Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight: The Descent

The word that best describes the The Dark Knight is in the title, "dark." Even though Batman Begins is not a "light" film and has less scenes taking place in daylight than The Dark Knight has; it is much lighter in tone, and grounded in optimism. Batman believes his existence will lead to a brighter future for Gotham. The events of The Dark Knight threaten to prove him wrong.

If it wasn't already clear in Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan intends Gotham to be a representation of our world. Not our planet, necessarily, but the space we live and breath in. If Gotham were a real city, people would just leave it and go elsewhere where they don't have killer clowns and scary scarecrows. But you can't escape Gotham. When characters like Lau leave it for Hong Kong, or when Bruce journeys to the Himalayas in Batman Begins, the places they go are symbols for things beyond our world. Perhaps even corresponding to the supernatural. Batman trains in Valhalla only to discover it is closer to purgatory. In The Dark Knight, he goes to the depths of hell to bring back Lau so he can face justice. These journeys have mythic significance.

Understood in this light, then, the battle for the soul of Gotham becomes the battle for our collective human soul. And the enemies presented begin to strongly resemble the demonic. When I first saw the film in 2008, I said that the Joker is the most complete and accurate depiction of the devil ever put on film. Satan knows that ultimately he cannot defeat God, so he wants to cause as much destruction and suffering as possible on his way down. He just wants to "watch the world burn." He even calls his struggle with Batman an eternal one; something I think the filmmakers would have explored further had not Heath Ledger's untimely demise occurred shortly before the film's debut.

Batman's answer to Gotham's (hence, the world's) problems is extremism. He goes to the extreme to solves the problem.  He flies across the world to bring back Lau. He knocks out Harvey Dent and hides him in a closet to keep him from attempting to fight the Joker. He throws Moroni off the roof. He bugs the entire city to find the Joker. The genius of the Joker is his willingness to match Batman point for point and try to force him over the edge. One could argue he comes very close to success. So close Batman can't recover.

But Batman has moral rules. Which, once his enemies see them, neuter the power of his extremism. Because he has limits. His technology can fail. His plans can be foiled. He can be defeated. Alfred says know your limits. Bruce says Batman has no limits. Alfred says he does and Bruce says he can't afford to know them.

What's scary is as far as he was pushed in The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises threatens to push him even further. How much more can he take?

The other side of this coin is Harvey Dent. Dent is the "White Knight" as opposed to Batman's Dark Knight. Dent prosecutes the mob without fear. And when Batman is willing to bend to the Joker's demands to save the innocent, Dent decides to sacrifice himself instead. To take Batman's "sins" on himself and allow himself to be used as bait for the Joker. But his victory is short lived. His attempt at self-sacrifice ends in his ultimate loss. Like many great fallen men before him, he can't take it. The descent of Harvey Dent is probably the most poignant and realistic thing in the film. Unlike Batman, Dent cannot endure the loss of his love. He insists that "the only morality in a chaotic world is chance." He cannot accept that the rain falls on both the just and the unjust. His story echoes that of Horatio Spafford, who endured so much throughout his life, but finally succumbed to despair at the end. Or as Dr. Crane would say in Batman Begins, "The mind can only take so much."

Yet in the end, Batman believes that this man is the true symbol of hope that the people need, and that a lie, a noble lie, is the best way to preserve that symbol; to make Dent incorruptible. Batman takes on himself all of Dent's sins. This is a messianic act, but it is also a deliberate lie. For unlike Christ who comes and says "I have taken all of your sins upon myself," Batman says "Dent was not the sinner, I am the sinner." A lie cannot bring true salvation. Which is why the ending of The Dark Knight is unsettling, and necessitates a proper conclusion.

All these things, along with fantastic production value and extreme verisimilitude easily makes The Dark Knight one of the best and most definitive comic book films ever made. It is The Empire Strikes Back for our generation. Yet while Nolan definitely hearkens back to the first Star Wars trilogy in The Dark Knight, his conclusion promises to revisit the second Star Wars trilogy, in that the final installment promises to be be darker, and perhaps more fulfilling, than any of the preceding ones.

The Dark Knight Rises opens in theaters tonight at midnight.

Check back tomorrow for our in-depth review.
Check out Jeremiah's review of Batman Begins.

Click here for more movie reviews.
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