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Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight

Issues of who gives the “best” performance as the Batman and Joker, or which director best understands Batman all pale in importance compared to what has always been Batman’s true subject matter: the modern city. It’s appropriate in this regard that the focus of Nolan’s terrorism allegory in Begins was the rot of civilization’s major centers of activity. “Gotham’s time has come,” says Liam Neeson’s Nietzschean samurai. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” Likewise, The Dark Knight specifically calls its villains terrorists, references the Roman Empire’s suspension of democracy during times of trouble, and contains a sonar-aided system that can spy on all of Gotham — an intrusion Wayne Enterprises business manager Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) condemns even as he helps Wayne in using it (more Bush era spot-em’s — homemade terrorist video threats). Since Roman Empire comparisons have become routine since 9/11 in describing America’s current role on the global stage, Nolan’s link is hardly daring or inspired, but what would otherwise remain bullet points slapped on to Batman’s vigilantism for cheap, one-dimensional political relevance expand with his blockbuster’s delineation of urban space.

Spielberg and Shyamalan’s post-9/11 films focus on the nuclear family and small communities coming together (or not) during catastrophic crisis in the suburbs and the sticks — destruction and dread start in the cities, but the action quickly moves away from those loci. In contrast, Nolan’s world has a few ostracized, power-hungry loners fight over the fate of thousands with the city as their battleground — it therefore doesn’t make sense that the family of Commissioner Gordon, played by a terrifically low-key Gary Oldman, is eventually victimized at film’s climax. Nevertheless, instead of the operatic belfries, museums and alleyways of Burton’s movies, the residents of Gotham find themselves lost and depersonalized amidst corporate architecture and prosaic, unadorned city streets. It’s fitting that Hong Kong is featured in The Dark Knight when Wayne uses his business to illegally extradite — as Batman, of course — a high-level mob accountant back to the States. Nolan shoots the evening lights and reflective surfaces of modern China’s gargantuan corporate headquarters in the same dwarfing scope shots that frame Gotham.

Gone from The Dark Knight are the ludicrous multilevel elevated trains twisting about the drably futuristic Gotham of Batman Begins, which in the sequel is more Michael Mann than Fritz Lang. The correction greatly enhances the metaphor spanning both films — the corruption of the city as manifested in mass hysteria. When villains in Nolan’s Batman films descend on Gotham to spread terror via hallucinogenic drugs or random, sadistic violence, the faceless citizens, “these civilized people” teeter on the edge of order and mayhem, as malleable and susceptible toward either good or evil just as the city is a vast work in progress ripe for either streamlined decorum (Wayne’s bright, sterile penthouse/lair) or cavernous horror (empty warehouses, buildings under construction, dingy police stations, all blown to hell). It’s the utopia Bruce Wayne and his murdered parents envision versus the playground for vice its underworld wishes it to be — a classic dichotomy that in the age of the WMD and widespread panic tests the city’s soul between the wills of millionaire outlaws and psychotic evildoers.

Which brings us to the Joker. If The Dark Knight’s Gotham reflects the modern city’s unstylized, vulnerable megahabitation — towering yet utilitarian, awing yet brittle — then its best-known villain accomplishes something similar. The late Heath Ledger’s stooped, jittery performance as the psychotic clown has so far been predictably over-praised but not quite placed in perspective. Whereas live-action incarnations of the Joker have always been debonair and puckish, with Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson’s interpretation a feral grotesquerie tragically mocking the thin line between beast and beauty, Nolan and Ledger’s wastes no time on self-pity or forcing his demented carnival aesthetic on the rest of Gotham. No, in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s modus operandi is simply anarchy (even his greasy hair and smeared makeup imply anti-social tendencies) and death (his only “trick” isn’t an acid-spraying plastic flower or a high-voltage handshake buzzer, but a pencil that “disappears” through a mob henchman’s face). This isn’t Burton’s Phantom of the Opera Joker who melts at the sight of Vicki Vale. Instead he’s a lunatic whose sole mission as an “agent of chaos” is to make the rest of Gotham as twisted as he is by way of killing all guardians of the city’s law, and presiding over “social experiments” meant to prove that the people’s madness can be easily exploited and unleashed.

And so as the Joker goes, so goes The Dark Knight. Unlike the anomalous Batman Begins, the only Batman film devoted to Bruce Wayne’s origins as an avenger, The Dark Knight takes up the other films’ villain worship and rides its main attraction’s blitzkrieg of carnage. Ledger lives up to the hype. His demented spazzing (there’s a great bit where he impatiently hits the button of a detonator like a toddler playing with a toy), cracked voice and disgusting lip smacking are anti-psychologically embodied: This Joker keeps changing the explanations for the scars that widen his lips to a freakish smile, a complete turnaround from the torturous pop philosophizing on Wayne’s pain in Begins.


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