Everything about this is wrong.
It’s wrong that Heath Ledger is dead, that he’s gone and will give us no more like this, a performance that is so heartstoppingly, terrifyingly authentic that it barely seems like performance. It’s wrong that we’ve lost his promise, that we’ve lost what he might have given us a decade from now, two decades from now. I cried for him, watching this, and for us.
It’s wrong that Ledger’s death lends this even more significance than we might have seen otherwise, or at least that his death makes it impossible to separate that terrible fact from the terror-full character he plays here. Because this Joker, in Ledger’s hands, is like a monster sprung full-grown from our collective id, a beast easy to despise because he is so recognizably us, the awful side of us, not necessarily as individuals but as a puppet of all of us, fueled by the mutual societal self-destructiveness — as evidenced by the ongoing collapse of our economies, of our environment, of our inability to stop ourselves going over a cultural cliff — that some of us rage against it to seemingly no effect.
I hate that I have to think that Ledger’s own, in retrospective, clear urge to self-destruct had anything to do with how powerfully he brings to life this gollum of our apparent urge for species-cide. But the possibility seems inescapable. And yet, if it’s true, then the Joker is even more damning an indictment of us all than anyone could have planned for.
This is the kind of shit that The Dark Knight has me thinking. Miserable, depressing shit that makes me want to crawl into bed for a week and not even peek out from beneath the covers. But, of course, I’m a miserable, depressed creature of our modern cultural environment, so I cannot help but see Dark Knight as brilliant, genius even, a wonderful, wretched encapsulation of everything that’s fucked up about the world, and a few very tiny things that might be hopeful about it.
Ledger’s (I’m Not There, Candy) Joker — in Christopher Nolan’s followup to 2005’s zeitgeist-wise Batman Begins — springs from nowhere, here, and everywhere. The Joker just turns up to terrorize Gotham City: he is no one, an always-anonymous man — and a man he is, however psychotic — and he is everyone. He’s that impossibility that we, in the outside-of-the-movies world, have been “trained” to see everywhere, even though they don’t exist, at least not on any meaningful scale: the terrorist with no cause, no politics, who’s just an inexplicable madman unmotivated by anything other than insanity. And yet, how could he be anything other than inevitable in the cesspit that is Gotham City (that is, in other words, perhaps the whole word), where wannabe Batmans dress up in capes and hoods and spray machine gun fire into mobs of bad guys? Where the rules are that there are no rules?
That’s the catch, the out that saves Nolan’s (The Prestige, Insomnia) Batman from accusations of glorifying vigilantism or extralegal adventures in the name of truth and justice and peace. I mean, you can say that, if you want, and I’m sure people will, but they’d be wrong, because Batman here is all about adhering to rules higher than those that are written down, whose spirit and letter can be ignored. That’s explicit here: Batman may be extralegal and without jurisdiction, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale: I’m Not There, 3:10 to Yuma) may be as psychotic and as much a showman, in his own way, as the Joker, but he knows which rules cannot be broken, cannot be winked at and ignored, and the Joker doesn’t. There is, with true justice, only the spirit of the rules, and contravening them is where evil comes in.
And that is here, too, in Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart: No Reservations, The Wicker Man), who is on a campaign to wipe out organized crime in the city and is every bit the upstanding boy scout he appears to be… until it all touches him personally. His philosophy — which is about the Batman, but which also hits disturbingly close to home in other ways — is: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That is bitter, and misanthropic, and cruel, and entirely justified as a way to explain Batman, Gotham, humanity… at least as seen through this dark lens. It’s not a pleasant view of… anything, but it’s hard at this moment in time to see it as other than accurate.
Christian Bale will inevitably get short shrift in all the (justifiable) lamenting over Ledger, which is too bad, because he continues to be breathtaking as Batman. It’s one thrilling thing to see him in the batsuit leaping off a skyscraper, and yet another entirely to see how Bale lends Bruce Wayne the weariness that makes him so poignant: stripping off the batsuit to reveal how bruised and scarred he is… well, as insane as he is, Bruce becomes the lens through which we see the hope. What is worth sacrificing in the name of the greater good. What decency people can muster in indecent times. What it takes for people with principles to make a stand when principles seem unvalued.
If Dark Knight is a nightmare of particularly modern neuroses, then Batman/Bruce Wayne are a tiny ray of hope upon awakening.
Or would be, if he weren’t fictional.