An ode to The Dark Knight.
“Behold, the universe. Incredibly complex, yet wonderfully simple. It encompasses all of creation while racing towards it’s ultimate end. Within its maelstrom of growth and destruction lie millions of galaxies, billions of stars and planets.
I am the watcher. It is my task to note all events of significance in this part of the cosmos. Only to note them, never to interfere. This task brings me great joy and great sorrow."
So far as I know, there is no film critic’s creed. If there were, or if the film critics of the world were looking for one, I think the quote above would be perfect. It could easily apply to movies, each film being a corner of the cosmos in a grander universe. In almost every movie we watch there are maelstroms of growth and destruction, sometimes grand and sometimes small, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional or spiritual. And the fact of the matter is that every film, much like all life and the universe itself indeed races towards its ultimate end, even if the star of the film has already been signed to a 8 picture deal.
The quote above is actually spoken by the character Watcher Prime in the first episode of The Silver Surfer animated series which debuted in 1998.
If I replaced task with film, the last sentence of the quote above would read, “this film brings me great joy, and great sorrow.” Even if you think the quote could not apply to films at all, “this film brings me great joy, and great sorrow.” would apply perfectly to how I feel about The Dark Knight.
I’m not going to debate plot holes in this column although I might revisit the issue in the future.
What I will talk about is what I think The Dark Knight accomplished. In my opinion, and I’m sure this isn’t unique, the Dark Knight is one of the all time high water marks of comic book cinema. To write this I realized I had to think of at least one concrete measure I could use to gauge a movie’s quality. Thinking about The Dark Knight I came to the conclusion that a great movie makes it’s audience question the world around them. Makes it’s audience question what they truly believe.
At the time of The Dark Knight’s premiere in July 2008, a key plot point, was Batman’s use of a “sonar” system which allowed Batman to utilize, what you might consider a type of x-ray vision. For reference, I think it’s a fair comparison to think of it an ancestor of "Detective Vision" which made its debut in Batman Arkham Asylum. The sonar system worked by VERY illegally hacking and activating every single cell phone microphone in Gotham City. The data would then be processed into a type of echolocation radar that would feed into retractable lenses in Batman’s cowl.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the time of the film’s premiere this plot device was derided as ridiculous and highly unlikely. We know now from the revelations of Edward Snowden (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRISM_(surveillance_program) ) that our government could indeed remotely activate anyone’s cell phone microphone to use it as a listening device. We also learned that the real world system, unlike Batman’s monstrosity could and did listen in on phone calls as well as collect metadata; consisting of emails, texts, pictures, and web search data like an insatiable beast.
Much like the fictional Gothamites of The Dark Knight, we were none the wiser as wealthy men and women decided in secret to allow our privacy to be invaded, all in the name of security.
The Dark Knight asked us this question when it was still just a fantasy and although it’s a depressing question it’s part of what brings me joy. That uniquely special approachability that the best of the best movies offer. Movies that can draw in and make people of various opposing or just plain unique backgrounds, intellects, nationalities, beliefs, etc. ask the same reflective questions. Questions about right and wrong, justice and injustice, that are vital to any society worth its salt.
Obviously, a lot of the joy and sorrow I derive from The Dark Knight comes from Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. To see what he put on the screen I can’t help but feel awful when I think of what we’ve lost. Even if Heath had never returned as The Joker, his work in Brokeback Mountain is more proof of the enormity of his talent.
You see, their morals? their code? It's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other.
I hate to seem like an emo teen here but the quote above has which has been Googled, reused in memes, quoted, and misquoted, a hundred million times, is much like the plot point discussed above, as relevant if not more relevant than it was when The Dark Knight was released nearly ten years ago.
If you read the news, even badly, you can see the hypocrisy of so-called Christians who commit adultery with minimal consequences, lie, cheat, steal, and slander. And the hypocrisy of so-called “church leaders” who will pardon this behavior for reasons that are the polar opposite of what the life and Death of Christ were all about. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/23/16924546/evangelical-tony-perkins-trump-stormy-daniels-affair-mulligan
You can read about a man who betrayed the trust of women in the hideous ways and then had the gall and short-sightedness to campaign for the nation’s first female president, and how his “Complicity Machine” granted him decades-long impunity to engage in behavior and to live a life, in general, that was as ugly as his physical appearance. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/05/us/harvey-weinstein-complicity.html
But you didn’t come here for a rundown of the news, you came here for The Dark Knight and for The Joker. Here again, we stumble across what makes The Dark Knight such a masterpiece. When you view it, you have the genuine privilege of watching some of the brightest talents of multiple generations at the highest levels they’ve ever performed at. Not just big names but genuinely radiant talents both in front of and behind the camera.
And yet every time Heath Ledger’s Joker appears onscreen, accompanied by those tension inducing strings conducted by Hans Zimmer, his performance seems to produce an electricity that is tangible. Ledger’s performance even ten years later, even after I have seen it three times in the theatre and half a dozen times at home is a marvel to behold. It is a popular enough opinion that your eye is drawn to Heath as The Joker every second he is on the screen. While I have studied a bit of acting I don’t have the technical knowledge to describe exactly what it is he’s doing and if I knew how to replicate it I’d be auditioning more often. But it’s obviously something extraordinary just like the film itself.
Nothing manmade is perfect, and yes The Dark Knight may have it’s plot holes and it may have made it impossible for us to ever enjoy a Joker on film again, but the fact of the matter is that it made gargantuan strides forward. It made progress for superhero films that allowed so many of its predecessors to flourish in ways that were likely not possible without it. For comic book fans, it was the superhero movie we needed, and at the risk of sounding entitled a movie, we deserved.