This scene was a rare example of a superhero film actually delivering what most of them claim to be trying to envision--realism, an actual exploration of what it means to be a superhero in the real world, and of what it is like to live in a world that is much like ours but also has superheroes in it. Most superhero films take these two elements--the superhero and his accouterments, the real world and its troubles--and treat them as two discrete layers. So that we get a Tony Stark who is shocked, shocked to discover that the vicious weapons he makes have ended up in the hands of America's enemies and yet also lives in the same world as the rest of us, in which America has for years been arming groups in one decade only to fight them in the next. When the tropes of any particular superhero show up in these films, they often feel like fanservice, or like the filmmakers unthinkingly ticking items off a list--Superman has to moonlight as a bumbling, four-eyed journalist; J. Jonah Jameson has to have ridiculous hair and a hate-on for Spiderman. What struck me about that final scene in Batman Begins is that it imagined the Joker growing organically out of the universe it had created, striving not for realism but for internal consistency, commingling Batman's familiar elements and the ones familiar from our lives into something new and all its own.
And now comes The Dark Knight, which the entire internet has already fallen over itself to crown the best film ever, period, and I have to admit that I'm impressed. The dialogue is still atrocious, though only at points (especially towards the end of the film), and these are counterbalanced by a few truly delicious lines (Alfred's dry 'You have no idea!' to Harvey Dent, and Lucius Fox's bemused response to attempted blackmail by a lawyer who figures out Batman's secret identity). The villains are anything but boring, and the plot is certainly not predictable--in fact, I could have done with a little more predictability, or perhaps simply a little less plot, as around the two hour mark it starts to feel as if things are happening on the screen simply for the sake of throwing even the kitchen sink at the audience.
Best of all, this is a film that manages to imagine the rise of two major Batman villains as believable responses to the events of the first film, to Batman himself, and to the bleak and corrosive environment in which they all move. The Joker, as the first film promised, arises as a response to the challenge issued by Batman, a madman to fight another madman (which is why I'm perplexed by the constant references to The Dark Knight being a crime drama, when surely the point of the film is that ordinary criminals, the kind Batman was created to destroy, are being replaced by beings of the Joker's ilk--as the film quite rightly calls them, terrorists). Two-Face is the result of the curdled idealism of a man who believes wholeheartedly in his ability to shape and control the world until a more powerful force shows him just how powerless he is. Both are successful not simply because they're believable portraits of their own particular brand of madness (as opposed to the campier Nicholson and Jones versions of previous Batman films) but because they make sense within their environment, because the film works so hard to show us Harvey Dent and the things he wants and cares about before it destroys him, and because it delves so deeply and devastatingly into the Joker's madness, never backing down from its vision of him as a man who wants nothing more or less than complete anarchy.
(One wonders which of the remaining Batman villains can withstand this kind of treatment. The only one I can think of is Catwoman, though if you thought Nicholson's Joker was a hard act to follow... That said, this is a series that could desperately use the infusion of powerful female characters. The tally for The Dark Knight comes to Barbara Gordon, who spends her screen-time weeping--for, admittedly, a succession of very good reasons--Detective Ramirez, who sells out to the mob but only for the heart-tugging reason that her mother is sick, and Rachel, who is blown up--the mind, incidentally, boggles at the kind of person who would let a character live when she's being played by Katie Holmes, then kill her off when she's played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.)
So, yes, The Dark Knight is an excellent film for supervillains, but what about its superhero? As my brother pointed out when we were leaving the movie theatre, Batman himself is almost absent from the film. The Dark Knight is the story of Jim Gordon and his attempts to clean up his city, the story of Harvey Dent and his tragic downfall, the story of the Joker and his war against anything decent or good. Batman observes them all, reacts to some of them and acts in service of others--the first half of the film has him dedicating his tactical and operational genius to the cause of Gordon and Dent's strategy; the second half, to securing their safety. Against the other characters' complicated negotiations between what is right and what is expedient, Batman's moral dilemma boils down to the same old same old--should he continue to be Batman? And is being Batman doing more harm than good? Given that no matter what the answer to the second question is, the first one will always be answered with a resounding yes, there's really not to watch for in the film's main character--I was most interested by the film's conception of him as playing not a double but a triple role, wearing, as the occasion merits, either the Batman's mask or that of a shallow and selfish billionaire playboy, but this is a minor note and hardly something to hang a film on.
It is possible, I suppose, to read The Dark Knight as describing the next chapter in Bruce Wayne's evolving commitment to life as the caped crusader. He spends the film, after all, thinking that an unmasked man is going to take his place, allowing him to hang up his cape, and ends it with the realization that this can't happen, and that rather than acting as another man's instrument he needs to take up the mantle of heroism in his own right. To my mind, however, this reading is undercut--firstly, as I've said, by Batman's reduced presence in the film, but more importantly by its ending, in which Batman agrees to become the scapegoat for Harvey Dent's crimes so that 'the people' won't be disheartened by Dent's fall from grace, and will still be able to embrace him as a symbol for everything that is good and pure in the world. Which is really just another way of saying that people need a handsome, white man to lead and inspire them, even if his perfection and goodness are a lie. This LJ post does a good job of articulating just why this is a pernicious and distasteful attitude (it also applies the same judgement to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, though in that case I think the author misreads Whedon's intentions):
what kind of person still seriously believes that Saving Us is some kind of legitimate job, and we just have to pick the guy who’s best at it? ... at best, it’s a hyperconservative worldview that seeks a return to some kind of imaginary top-down utopia, be it the family patriarch, the philosopher-king, or Caesar single-handedly defending the gates of Rome. To buy into the Dark vs. White Knight, you have to be the kind of person who can swallow the whole concept of “the hero Gotham needs and/or deserves,” in order to get to the paramount importance of preserving Gotham’s faith in that hero *even if said faith is built entirely on misinformation and lies.*It's a particularly strange attitude for the film to take given that it comes right on the heels of what is, to my mind, the best and most moving sequence in the film, the two passenger ferries enacting the prisoner's dilemma. In it we see ordinary, petty, terrified people, some of whom are hardened criminals, who are faced with an impossible choice and rise to the occasion, showing true greatness of spirit even without a shining white knight to inspire them. The idea that these people now need Jim Gordon to promalgate the lie of Harvey Dent's perfection in order to achieve heroism--which is what Batman comes to believe, and which not only motivates his choice to assume the responsibility for Harvey's crimes but also helps to determine the kind of hero he choses to be--is downright offensive.
(It is also somewhat amusing to observe this scene and note its similarity to the climaxes of the first two Spiderman films, a series which, with its bright color palette, penchant for horrible puns, and overall silliness, stands for just about everything the new Batman franchise is trying not to be. This is not even to mention that the ending of The Dark Knight, in which Batman chooses to preserve the reputation of a flawed man in order to spare those who loved him, and ends up earning their enmity with that act, is merely a larger scale recreation of the ending of the first Spiderman film, and that given The Dark Knight's obsession with forcing its characters to make impossible, life and death choices, its theme might as well have been the Spiderman films' ubiquitous 'with great power comes great responsibility.')
I've levelled a lot of criticism here at a film that, at the beginning of this piece, I claimed to have been very impressed by. As a piece of cinema, I found The Dark Knight deeply enjoyable, but I'm not sure that it has achieved that gold standard of being a dramatically and thematically satisfying look at the idea of superheroism (otherwise known as the Incredibles standard). Though I find the article I quoted from above somewhat overstated (mainly because it doesn't seem to acknowledge the grain of fascism that lies at the heart of any superhero story), it is correct to argue that there are unexamined assumptions at the heart of The Dark Knight that a smarter, more savvy film ought to have taken a long, hard look at. It's one thing to argue, as Batman Begins did, that Gotham is awash with crime and depravity and only desperate measures will serve to clean it up. The Dark Knight, however, goes on to argue that Gotham's need for a hero is spiritual rather than practical, and then fails to ask itself whether this is really true, and what that need means, preferring instead to fixate on just what kind of hero--white or dark--the city needs or can get. That's a disappointing failure, and one that I'm not entirely certain the filmmakers are aware of. There is, however, enough intelligence in evidence in the film's other parts to give me hope that this question might be addressed in the series's next installment.