toned down the comedic shenanigans and ramped up the menace. He replaced acidic posies and jack-in-the-boxes with knives and Wehrmacht machine guns. His was a dirtier Joker, with long, unkempt hair and yellowing teeth, but the classic purple colour scheme was retained (as was the suit). His chemical-soaked origins were ditched in favour of warpaint and a horrific ‘Chelsea Smile’, and instead of a persistent cackle came a warped leer, alongside a penchant for inconsistent anecdotes. It was Christopher Nolan’s stated intention to reimagine the Batman films by grounding proceedings, and removing the ‘super’ from the ‘hero’ within the comic book universe. He sought to introduce a real world aesthetic, featuring tangible characters in realistic environments. This was the core principle: everything had to legitimately function. There was no place for the fantastical.

In keeping with this, Nolan and Ledger constructed their Joker as an agent of social chaos, but with something of a theatrical flair. He is in many ways a nihilist, seeing humanity as base and beyond redemption; unworthy specimens, useful only for a game of social experimentation. He is indifferent to killing, viewing his murders as neither justified nor expressly wrong, and he will necessarily target anyone, be they adult, child, ally or complete stranger.

‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’.

Christian Bale’s brooding, ultra-intense Batman - silly voice and all - is a redemptive force for justice and order; imbued with a desire to both protect and demonstrate the inherent decency of the people of Gotham. This attracts the interest of the Joker who, as an instrument of social disorder, embraces Batman as the yin to his philosophical yang. They are polar opposites, yet kindred. Bale’s Batman, despite being intelligent, resourceful and determined, remains almost pigheadedly ignorant as to the motivations of his new enemy. It is left to the enduring Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth - Batman’s ever-present (and perfectly realised) butler and confidante -  to explain to his befuddled master that far from seeking earthly gains, ‘some people just want to watch the world burn’.

The Dark Knight is ultimately a war for the soul of Harvey Dent. Christopher Nolan masterfully repurposes the Two-Face persona, using it as the culmination of Dent’s calamitous journey. Aaron Eckhart delivers a career-best performance as the virtuous-but-doomed District Attorney. Eckhart’s Matinée idol countenance is literally bifurcated by an explosion which also kills Rachel Dawes (played with the minimum of fuss by Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love of both his and Bruce Wayne’s life. This is the catalyst for his fall. Two-Face has nothing left to lose: determined to murderously avenge himself against all those who played any part in Rachel’s death. After completing his initial killing spree, he seeks finally to punish his former friend, Commissioner Jim Gordon (played by an understated and sympathetic Gary Oldman), for failing to prevent Rachel’s death. Dent is set on his murderous course by the Joker, who having orchestrated the explosion that rendered death and disfigurement, ministers to his misery, in the manner of a twisted bedside confessional.

Harvey Dent, now in possession of his explosion-scarred ‘lucky charm’ coin (returned to him by Batman) and a gun (presented to him by Joker) faces Rachel’s murderer, who neither denies nor attempts to defend his actions, merely describing them as ‘nothing personal’. He encourages Two-Face to ‘introduce a little anarchy’, before pointing the gun at his own head and offering Harvey his life, based purely on the fateful whims of a coin toss. Dent heeds the lesson, using the unbiased brutality of chance as judge, jury and executioner of his various victims. Owing to their shared grief, Batman can actually understand and even manipulate Two-Face, and it is he who persuades Harvey to hold them both violently responsible for Rachel’s death. When the time comes, and accepting his own role in her demise, Two-Face turns the gun on himself, and is spared purely by the whims of chance.

For a genre film of this type, its tonal and thematic sophistication remains the pinnacle of the form.

The Dark Knight’s Bat and Clown are both true believers, and possess the strength of their convictions. The difference is Batman cannot comprehend his enemy’s will, and repeatedly underestimates him. Joker doesn’t make the same mistake, and plays his noble adversary like a Stradivarius. Joker realises Batman is incorruptible, but expressly governed by unbreakable rules, so he exploits this truth by seeking to destroy the fallible and imperfect Harvey Dent. At no point does Batman truly understand the Joker, and as a consequence he fails to see what is coming. Even when Batman seems victorious, having just witnessed the lingering decency of the people of Gotham City (and with Joker literally dangling at his mercy), the game isn’t over. Harvey is the trump card. As both the burnt coin and the loaded gun are intended to symbolise, the fall of Harvey Dent - and the resultant birth of Two-Face - is the result of one man’s utter failure and another’s dreadful victory. The price Batman pays is in taking the blame for Dent’s crimes, and then necessarily ceasing to exist. So, although Joker loses the battle (being deprived of his freedom) he still wins the war.   

The Dark Knight is a completely stunning motion picture. No comic book film had ever attempted to undertake such a complex study of the motivations (and consequences) of heroism and villainy, and for a genre film of this type, its tonal and thematic sophistication remains the pinnacle of the form. The film hasn’t aged a day in ten years, remaining a pulse-pounding exhibition of ballsy and comprehensively creative filmmaking. Whilst this writer has elected to discuss some of the thematic and philosophical aspects of the film - alongside the pop culture phenomenon that is Heath Ledger’s performance - it must be noted that the film is equally a visual and cinematic experience of the highest order, and every single featured performer either lives up to their established reputation, or exceeds it. In the wake of his death and subsequent nomination, it was somewhat inevitable that Heath Ledger would posthumously win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. All the same though, the nomination was richly deserved, and The Dark Knight remains the only comic book film to have claimed an Oscar in the acting categories.

The sheer spectacle of the previous scenes had deprived me of both oxygen and my senses.

I vividly recall the first time I watched the The Dark Knight. I was sat in a packed cinema in the middle of New York City. My friend and I were sat right at the front, and all around us the aisles were crammed with people who’d willingly paid to stand, all so they could watch the film. I particularly remember the culmination of the escape from - of all places - the Major Crimes Unit (MCU). As Heath Ledger’s Joker sticks his head out of the window of a stolen police car, and drinks in the noise and triumph, I took a sharp intake of breath. Like the final deathly lurch of a rollercoaster, the sheer spectacle of the previous scenes had deprived me of both oxygen and my senses. I have never forgotten that sensation, and I never will. It was sincere and powerful; The Dark Knight encapsulated.

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