One thing that is terribly frustrating as a critic, trying to be objective about the merits of a given work of art, is that an outside circumstance with no direct connection to the work itself can develop an intextricable relationship with that work. So it is with The Dark Knight and the death of Heath Ledger during post-production.
Ledger’s performance as the Joker, which only the people who worked on the movie had seen before he died, is astonishing, and deeply disturbing when seen posthumously. It’s as if a layer of protection usually in place to keep the true darkness of the human mind hidden was peeled back, and we were given a glimpse of what it means to be truly destructive, and evil. We’re told nothing verifiably true about him, left either to speculate, or to accept him as a symbol, a wild card, something for which it is impossible to plan. The question has been asked countless times, but never answered: would Ledger’s performance be as affecting had he survived to laugh it off on a late-night talk show, if he and his wife had walked the red carpet at the premiere?
We will of course never know, and in any case, as Ledger’s untimely fate is inextricably intertwined with the movie itself, we are left to evaluate The Dark Knight in the only way we can, as a movie of uncommon boldness and ambition, an unrelentingly grim epic whose theme is that if a man lives long enough, he will live to see himself become a villain (whether or not this is true of women as well is not addressed, The Dark Knight is a very male movie). It’s a measure of the skill that aids the ambition that in spite of Heath Ledger’s extraordinary, haunting Joker, equal focus is given Batman (the returning Christian Bale), and to “white knight” Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
The story of The Dark Knight is how, in a power vacuum in Gotham’s underworld created by District Attorney Dent locking up just about every gangster in the city, the anarchist Joker assumes control and systematically destroys the lives of as many people as he can before Batman kills him (if he indeed does; it’s ambiguous enough in the movie that if Ledger had not died in real life, the Joker could have returned in the sequel without a terribly straining suspension of disbelief). By the end of the movie, Harvey Dent has become the embittered, capricious, disfigured Two-Face and died, and Batman is forced to flee in disgrace, Gotham’s Public Enemy Number One.
Christopher Nolan’s unease with the action scenes is completely gone in The Dark Knight. His technique is near-perfectly assured; the qualification is only necessary that due to the amazing skill Nolan displays at creating and building drama that there are numerous dramatic peaks from which the momentum of the movie has difficulty recovering. In the wrong mood, these can derail the movie, but in every instance, Nolan is able to regain control over the tale, and deliver yet another stunning dramatic blow.
As gloomy a resolution as Batman’s public disgrace and enforced exile is, it is still a necessary layer to the character and his interaction with the world at large. Batman (and particularly Nolan’s Batman) is a character driven by dark impulses, who could just as easily be a villain as a hero. The Joker and Harvey Dent represent two alternate paths, the ultimate evil and the ultimate symbol of pure good, respectively. Nolan has Batman take the middle path, one fraught with moral ambiguity (Batman only foils one of the Joker’s terrorist plots by invading the privacy of every citizen in Gotham by hacking their cell phones) and destined to have at best mercurial popularity. Nolan’s Batman is not a strictly canonical one, and is largely Nolan’s own invention, but in spirit very true to what Batman has fundamentally been throughout his history as a character.
Christian Bale, by default, gives the best performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s not perfect, by any means—his bizarre, gravelly growl as Batman is both inexplicable and extremely hard to listen to—but his Bruce Wayne is by far the best yet captured on screen. Aaron Eckhart, before descending into a borderline-conventional bit of hammy villainy as Two-Face, does spectacularly well as Harvey Dent, convincing even the most hardened cynics of his absolute goodness; that every goodness is what compels the Joker to destroy him, as an absolute evil.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, posthumous legend or not, is still one of the most intense, disturbing characters ever seen in a movie. Unlike any of the Jokers who came before, who leaned with varying degrees of heaviness on the “joke” part of the name, Ledger’s is a clown the likes of which causes the phobia. He is never seen without his makeup, and as evil as he is, that makeup is almost a layer of ironic distance from the truly unmentionable evil beneath. Whatever laughter he causes is wary, nervous. It’s a very dark joke indeed that Ledger’s Joker is never explicitly seen to be dead, as the fear he represents is something one can never really escape; movies claim to banish that kind of evil, but they never can. It’s always there.
And so here we are, as Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, et al are preparing the latest installment, The Dark Knight Rises. They have quite the act to follow in the critically acclaimed (and billion-dollar-grossing) The Dark Knight. Batman, after a series of fits and starts as a cinematic character, is finally a figure in proportionate stature to the silver screen as he has been to the comic book panel for so many years. We the audience, like Gotham City so often, await his return.