Christian Bale: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Heath Ledger: The Joker
Aaron Eckhart: Harvey Dent
Maggie Gyllenhall: Rachel Dawes
Gary Oldman: Jim Gordon
Michael Caine: Alfred
Morgan Freeman: Lucius Fox
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The first time I saw THE DARK KNIGHT (at morning matinee the weekend it opened), I walked out knowing it was an instant classic. Oh, sure, I've experienced that familiar afterglow of a movie and declared it a classic, but the memory of it fades. Because I love movies so much, I sometimes get swept up in the moment. So, I need time to reflect and consider what it means to me. THE DARK KNIGHT has stayed with me. It is widely remembered for Heath Ledger's transcendent performance as The Joker, but there's more to the film than that. This is a movie about order vs. chaos, good vs. evil, the futility of choice, and the need to believe in an incorruptible good. While The Joker is the most memorable character, it's Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent that is actually the most pivotal.
When the movie opens, after a brilliant bank heist scene, we learn the citizens of Gotham are distrustful of Batman. They see him as a dangerous vigilante that will get cops killed. Copycats are running around the city trying emulate him. His attempts to bring criminals to justice seem to be creating more harm than good. The citizens needs someone they can truly believe in. Enter Harvey Dent, the assistant D.A. dubbed "Gotham's White Knight." He is committed to ending organized crime in Gotham and is presented to us as man of high moral character. On the other end of the spectrum is the anarchic Joker, a man who lives by no rules. In between, we have Batman. He is committed to doing what he must to carry out his mission, but also wants to live by a code. He will not kill. He won't go too far. He attempts to keep one foot in the light of Harvey Dent and the darkness of The Joker. The movie explores whether this is possible and actually uses Harvey as the measurement. I have long loved the Batman legend, but, truth be told, I don't identify much him, nor do I identify with The Joker and his cruel schemes. Harvey Dent represents me (and, I think, most of us) because we strive for law and order and for matters to be handled properly. We are, for the most part, good and decent people and we want to believe in a White Knight.
THE DARK KNIGHT uses its film noir framework to examine what it takes to push someone from the light to the dark. What does it take to finally send a person from order to chaos. This seems to be The Joker's ultimate endgame. Yes, his plan in the story is to use his sadistic games to expose Batman's true identity, but he also seems to be working toward a larger purpose: induce madness. If Harvey is what we want to be or how we see ourselves, then The Joker represents what we fear is possible. It is the darkness in all of us taking complete control and we are powerless to resist. What drives someone to that? One of the brilliant ironies of THE DARK KNIGHT is the way it never really tells us what created The Joker. "Do you wanna know how I got these scars?" he asks of people who stare at his grotesque makeup. He tells two contradictory stories. We never find out. We do find out what sends Harvey over the edge and what nearly causes Batman to succumb completely and it is a moment of intense tragedy. In the end, Batman makes a noble decision to let Gotham believe he has gone too far so that they will still believe in Harvey and what he stood for. We all need to believe good is incorruptible. Ten years after its initial release, THE DARK KNIGHT still speaks to us about this.
SIDE NOTE: There is a tendency to compare Ledger's Joker with Jack Nicholson's and debate whose was better. Such arguments are to be expected as they are the cinephile's version of who the greatest quarterback of all time is (It's Joe Montana) or the greatest starting pitcher (in my lifetime, Nolan Ryan). They are two completely different interpretations both perfectly suited for the films they inhabit. Nicholson gives us a macabre cartoon that could only exist in Tim Burton's surrealism. Ledger's is grounded in a frightening reality. I loved Jack Nicholson's take on The Joker. Ledger's scared me. I walked out of WONDER WOMAN last summer wishing she were real because of Gal Gadot's portrayal. To this day, I fear The Joker is very much real. We just haven't met him yet.