"Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order... well, then everyone loses their mind," Heath Ledger's Joker purrs seductively in Nolan's second installment of Batman, The Dark Knight. And throughout the movie he works precisely towards that goal.
Before the revived Batman series, director Christopher Nolan was best known for his dark, nonlinear thriller Memento, which he followed up with Insomnia, and later, between the Batman movies, The Prestige. His trademark of psychologically scarred heroes and villains (sometimes indistinguishable from each other) with weighty moral dilemmas is a perfect blend for a dark comic book hero like Batman.
Nolan's first attempt at Batman was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, giving the caped crusader a grittier backdrop, a darker personality and more lethal effect. The film fit perfectly into our generation's updated action movies like the grim, chaotic Bourne series and the multi-layered X-Men trilogy.
The Dark Knight was released amid huge hype after some hugely successful summer blockbusters (including fellow comic book adaptations Iron Man and Hellboy II: The Golden Army). Unfortunately some of the hype was due to Heath Ledger's untimely death in January. Fortunately, the movie lives up to and exceeds many expectations, especially those attached to Ledger's enigmatic and maniacal Joker.
Never has the Joker been more funny, chilling, anarchic or evil. He is pure Id, cackling like a mad hyena, a self-proclaimed creature of impulse, an agent of chaos. A vivid, iconic shot shows him sticking his head out of a fast moving cop car, sniffing and savoring the night air like a dog might.
Though he may not be on screen a long time, the Joker dominates all emotion and energy in The Dark Knight, hovering like an evil omen just off screen. Beautiful, textured cinematography disguises Chicago as Gotham with subtle special effects that add punch to, but don't dominate, the scene.
There are no weak links in the entire ensemble cast including Gary Oldman (as Gordon), Michael Caine (as Alfred), Morgan Freeman (as Fox), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Rachel Dawes, a vast improvement over Katie Holmes) and Aaron Eckhart (as Harvey Dent). Bale's Batman is strong and stoic as ever, but pales in comparison to Ledger's demented clown who skips about in a lurching gait, spewing explosive chaos and emanating a deadly menace.
Dare it be said that the Joker is eerily charming? The nervous laughter of the audience as he capers about in his malevolent deeds shows an oddly sympathetic reaction that not many comic book villains succeed in eliciting. "I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one of them if I caught it," the Joker reassures, "I don't have plans. I just do things. I'm not a schemer." He's like a little child crashing toy trucks together, playing cowboys and Indians, or smashing a toy against concrete, oblivious to or relishing the destruction he causes.
What's most terrifying about this new incarnation of the Joker is his motivation (or lack thereof) for evil. He doesn't want money, power or revenge. He just needs some dynamite and a few explosions, preferably leaving some innocents as scarred as him. Yet another mystery is the origin of his scars. He is a man with no identity, no past, no trace of a life before this mania, with "nothing in his pockets but knives and lint." He gleefully invents different versions of a story to tell victims about the origin of his unique scars which are far more terrifying and believable than Jack Nicholson's petrified grin.
Not only does the Joker commit evil himself, he inspires the worst in humanity, drawing out the latent capacity for evil in Everyman. He derives enormous pleasure from corrupting others, stripping them bare of civility and unleashing the Id, the primal, negative, unreasoning subconscious that acts in pure self-interest.
Even our dark knight is tempted (and briefly succumbs) to sink to his level. Bruce Wayne feels defeated by the Joker's methods and Alfred, a shrewd judge of character, says, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." The two points at which Batman bends, and comes very close to breaking, are when he punches the Joker in prison and when he installs the citywide sonar network (perhaps a sly reference to the White House's wire tapping surveillance). Gotham's white knight, D.A. Harvey Dent warns, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. "
The Joker is not at all cliché ridden, and in fact seems almost philosophical in his choice to cause murder and mayhem, as if he is merely the catalyst for something inevitable. Batman, and the dark myths and fears that surround him, only compel the Joker to new heights, new catastrophes. He is something that, in a post 9/11 world, we find wholly horrifying: a terrorist with no agenda and no capacity to negotiate, unpredictable, fickle and completely without reason.
"You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little... push," cackles the Joker. In the face of such madness, it would do well for Batman to heed Frederich Nietzche's advice: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Images found via Google.
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