Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"The Dark Knight"

(Be warned: spoilers will be revealed)

The following Bible verse, from Jeremiah 17, kept coming to mind as I watched The Dark Knight, last weekend's record-breaking #1 movie ---

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
Who can, indeed. Batman Begins examined the nature of the heart, especially in regards to justice and redemption. You will remember that Henri Ducard (revealed to actually be Ra's al Ghul) and his League of Shadows came to Gotham seeking to destroy it because, as Ra's Al Ghul's decoy told Bruce Wayne, "Gotham's time has come... it is beyond saving and must be allowed to die." Gotham has housed too many criminals over the years, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrha. Ducard saw himself as God without the hassle of having to haggle with Abraham over how many good souls were left in the city. Everyone, good and bad, would pay.

The Joker of Dark Knight, exceptionally well played by the late Heath Ledger, sees justice as only a thin veneer layered over chaos. The Joker says that he is himself "an agent of chaos." People only need a little push to exit the light and enter darkness, and he's the perfect man to do the pushing. I think history will show Ledger's Joker to be one of the most memorable villains of the cinema. I would put him on par with Dr. Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs, except that the Joker is even more villainous. Lecter may have been prone to cannibalism, but at least he had some standards by eating only rude, offensive people. The Joker wants the whole world to burn.

The Joker succeeds in pushing Harvey Dent, a "white knight" of a district attorney, into the darkness. Dent begins the movie as a man on mission to bring down Gotham's mob members. He's not a perfect knight, though. When he catches one of Joker's fiends in an assassination attempt, Dent comes awfully close to pulling the trigger. Batman arrives and chides Dent for behaving in such a manner. Dent seems to recover from this episode but then goes on to lose something of extreme value to him - something more than merely half his face - and he decides "the only justice in an unfair world is chance."

Speaking of Two-Face, whom we see in all his glory in the film's final act, I was struck by how different his story is from that of the character in 1995's Batman Forever. In that film, Tommy Lee Jones plays a good man who becomes an insane criminal after acid is thrown on his face. Actually, we only see his transformation in an extremely brief flashback - at the start of Forever, Dent is already a Two-Face who desires to kill Batman. The Two-Face of Dark Knight, following a horrific experience, essentially chooses to become a vigilante. Both characters share the same idea that the random toss is the only true form of justice, but they are different in a fundamental and important way.

I think it's fantastic that Gary Oldman is playing more noble characters these days. It's almost as if he has had enough of playing evil people like vampires (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and terrorists (Air Force One). He plays the bad guy effectively - I especially like him in this film - but I think his "good" characters like James Gordon and Sirius Black of the Harry Potter films are even more compelling.

I don't think a movie based on comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) characters has addressed so many important issues as The Dark Knight. This is nervy and penetrating stuff that keeps you thinking after you've left the darkness of the theater. White knights versus dark knights. Order versus chaos. Redemption versus destruction. Justice versus revenge. Truth versus lies.

The kind of issues that cut us straight to the heart. If only we could know it better.

For more on the film and the issues it raises, visit some of these links:

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