In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins reinvigorated the nearly moribund franchise and introduced a needed sense of gravitas into the comic book genre.

Now, three years later, he has returned with The Dark Knight, a riveting and thoughtful exploration of the anatomy of heroism, the necessity of a moral order, and the conflict–and similarities–between goodness and evil.

Unfortunately, Nolan falls prey to “sequel’s syndrome,” creating an overly-long movie that introduces too many plot elements, leaving too little time to resolve them all satisfactorily. His lack of restraint causes him to hurry through scenes detailing Bruce Wayne’s internal conflict with his position as Batman, which limits the possibility for real emotional connection to the film.

But that is as much as is wrong with The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the most disturbing and masterful portrayal of a villain that I can think of. His pseudo-philosophizing provides much of the intellectual heft to the film.

What makes Ledger so disturbing as the Joker is not his insanity, but his calm and cool-headed rationality. He cannot be reasoned with, as he shares none of the axioms that Batman has, but he is perfectly consistent in his own thinking nonetheless.

Ledger’s philosophizing is provocative. It lays the groundwork for Bruce Wayne’s anxiety over whether such an irrational evil can be fought, or merely ceded to. It is, interestingly enough, not Bruce Wayne that continues the fight, but Harvey Dent, the new DA of Gotham.

It is not difficult to see current political situation being dramatized in the film. Nolan alludes to it, using the (appropriate) term “terrorists” to refer to the Joker and his minions. But this is no political statement. It would be, in fact, incorrect to describe the film as a “statement” at all. It is more of a question, and as such left me wanting a second viewing if only to confirm my philosophical suspicions about the answers.

As such, it is an intellectually satisfying film, even if it is imperfect technically. It deserves the box office record it set this weekend. While it is not suitable for children due to its disturbing nature, it is the only movie I have seen this summer that I would heartily recommend to mature audiences.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

9 Comments

  1. makelovehappen July 20, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    I agree the film suffered from its entangling subplots, but that’s probably inevitable these days.

    I liked how the film examined the notion of not only putting one’s own life on the chopping block -so to speak- but to sacrifice someone else’s life. That’s not “heroic” but something else, something which shows the area where the ethical life is hard to understand.

    Good film. Good review also.

    Reply

  2. Makelovehappen,

    I don’t think it’s inevitable. They were simply trying to do too much.

    “I liked how the film examined the notion of not only putting one’s own life on the chopping block -so to speak- but to sacrifice someone else’s life. That’s not “heroic” but something else, something which shows the area where the ethical life is hard to understand.”

    Say a bit more about this. Clearly the situation on the ferries fits this, but were there other situations in the film that I am forgetting?

    Reply

  3. […] looks at Dark Night, oddly enough (I think) forgetting what Chesterton wrote about insanity and […]

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  4. Glad to see that you liked it (mostly). I haven’t seen it yet, but I have high hopes for it as I loved the first one (and loved The Prestige even more).

    How can you say…..
    “What makes Ledger so disturbing as the Joker is not his insanity, but his calm and cool-headed rationality. He cannot be reasoned with, as he shares none of the axioms that Batman has, but he is perfectly consistent in his own thinking nonetheless.”

    …..without quoting Chesteron? :)
    “He may be mad, but there’s method in his madness. There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.” G.K. Chesterton

    There’s also a lengthy section in Orthodoxy where he describes how people literally reason themselves into insanity – one of my favorite parts of the book, actually.

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  5. For an “agent of chaos,” the bank heist orchestrated by the Joker that opens the film is extraordinarily well-planned. That could just be an example of the fact that, for the Joker, there are no rules at all.

    Consistent with his logic, the Joker is successful when he is able to provoke behavior in people contrary to their self-professed values.

    An amazing performance by Heath Ledger.

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  6. “For an “agent of chaos,” the bank heist orchestrated by the Joker that opens the film is extraordinarily well-planned. That could just be an example of the fact that, for the Joker, there are no rules at all.”

    Indeed. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

    “How can you say……’What makes Ledger so disturbing as the Joker is not his insanity, but his calm and cool-headed rationality. He cannot be reasoned with, as he shares none of the axioms that Batman has, but he is perfectly consistent in his own thinking nonetheless.”

    …..without quoting Chesterton?”

    Well, I thought the allusion so obvious that I left it off. I promise.

    Reply

  7. makelovehappen July 22, 2008 at 1:36 am

    “Say a bit more about this. Clearly the situation on the ferries fits this, but were there other situations in the film that I am forgetting?”

    Yes, several sections. Bruce does not intervene when Dent claims to be Batman so he can use him as a target. He is risking someone else’s neck. This is where Rachel questions Bruce’s ‘ethicality’. Gordon deals with the hardship of putting his family’s life on the line twice (both when he fakes his death and when two-face kidnaps them) so he can catch the criminals. Bruce deals with the option of giving up the ethical marriage relationship he could have with Rachel (and in the animated series he sacrifices his relationship with Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman).

    Bruce Wayne is a hero of resignation, something beautiful and hard to understand, but he never becomes a hero of faith.

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  8. makelovehappen July 22, 2008 at 1:38 am

    “For an “agent of chaos,” the bank heist orchestrated by the Joker that opens the film is extraordinarily well-planned.” Prufrock

    Yeah … that was disappointing. The Joker even appeals to ‘rationality’ at one point in the beginning of the film. Ledger admitted that he didn’t want the Joker to be consistent character, although Nolan wanted him to be an “absolute”. I found it a bit sloppy. What made Ledger shine was the ‘extremeness’ of the portrayal.

    That being said, Mark Hamil far surpasses Nicholson and Ledger as the Joker.

    Reply

  9. As much as I loved the cartoon–it was my introduction to Batman, after all–there is huge difference between voicing a character and playing a character and I do not think Mark Hamill could have even come close to matching the quality of Heath Ledger’s performance. But I do agree that his voicing of the Joker was very good.

    But let’s agree to disagree. I already feel a little silly arguing about this.

    Reply

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