When Batman Begins premiered in 2005, it marked a departure from the hokey Caped Crusader films that had come to typify the cinematic version of one of the most famous comic book heroes of all time. When Michael Keaton stopped filling the role after 1992’s Batman Returns, the movies about the title character increasingly became cartoonish and silly. Michael Keaton’s first Batman (1989) is a classic, and signaled a more serious take on the character. Post 1992, it seems like someone at the studio said, hey, remember the old television Batman (1966-1968) starring Adam West? Why do we not do movies more like those episodes because, you know, people liked them, right? I liked them, too . . . when they were played as reruns in the middle of the day when I was five. Go back and try and watch them today and you will wonder what people were thinking in the 1960s. Oh, wait, I remember now: drugs. Looping back to Batman Begins, they could not let this potential money cow stay out to pasture after the debacle that was Batman & Robin (1997), hence we get the 2005 iteration. With its dark tones and realistic violence, it brought the Caped Crusader into the modern era. And then came The Dark Knight (2008).
In The Dark Knight, we begin with Batman’s (Christian Bale) archnemesis, the Joker (Heath Ledger). Actually, we do not know it is him right away. Instead, we see a group of criminals adorned with clown masks robbing a bank controlled by Gotham City’s mafia. After a brief shoot out, and a lot of double-crossing between the pack of thieves, the Joker reveals himself and merges his getaway school bus with a line of identical vehicles passing by just as the cops arrive. During the investigation, Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is called to the scene, where Batman eventually shows up to look into the matter as well. Lieutenant Gordon shows Batman the Joker’s calling card, but Batman sees him as small beer compared to the overall mission of bringing down organized crime in the city. Separately, Lieutenant Gordon approaches the up and coming, idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) for help in the fight against the mob. Between Batman, Harvey Dent, and Lieutenant Gordon, neither of them trusts each other. Batman is notorious for working alone, Harvey believes almost every cop to be crooked, but Lieutenant Gordon sees an opportunity for them all to work together. In order to get a better gauge of Harvey Dent as a man, Batman, in his real-life persona Bruce Wayne, arranges to meet-up with Harvey. Harvey is out to dinner with Bruce’s ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Since Bruce owns the restaurant in which they are eating, he arranges for their table to be put side-by-side despite the crowdedness. During their tete-a-tete, Bruce decides the district attorney is exactly what Gotham needs, and pledges to back Harvey with whatever he needs to continue his fight. As these alliances are being solidified, the Joker makes his overtures to the crime families of Gotham. He points out that they have all become scared since Batman began battling crime, and that the Joker is now there to restore the proper criminal order. Essentially, it is a major power-play. At the moment, the key to the mob’s hold on the city is a Chinese businessman named Lau (Chin Han). He is basically their accountant, and he holds all their secrets. Harvey and Lieutenant Gordon are aware of Lau’s influence as well, and they ask Batman to travel to China to bring Lau back to America to face justice. When this is accomplished and Lau is interrogated, they realize they can charge the entire Gotham City mob at once. Yet, before they can make their case, the Joker intervenes. One of his first moves is to use corrupt cops to murder the judge assigned to the case. Next, he arranges to be arrested. This way he cannot be held completely responsible for what comes next: the kidnapping of Harvey and Rachel. After Batman beats their location out of the villain, Batman heads for what he thinks is Rachel while Lieutenant Gordon sends the police after Harvey. As it turns out, the locations were switched by the Joker, and Batman ends up rescuing a disgruntled Harvey, though not without the lawyer suffering gruesome burns to half of his face when several fuel barrels are detonated. While Harvey recuperates in the hospital, he is visited by the Joker. With Rachel dying in the explosion the police were too late to prevent, Harvey reacts with disgust until the Joker explains how he had been in jail at the time of the tragic incident. Instead, the criminal explains to the district attorney that the only true justice is what you can get personally, and hands Harvey a gun. From there, the Joker places a group of prisoners and a group of common citizens on separate boats rigged with explosives, telling them they have until midnight to blow each other up unless Batman reveals himself. Batman, with the help of Wayne Enterprises chief executive officer (CEO) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), tracks down the Joker’s location before any damage can be done. Unfortunately, Harvey takes the now Police Commissioner Gordon’s family hostage, blaming him for Rachel’s death. Harvey is killed accidentally by Batman as he tries to save the lives of Commissioner Gordon and his family, leading to the blame for recent events being placed on him. Yet, he does so because he and Commissioner Gordon know the truth, and he can take being made into a pariah.
People watch The Dark Knight for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. The Batman stuff is pretty cool, too, though most cannot understand why he must talk as he does throughout Christopher Nolan’s Caped Crusader trilogy. Further, familiarity with the character means that people basically know what to expect from Batman. While one can make the argument that the Joker is equally recognizable, not all Batman movies feature the classic villain. The last time we saw him on the big screen, it was with Jack Nicholson playing the part in his over-the-top caricature in the 1989 Batman. The Dark Knight’s Joker is much more of a psychopath, which is in keeping with the tone of the film. At the same time, I worry about the toll playing this role has taken on the last two actors. In my review of Joker (2019), I noted Joaquin Phoenix’s uncomfortableness with getting so deep into a character that seems to enjoy chaos for the sake of chaos. That is the Joker’s motivation in The Dark Knight, and before Heath Ledger died just prior to the film’s release, it was reported that he was getting only two hours of sleep a night, the result of the role working on his mind. There is also evidence that people knew about this going into the film, and it fueled people’s fascination with the character. This is a troubling part of the nature of modern society that I do not think you have to be a practicing Catholic like me to be concerned.
One of the things that I admire about Batman, and it is underscored well in The Dark Knight, is his commitment to doing the right thing at any cost. The Joker puts it more succinctly at one point when he remarks on how absolutely incorruptible is Batman. Bruce Wayne took on the persona of the Caped Crusader because he saw that there were bad men doing evil, and there was no one to stand up to them. It is a bit like what Judas Maccabeus does in those books of Maccabees that our Protestant brethren like to not include in the Bible. Granted, Judas Maccabeus inspired a society-wide revolt against Greek rule in Palestine, while Batman is one guy in a rubber suit fighting crime. Still, Bruce Wayne’s hope was to stand as a symbol for good that would lead others to the right path to the point when there would no longer need to be a Batman. He did have selfish reasons for wanting this day to come because he thought Rachel would then be willing to be with him. While this turns out to not be the case (due to a strange misunderstanding that seems the weakest part of the movie), particularly when she dies, it all works for Bruce to realize that Batman can be more. Sometimes, society gets it wrong, but he needs to continue to do the right thing even when they all turn against him. In other words, he has faith in something bigger than himself. Faith in God works in this manner, and it is the best armor you can have against the slings and arrows of others.
As previously mentioned, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is worth the price of admission. He works as a perfect foil for Batman, and for the rest of us in terms of what can happen to society if we give in to our baser instincts. While we may not have our own Caped Crusader, we do have Faith to keep us on the right path. Watching a movie like this helps us to conceptualize the alternative, and thus avoid it. It is just unfortunate what happened to Heath Ledger.