Reviewed by David Levinson

IN The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan’s second outing at the helm of the Batman franchise – the caped crusader may sport a fetishist’s dream of high-tech, tailor-made weaponry, but nothing unleashed on Gotham’s crime populace proves more alluring than the film’s grim publicity-hook: Namely, the fact that it marks the final complete performance by once-rising star Heath Ledger, whose career was tragically cut short by a sleeping pill overdose on completion of filming.

As Hollywood lore, Ledger’s death arrives at the perfect nexus between youth, talent, and an acting resumé marked by a handful of strategic, eye-catching performances; consequently, his ascent to legend has become a question of inference – a looming “what if?” that plays neatly into our craving for young lifestyle-victims who burn with unfulfilled talent. What’s more – given its timing – it would be impossible to assert that the tragedy didn’t weigh over The Dark Knight: Reportedly taxed (both physically and psychologically) by his role in the film, it’s as if the actor disappeared down the rabbit-hole of The Joker, leaving us no recourse to the goofy heartthrob of yore. Trying to judge his performance – outside the bullying influence of fanboys and tabloid frenzy – has thus become a difficult task; yet for those (myself included) who felt short-changed, the problem might not lie so much in Ledger, as it does in Nolan’s character design – marking the one weak point in an otherwise immaculately crafted blockbuster.

In contrast to the sleek metropolis he wreaks havoc on, The Joker is an avatar of decay: Eternally hunched over – his make-up a Francis Bacon-like smear, his hair soaked through with grease and dye – he quickly buries any memory of Nicholson’s colourful dandy. Despite his billboard-iconicity, however, Nolan playfully diverts his unveiling, smuggling him into the film as one of a team of thugs who pull off the opening bank robbery; upon fulfilling a task, each goon is disposed of by the next-in-line, forming a bread-crumb-trail of violence that leads directly back to Ledger. On the whole, there’s a sly triumph to his unveiling – an emboldening of his myth, even as he moves from off screen utterance to concrete villain. What’s more, the scene proves to be the inverse of one in which Batman – out to thwart the Scarecrow – alights upon a faction of copycats decked out in home-made Batsuits; as an inauguration of the hero, the moment doubles as a questioning of his relevance, where – lost in a sea of clones – the notion of a caped avenger suddenly feels wilfully out-of-date.

More than token conflict, that anxiety reaches the core of The Dark Knight, as it struggles to split the difference between Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) lawful ambition, and the one-man vigilantism endorsed by Batman (Christian Bale). In the hands of a lesser director, emphasis might’ve fallen on Batman’s struggle to maintain his daytime alter-ego (billionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne). Yet here Nolan skips over the day-to-day minutiae of superhero life, coolly flatlining any difficulties via the sheer willpower of Wayne’s trust account; for instance, when Batman needs an alibi – so he can relocate to Hong Kong, without raising suspicion over the simultaneous disappearance of Wayne – he has Wayne appear on his private yacht amidst a gaggle of Russian ballet dancers. By sparing us the surface logistics of Wayne’s dual-identity, Nolan leaves room for bigger questions, casting the hero as another uncertain factor in the equation of Gotham’s livelihood. The result in a superhero film that’s uniquely probing – one willing to move beyond genre limits, in order to question the very worth of heroism in the 21st century.

To that end, Batman is depicted as the reluctant servant of a legible moral code – the main difference between him and Dent being their relative tendency towards collateral damage; thus, deterred by Batman’s rising body-count, Gotham’s natives grow restless, calling for his stepping-down in favour of Dent’s “White Knight”. (That same attitude informs the affections of Rachael Dawes [Maggie Gyllenhaal], who – professing that she can’t be with Wayne until he surrenders his (k)night-job – opts for the safe compromise of Dent). Unfortunately, while the attorney’s brand of squeaky-clean justice proves adept at cleaning up the city’s token lowlifes, it buckles in the face of a more competent psychopath like The Joker. Yet, even as a discernible need arises for Batman, Nolan refrains from blindly revelling in his superiority, instead suggesting that civil security is a two-part process – split indefinitely between the need to appease the public, and the reality of the desperate measures taken to ensure that promise is fulfilled. By setting the film in a realistic metropolis (basically an amalgam of New York and Chicago) Nolan is able to free the franchise from its unerring faith in moral divides, and affect a comment on the murky logistics of contemporary security policy. At the same time though, The Dark Knight fails to digest into simple allegory: Eroded by discourse, its characters occupy a strange halfway-point between comic-book archetype and dramatic figurehead, as they openly hash out the aforementioned moral conflicts. And while, granted, the endless talk veers on the portentous – spelling out the film’s themes with undue clarity – Nolan manages to offset it with such a lush, stately command of environment: Ensconcing his players in steel-and-glass high-rises, the film is marked by a quiet, urbane sense of weariness – the air of clean-cut professionals wrestling with a threat greater than themselves. Consequently, even moments of levity are backlit with quiet foreboding: When Batman sails through a dayglo Hong Kong, for example, it’s at once a spectacle of release, as well as the purveyor of a kind of yawning emptiness.

In the remarkable economy with which it evokes the feeling of a city gradually falling into all-consuming terror, The Dark Knight occasionally resembles David Fincher’s Zodiac. But where as the killer in that film was a gaping nonentity – glimpsed ever-so-fleetlingly, and existing beyond the grasp of linear police investigation –, The Joker is forced to comply with the logic of Nolan’s film, even as he supposedly works to disrupt it. Ultimately, Ledger does all in he can in preventing the psychopath from becoming a staid icon of evil – dressing him in an outfit of well-honed tics (impish lip-licks; menacing vocal-distortions) that prove weird enough to be captivating at first. He also, in one passing instant, manages to come across as genuinely unnerving – when, under the blinding light of an interrogation room, he informs his guard, with sombre dispassion, that people only truly reveal themselves when they’re dying, and that as a result, he knows the man’s friends better than he ever did. Aside from that lonely coup, however, Ledger is unable to anchor the character, as he drifts away in a haze of tired speechifying. You see, more than your garden-variety sadist, The Joker arrives as the vector of a clear social agenda – one he happily trots out to anyone within earshot: Flaunting his nemeses’ reliance on “rules,” he hopes to prove that the line between good and evil is permeable, inspiring an overall weakening in the moral fabric of the city.

Coming from Batman, that kind of frank discourse works because it ensnares the hero in a larger system of checks-and-balances – denying him godly immunity, and holding him publically accountable. But just how The Joker should be read remains unclear: Thwarting the comfort of a backstory, Nolan has his villain spin out two different variations on how he came to receive his trademark facial-scars – each calculated sob-story cancelling the other out. At the same time though, the director is also happy to bluntly invoke the Middle-East, thanks to a scene in which The Joker addresses Dent et al. via a DIY hostage video. Granted, the latter may be an attempt to acknowledge that evil, like heroism, is never a random manifestation; but in the end these sub-Haneke ploys only distract from the punchy, whirling fury promised by The Joker’s role as “an agent of chaos”. The result is a villain who’s a victim of rules himself – a misplayed wild card who proves to be the film’s undoing, only not in the sense you might expect.