The first time we see Batman in “The Dark Knight,” the second and greatest chapter of Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy, he isn’t really Batman. He’s an impostor, one of several copycat vigilantes who have sprung up in the wake of the Caped Crusader’s astonishing purge of Gotham City’s mean streets. Bruce Wayne (played to coolly brooding perfection by Christian Bale) may have once hoped that his masked alter ego would be a radical symbol of goodness, but now he must confront the uglier side of Batman’s legacy: a bunch of cheap, violent knockoffs.
Did Nolan guess that “The Dark Knight” would inspire its own legions of inferior imitators? He probably did, not that it diminishes the impact of his achievement a decade later, much less the thrill of seeing it back on the big screen where it belongs. (The film begins playing Imax engagements Friday.) Even those of us who loved the movie when we first saw it — to say nothing of the many who loathed it — could have guessed that its enormous success would come at a troubling price.
Accelerating from the origin-story psychodrama of 2005’s “Batman Begins” into a seething, panoramic vision of a modern American metropolis, “The Dark Knight” earned breathless raves and shattered box-office records. It turned Nolan into Hollywood’s reigning blockbuster auteur and dominated the zeitgeist in a way that movie studios and their deep-pocketed superhero divisions have been trying to duplicate ever since.
It did more than its part to promote the commercial tyranny of the comic-book superhero, to the enrichment of studio coffers and the detriment of a vibrant and imaginative moviegoing culture. (Specifically, the lessons that some filmmakers drew from “The Dark Knight” were exactly the wrong ones, mistaking intelligence and gravity for self-seriousness, and leading directly to the fun-free inanity of subsequent Warner Bros./DC Comics efforts like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)
In the figure of the Joker, Heath Ledger gave us a master class in screen villainy — think Iago on bath salts — that would have been destined for the pantheon even if it hadn’t earned the actor a posthumous Academy Award. At the same time, “The Dark Knight’s” omission from that year’s best picture Oscar race sent ripples of anger and anxiety through the industry, triggering an institutional crisis that the motion picture academy is still trying to resolve (most recently by introducing a widely derided “best achievement in popular film” category).
If Nolan’s movie blurred the distinctions between art and entertainment in a way that few have managed, it also collapsed boundaries within the realm of critical discourse, and not for the better. The cult of the fanboy was on the rise before 2008, but there was something about the hideous volume of online abuse that greeted critics of “The Dark Knight” — and of its 2012 sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises” — that achieved unprecedented levels of malice. That hateful phenomenon has only worsened since: Critics now file their reviews of superhero movies knowing full well that death threats may await (especially if those critics happen to be women).
Many of these developments have been dispiriting, but few have been surprising. When something stands out as boldly on the horizon as “The Dark Knight,” there is an excellent chance that it will bring imitators, trolls and jokers out of the woodwork, destabilizing the culture to such an extent that some will begin to regret the existence of that original something to begin with.
This is not just some abstract lesson we can glean from the success of “The Dark Knight.” It’s practically a plot summary.
Nolan is the great proceduralist of 21st century blockbuster filmmaking, a lover of nuts-and-bolts minutiae. With “The Dark Knight,” he fashioned the most intricately Newtonian of superhero movies, a neo-noir narrative in which every action is shown to have an equal counter-reaction. Its story has the arc of a pendulum swinging wildly between good and evil: Think of the prescient words of the doomed Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s golden-boy district attorney, when he declares, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
By movie’s end, that prophecy will be cruelly fulfilled for Harvey and Bruce, a.k.a. Two-Face and Batman, the white knight and the dark one bound together in a battle for the city’s soul — and also for the assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman they both love. Along the way, every one of Batman’s expectations — that he might be an emblem of hope and righteousness, and that Dent might take his place — will blow up spectacularly in his masked face.
The Joker’s crime spree, which seems both ingeniously calculated and maniacally improvised, turns Gotham into a hell on earth. The city’s brightest hopes become its darkest disappointments. Ostensibly decent people are made to do horrible things for the sake of their own self-interest. Judges, commissioners and police officers are senselessly slaughtered, and those agents of law and order who survive are shown to be infested with moral rot.
And that moral rot must be confronted, one way or another. As the Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri wrote in his brilliant recent analysis of “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s movie is “perhaps the most powerful exploration of guilt the modern American blockbuster has given us.” Batman sacrifices himself at the movie’s climax — it’s he who takes Dent’s place, not the other way around — in an attempt not only to expiate his own guilt, but also to assume the sins of the entire city.
If guilt is the movie’s central theme, its structuring motif is chaos — and here, I imagine, is where the movie’s detractors might nod in agreement. Even when they aren’t violating the dictates of time (“Memento”) and dimensional reality (“Inception,” “Interstellar”), Nolan’s films confound traditional expectations of coherence. Despite his astonishing eye for composition — you could get swallowed up in those jaw-dropping Imax vistas — directing action has never been his forte. His big set pieces are often deliberately splintered, resisting the spatial clarity and fluidity you get in the hands of a natural like George Miller, Kathryn Bigelow or Gareth Evans.
Nolan fragments narrative just as aggressively, though to far greater purpose. “The Dark Knight” doesn’t just dramatize chaos, it revels in it. Watching it is like being led through a shadowy labyrinth where you are repeatedly shoved through trapdoors and assaulted from behind by jackknife twists and turns. What makes this disorientation thrilling as well as terrifying is that the narrative itself begins to feel warped into the Joker’s demonic image. It’s as if Nolan had somehow managed to capture the essence of criminal anarchy in narrative form.
But the longer you watch, the more you see the method in the Joker’s madness, how strategically he subverts the traditional binary of good versus evil. “The Dark Knight” abounds in strange, troubling dualities. Two crooks who once served the same boss are forced to turn on each other like gladiators in the arena. Two attorneys are marked for death, only one of whom will be rescued in time. Two boats in the harbor are rigged with explosives, each given the chance to blow up the other. Who should live and who should die? Either way, you choose, you lose.
Outside an undergraduate course on game theory, does this story sound familiar — a tale of two sides pitted against each other, each fooled into thinking only one of them can survive? It’s a conflict that has recurred and reverberated through generations of our body politic, a nation often immobilized by fear and self-preservation, and prone to lash out at the easiest, most vulnerable targets.
The politics of “The Dark Knight” have long been debated to death: With its grim, post-9/11 vision of a city grappling with terrorism, corruption and the rise of the surveillance state, the movie was received by many as an unmistakable product (and stealth endorsement) of George W. Bush’s presidency. Ten years later, liberals who already denounced it as a twisted libertarian fantasy, or the product of a brutally fascist aesthetic, would have little trouble updating those arguments.
I myself have little interest in feeding Nolan’s movie through a contemporary partisan filter, and not just because neither the mentally unhinged terrorist nor the maverick billionaire hero strikes me as a sufficiently Trumpian figure.
“The Dark Knight” will outlive the traumas of the present, and it will surely have much to say about the challenges of the future. As Hollywood continues to draw pointless battle lines between art and entertainment, the movie will also stand as a bold reminder that great popular filmmaking is also the work of an intensely personal vision.