The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight ★★½

In 2011, I delivered a conference paper called "'Some Men Want to Watch the World Earn': The Dark Knight and the Cultural Logic of Capitalism" in which I argued the Joker and Batman were avatars of different ideologies. It's not a novel observation to note Batman in the Nolan trilogy is a great example of conservatism. Likewise, calling the Joker an anarchist is also rather old hat, considering the character announces, in classic Nolan-expository dialogue, his desire for anarchy and chaos. The approach I take in my argument is slightly different: instead of Batman representing conservatism and the Joker representing anarchy, the characters instead stand in for two different fantasies.

If Batman is the fantasy of mastering the postmodern condition (in the same logic as Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, etc), then the Joker is the fantasy of escaping the logic of the postmodern. Hence one reason, I believe, for the audience's identification with the Joker. Like with Rorschach in Watchmen, audiences seem to love these villains, not just because of their charisma, but because they're a type of freedom. Again, it's old news to observe villains provide the safe outlet for living our power-fantasies, but instead of a fantasy of power and might (like Darth Vader or Michael Myers or Freddy), the Joker is a fantasy of negotiation, or more specifically, the abandonment of negotiation for pure freedom. Gone are the rigid borders of the postmodern state, gone are the arcane and byzantine methods of accumulating capital, because in this new world, economic capital has no meaning. Gone are the pressures of 9 to 5, bills, leisure, and most importantly, subjectivity. No longer will the individual be subject to the institutions and discourses which provide us meaning and order.

Of course, because this is a Christopher Nolan film, the ideas presented as incoherent, insubstantial, and ill defined. I've not revisited the paper because I know the central argument needs an overhaul to account for how inconsistent and silly Nolan's writing is. The Joker, though he claims to have no plans, operates with godlike omniscience: appearing when and where ever the screenplay needs him. His plans anticipate movements beyond the scope of human reckoning. He wanted to be caught by Gordon, whom he thought was dead? It doesn't matter. Like many Nolan films, it's the neatness, the fussy officiousness of the structure which provides the thrills, not the characters or logic or geographic coherence or setpieces or even theme. Which is why I'm so surprised people have continued to champion The Dark Knight after all these years when it has this glaring flaw at the very centre: if the Joker truly doesn't have plans, then he's a poor match for Nolan who can't help but deploy the neatest, fussiest puzzle-boxes. Even the opening sequence is so neat and tidy which contrasts so heavily with what the Joker is supposed to represent (chaos and anarchy). For all his talk and ambitions of chaos, he's just as meticulous and prescriptivist as Batman and Nolan himself.

At least with The Prestige, the fussy dioramas of life, the simulacra of domesticity and quotidian life are thematically motivated. The illusory nature of everyday existence works for the film's themes of illusion and deception. For any other Nolan film, a character speaking breaks the spell of realism thanks to the Nolan Brothers' tin ear for human speech. Have they never heard a human being speak before? When people speak in The Dark Knight Trilogy, it's to intone, with heavy solemnity, the themes as the Nolans wish us to believe they are. They're better suited to themes of illusion and misdirection because whenever they play it straight, it's either unintentionally hilarious or tone deaf and cringey.

I always boggle at the fervent hagiographic reception to both Nolan's career as a whole and The Dark Knight. I, too, used to think this was the best superhero movie ever but as I aged, I saw the Emperor's New Clothes for what they were: somebody else's aesthetics (Michael Mann) draped over a self-serious sententious hodgepodge of ill defined politics. And he doesn't even have the formal chops to pull it off either: Nolan seems wholly unable to establish space. If you haven't seen the famous Jim Emerson video on Nolan's lack of proper continuity editing, here it is. Likewise, Nolan's breathless infatuation with the IMAX camera means the same cityscape shot repeated ad nauseum as transition from scene to scene. His idea of what constitutes a good shot appears to be one of scale only. All his medium or close shots are oddly composed or use the same boring over-the-shoulder look every single director has used since time immemorial.

Which isn't to say I dislike the entire thing. There are great moments scattered here and there: the Joker sticking his head out of the car like a dog; Tiny Lister's whispered exhortation to give him the detonator; the loudmouth guy, too honest to trigger the bomb, sitting back down amongst his peers in medium shot; Harvey Dent's anguished realization that Batman has come to save him and not Rachel. But these moments are few and far between.

It's striking that Nolan could get such transcendental performances out of Heath Ledger and (arguably) Tom Hardy when every other actor in these three films are as wooden as an office desk. Much has been said about Christian Bale's performance, but more should be mentioned of Michael Caine and Aaron Eckhardt for their stunningly awful performances. They both feel like they're reading stage directions instead of dialogue. Of course, the worst performance of all is Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. I'm sure she's a fine actor, but when paired with Nolan, she becomes this greatly enervating blackhole.

Finally, a special mention to the four women with dialogue in The Dark Knight, two of whom are murdered to "make a point." The four women in this film, in order by how much dialogue they have, are: Rachel, Ramirez, Barbara Gordon, and the Judge. None of these characters are shown speaking to each other in the same scene (Ramirez speaks over the phone to Barbara) Rachel, at least, has an arc: she must choose between the white knight of Gotham (Dent) or the Dark Knight. She dies because of a romance plot. Ramirez's dialogue consists of reactions to Gordon's barking orders and in one scene, when she lies on the phone. Barbara is the suffering wife. She has three scenes (I believe) which consist mostly of reacting to Gordon's death or resurrection. The Judge has two scenes: she convenes court, she dies.

Comic book movies are SERIOUS BUSINESS FOR MEN. They're not girly shit so why bother having women speak or have agency? Nolan, with his fervent love of murdering wives, is a perfect fit for comic book movies are superhero narrative kill off women all the time.

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