The Dark Knight part 4
At the end of Act III, Bruce, despite his best efforts and his bravest sacrifices, has pretty much screwed up everything in Gotham City. In the act of cleaning up the Mob, he’s created the Joker, and in the act of making his act legitimate (shades of Michael Corleone) he’s created Two-Face. By upsetting the status quo, he’s gotten his girlfriend killed and turned her new boyfriend insane. In Act IV, he will do his best to defeat the Joker — and fail, forcing him to face the consequences of the decisions he’s made.
As the act begins, the Joker has created a siege situation in Gotham. His relationship with the Mob has reached its, um, conclusion, he now controls all the crime in Gotham. Now he seals off the entire city, using nothing but fear and paranoia (as far as we can tell) to close the bridges and tunnels.
Back at Wayne headquarters, Lucius Fox is alerted to a break-in in the R&D department. The "break-in," of course, is just Bruce’s way of getting Fox’s attention. It’s a tiny beat, but ties in thematically, as so many things do in The Dark Knight, of the idea of the forces of justice needing to pose as a criminal in order to achieve their goals.
Detective Wuertz now takes the spotlight for a moment, as he comes face to face (to face) with Two-Face, who inaugurates his new notion of justice, which he has taken from the Joker (chaos being the only answer to the world) and given his own spin (yes-and-no chance is the only fairness in a chaotic world). curt_holman mentioned the other day how well The Dark Knight balances and interweaves a two-villain storyline, something done well for the first time ever in a superhero movie, and I’d like to take that thought further. For the people who feel shortchanged by the Two-Face storyline, think about this: the entire movie is about him, the struggle for his soul, which represents the soul of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has sacrificed everything he has (except, of course, all his power and wealth, obviously) for the "good" part of Gotham, the Joker keeps aborbing more and more of the city’s power and wealth and then squandering it, and the two of them literally tear Harvey Dent in half. When folks complain that Two-Face isn’t in the movie enough, I think what they mean is that the cool special-effects makeup isn’t in the movie enough, and that Two-Face doesn’t have any kind of outlandish, colorful scheme to implement. Well, that’s too bad, but the Joker doesn’t have a scheme either. There isn’t any "end" to this for the Joker, he wants to take the whole world and send it down the toilet — an endless project of disorder to match Bruce’s endless project of order. Whereas Two-Face has the opposite of a grand scheme — he wants to kill the people who made him suffer, and then kill himself. The folks who pine for a "bigger" Two-Face story, one to match the one in, say, Batman Forever I guess, where he teams up with the Riddler to build a giant mind-control ray, miss the great tragedy at the heart of The Dark Knight — they want a supervillain, whereas the Nolans have imagined him as a human being. In any case, Wuertz loses his coin toss and Harvey kills him.
Next we have the scene where Bruce explains his crazy cell-phone sonar device to Fox, the science of which I’ll just go ahead and accept somehow. The thing that interests me about the scene is how the same people who reject The Dark Knight as absurd fantasy because the Joker blows up a hospital on such short notice, have no trouble accepting that Bruce Wayne designs, engineers and builds the gigantic cell-phone sonar device, based on an idea he only learned about a few days earlier, entirely by himself. In any case, Fox’s response to the device is "This is wrong," which points to the complex nature of Batman’s existence in Gotham: in order for there to be a masked vigilante dispensing justice, he needs an interweaved set of checks and balances, Gordon and Fox and Dent, to oversee his work and do the things he cannot.
Meanwhile, Gordon confers with the mayor, outlining the scope of the terror that’s about to unfold. Compare this Commissioner Gordon to the Gordon of the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies and The Dark Knight stands out in bold relief. Gordon in the earlier movies was a patsy, a bumbling fool who couldn’t catch a criminal to save his life, but in Nolan’s script and in Gary Oldman’s performance you can feel the soul of a man caught in a vast web of conflicting responsibilities — he must be a politician, a father, a cop and an action hero, he must be loyal to his friends but also enforce the law, and he has the family that Bruce gave up to fight crime, so the danger he faces, the sacrifice he makes, is that greater. Bruce risks nothing but himself when he goes out to fight crime, but Gordon risks everything he’s worked for, the lives of his men and the lives of his family.
Two-Face now catches up with Maroni, the next guy on his list of grudges. Maroni wins his coin toss, but Two-Face kills him anyway by killing his driver. It rains on the just and unjust alike in Two-Face’s world, or maybe Two-Face is just as much of a liar and prevaricator as the Joker. (Since we’ve been told that Two-Face is dead, dead, dead at the end of The Dark Knight, maybe Chigurh from No Country For Old Men can sub as a replacement — he’s got the same coin trick, after all. Has anyone ever asked Cormac McCarthy if he’s a Batman fan? And isn’t it weird that the Coen Bros turned down the first Batman movie in 1989, only to win an Oscar twenty years later for a movie featuring a Batman villain copycat?)
Now the screenplay heads into the big ferry sequence. The Joker has rigged two ferries, one carrying ordinary "good" Gothamites, the other carrying hardened criminals — the same criminals Harvey Dent put away at the beginning of Act II (again, an unintended alliance). Batman heads out to search for the Joker while Fox locates him via the big cell-phone sonar thingy. Batman informs Gordon of the Joker’s location, and now the sequence becomes a three-way fight between Batman, the Joker’s forces and Gordon’s forces. Gordon, a lone good detective in Batman Begins, is now the police commissioner, with "henchmen" of his own, and Batman must fight his own ally’s forces in order to achieve his goal of capturing the Joker before the ferries blow up. Batman panicked when the Joker fed him the bad information about Harvey and Rachel and made a mistake, but Batman — finally — has his act together now and it is Gordon’s turn to panic. He thinks the Joker has taken Harvey hostage, and he’s acting on a rash impulse to right what he feels is wrong.
About those ferries: setting aside any possible tricks up the Joker’s sleeve (ie, each ferry blowing itself up instead of the other), to me the morality of the situation breaks down like this: the "good" Gothamites and the "bad" Gothamites have been given the opportunity to kill each other, and who will pull the trigger? The "good" Gothamites (represented by Average Guy on the "good" ferry) all want the "bad" Gothamites dead, but they don’t have the strength of will to actually kill (which is why they need a justice system). The "bad" Gothamites, meanwhile, have killed, they’ve faced that choice and know what it means. ("Killing is making a choice," says the Joker to Batman in the interrogation room, and the reverse is also true — when people in power make a choice (and everyone is a person in power), they are, on some level, choosing who will live and who will die. Bruce’s idealism and the Joker’s nihilism meet — half-way — in the person of Two-Face.) In the end, the "good" Gothamites don’t have the will to defend themselves (which is why they need Batman), but the "bad" Gothamites have the strength to not kill, which calls all the way back to what the bank manager says to the Joker at the end of the heist sequence — criminals in Gotham used to have honor and respect, and here we see those qualities in action. It’s not just that Big Scary-Looking Convict conveniently grows a soul when faced with the opportunity of cold-blooded murder, it’s that he, and not the "good" Gothamites, and not the National Guardsman holding the detonator, has killed, and thus understands the strength it takes to have that will — and refuse to act on it. When Big Scary-Looking Convict throws his detonator out the window, he is risking his life but saving his soul, but when Average Guy gingerly puts his detonator back in its box, he’s admitting that it is not the responsibility of a citizen to mete out justice (the breaking of which rule is what sets the narrative of The Dark Knight into motion to begin with).
Meanwhile, Batman, the Joker and Gordon’s SWAT forces all collide in a three-way action sequece across the way. Having fought off his allies in the police department, Batman now gets attacked by the Joker. The dog motif begun in the Chechen’s meeting with the Scarecrow back in Act I now comes to a head. The Joker now has those very same dogs, which Batman must now fight. Why dogs? Well, as several folks have pointed out, the Joker is referred to as "a dog off its leash" and "a dog chasing cars," and we’ve seen him hang his head out a car window. And maybe its nothing more than a visual pun, that Gotham City is, literally, "going to the dogs."
In the midst of this, Two-Face arranges to have Gordon’s family kidnapped through Detective Ramirez. Ramirez wins her coin toss and receives only a punch in the face for her crimes against Gotham. (Chigurh differs from Two-Face, in that he insists that the victim calls the toss. Which is why the ending of No Country is so powerful, when Moss’s wife refuses to play Chigurh’s game. In the Ramirez scene, I wondered how it would go if Ramirez made the same moral stand as Moss’s wife. Moss’s wife refuses to play and gets killed anyway, but at least she doesn’t buy in to Chigurh’s twisted sense of morality.)
Across the way, the Joker is disappointed that neither the good nor the bad of Gotham could kill anyone, so he goes to his backup plan of doing it himself. This is enough of a distraction for him to allow Batman to get the drop on him, and the Joker plunges down the side of the building — and is saved by Batman. (Which points to one of the key rules of the superhero genre — in a superhero story, the villain wants to kill the hero, but the hero wants to save the villain, not kill him. Bruce, even after everything that’s happened, cannot, will not, kill the Joker. And I thought this was supposed to be a conservative wet-dream narrative.) As the Joker dangles helpless, he tells Batman that the stunt with the ferries is — yes — only a distraction, something to focus Batman’s attention while the real event, the real crime, is happening elsewhere — the self-destructive rampage of Two-Face. If the ferries had blown up, Gotham City would recover, but if they knew that their white-knight DA was a murderous madman, the whole system of justice would fall apart. (Kind of like when you find out your gay-bashing senator elicits sex in airport mens’ rooms, or your law-and-order governor gets caught soliciting prostitutes.)
Having saved the Joker, Bruce must now race off to save Two-Face. Two-Face has decided to punish Gordon not by killing him but by killing his son. Batman shows up for a three-way conversation between himself, Two-Face and Gordon, where they sort out who did what to whom and why. Batman feels that, even after killing three people, Two-Face is still Harvey Dent, and deserves to be saved. Harvey wants justice for those he feels are responsible for Rachel’s death, but Batman tells him that it’s not that simple — Rachel is dead because Bruce, Harvey and Gordon all acted, together, to clean up Gotham City. "Then why was I the only one who lost everything?" wails Two-Face, and Bruce holds his tongue — not only has he lost Rachel too, but he’s lost his parents and his normality into the bargain. He’s sacrificed more than Harvey could ever imagine, and he doesn’t bring it down to chance — he brings it down to choice. He chose to act, setting all the events of the narrative into motion, including the death of Rachel and Harvey’s disfigurment. When people complain about Batman being foolish in The Dark Knight, they’re wishing for the strong, always-right, never-wrong Batman of their imaginations. But the greatness of The Dark Knight‘s narrative lies in how it shows that Batman is often wrong, and completely helpless when dealing with a criminal like the Joker. There is no defense against evil, only the strength to not give in to it. "If Batman has limits, I can’t afford to know them," says Bruce in Act I, and here he’s confronted with the folly of that headstrong philosophy — Batman is all about limits, and the narrative of The Dark Knight is, in large part, an examination, and definition, of those limits.
Finally, some folk don’t buy that Batman has to take the fall for Harvey’s crimes. Why not tell people the truth, they ask, or, if Gordon absolutely must lie, why not pin the crimes on the Joker? And yet, in Bruce’s philosophy, he is responsible for them. He inspired Harvey to run for DA, he set into motion the bold stroke of rounding up all of Gotham’s gangsters, he gave the big party to ensure Harvey’s power, he set about making Harvey Daytime Batman so that he could stand the hope of giving up his burden and stealing Rachel away, he created the power vacuum that gave rise to the Joker. He tried to make Gotham a better place, and failed, in every conceivable way. The Joker wins at the end of The Dark Knight and now it’s Gordon’s dogs who chase him.