Original Image via Hollywood Reporter/ Edit by Dalan Overstreet
As a 20-something, it is hard to reconcile with the fact 2008 was 10 years ago. I’ve been reflecting on that Summer lately. I was somehow more solitary than I am now, plotting on starting an art portfolio before my senior year of High School. Basketball was huge with me, still holding on to futile hoop dreams and watching the USA Basketball Team rectify what was an abysmal showing in Greece during the previous Olympic Games. There was also a little film released that July by a guy named Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight.
Fast forward to 2018 and The Dark Knight has evolved from one of 2008’s biggest films to certified pop culture classic. The way people my age view it is similar to the manner our parents see Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Since its release we have seen reboots of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, a revamp of the X-Men franchise and both Marvel and DC launch entire Cinematic Universes. Yet, The Dark Knight still has the same resonance with viewers it has always enjoyed, but why? It’s largely due to the film’s villain.
I still remember when Heath Ledger was cast in the role. The reception wasn’t kind, many believing he lacked the “gravity” and “mentality”. I think geeks miss the point of acting as a profession at times. It turned out to be a perfect match of actor and role. Ledger’s performance was the perfect blend of psychotic, humorous and coldly calculating.
Still, and not to excuse the visceral reactions from the Nerd Community, but just about any casting would’ve produced vitriol. The Joker has a place with Darth Vader, Voldermort and Hannibal Lecter among the best villains in Western Canon. As with many DC characters created in the Golden Age of Comics, the Joker embodies an idea. As Superman represents Hope and Wonder Woman represents Truth, the Joker is Chaos personified, meant to be the antithesis of Batman’s greater idea of Order.
The conflict between Batman and the Joker has always been philosophical. Both were set on their course by personal tragedies, Batman with the murder of his parents and the Joker when his wife died and was forced into committing crime as the Red Hood ( At least in The Killing Joke, as close as an answer we’ve gotten). Their reactions to personal tragedy were polar opposites. Batman’s belief in social order were reinforced, possibly due to that belief being instilled in him by his parents. The Joker snapped and completely abandoned any belief in social order or morality. In that moment he became an anarchist and nihilist, believing everyone was only “one bad day” from abandoning any ethical code.
The center of these competing outlooks in The Dark Knight is Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham. In the film, Bruce Wayne contemplates what it would take to hang up his mantle, with the main objective of starting a life with Rachel Dawes. The city will always need a protector, someone above the corrupting forces of Gotham. Dent had a sterling reputation, earning the nickname, “The White Knight”. He sees that in Dent, stating he is the symbol of hope that he (Batman) could never be. He was a man beloved by the city of Gotham and was its official symbol of Law.
On the other side of the coin (no pun intended), the Joker’s goal was anarchy. His sole motivation was destroying our ideas of civil society, by way of killing judges, blowing up hospitals and setting fire to a literal pile of money. The most egregious of these ideas, though, were Dent and Batman. The idea of men above corrupting influences and emissaries of our societal contract, had to be destroyed. The Joker attacked what is most important to both: Rachel and reputation.
The Joker began to dismantle the unbridled image of Dent and the facade of Batman. He murdered police, criminals and citizens alike. With their sense of safety now threatened, The citizens turn on Batman. Gotham was no longer content with a masked savior, and Dent dealt with the fallout.
Then there was Rachel. Both Bruce and Harvey were outspoken with their feelings for her throughout the film. After abducting both Dent and Dawes, Joker forced Batman to choose which person he would save. Of course he chose to save Rachel, but was misdirected to Dent’s location and she died. The entire point was to see how both men would respond to such tragedy.
After Rachel’s death, Harvey spirals out of control. He not only spirals out of control, he willfully forfeits control. For the remainder of the film, Harvey is searching for justice for Rachel’s death, killing three people in pursuit of that justice. He has given into the chaotic nature of life, relying on chance to determine whether or not he takes a life. The Joker has won…or has he?
Batman endured the same tragedies and losses as Harvey Dent. Yes, there’s Harvey’s face, but it was made clear that Dent was unfazed by the injury and it wasn’t his motivation. The image of Batman was tarnished and he was unable to save the love of his life. Yet, Batman didn’t give into baser urges of vengeance.
Bruce Wayne’s actions and reactions were more nuanced than Dent’s. He committed some acts that many would say were unethical, including using all phones in Gotham as radar devices and lying about the nature of Dent’s final hours. It was, though, in pursuit of Harvey’s goals from the first two-thirds of the movie, reaffirming his commitment to a code. Batman bent, but he didn’t break.
This is what makes the conflict between Batman and the Joker so longstanding. Both characters could have killed the other at various points, but it is a matter of conviction. If Batman were to kill the Joker, preemptively sparing the World of his machinations, he would compromise his moral code. The Joker could kill Batman and effectively run Gotham, but to do so would be to kill a man that died without being corrupted. In this, to kill your enemy would be to admit defeat.
The conflict between these two characters is what made this film so timely in 2008. In this post-9/11 age the question the World has struggled with the question of Freedom vs. Security. Would it be acceptable for those in power to use our phones without consent to map our locations if it meant stopping terrorist threats? Is it okay to hold a false idea if that idea led to lasting peace?
It is also what makes The Dark Knight so timeless. I hope this doesn’t sound too corny, but this conflict exists within all of us. We have all faced a conflict or suffered a loss that challenged our morality. Sometimes we give in and sometimes with remain steady, with each of those choices changing us slightly. Whatever we choose to do in those moments, we know that it isn’t the end and we’ll be at the same crossroad again. One might say we’re destined to do this forever.