The second installment of the “Dark Night” trilogy is the most well-crafted superhero film I have ever seen, with superb acting that will shake you to your very core.
The Joker (Heath Ledger) is what makes this movie so watchable, despite its length. He isn’t after the same thing as most criminals. Instead, he “just [wants] to watch the world burn.” He is the epitome of chaos, or as he said it, “an agent of chaos.” He operates by no logic and is a hurricane of death and destruction in Gotham for the same reason a dog licks his genitals- solely because he can.
His multitude of vicious crimes are not about ambition or money (“It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message”). The fear he spreads is purely ideological. He represents the view that a part of us, as humans, wants to abandon all rules. And without rules, humanity will tear itself apart, otherwise known as the Hobbes ideology. Contrarily, Batman (Christian Bale) believes in the Locke ideology, that humans have inherent goodness- which is why he consistently tries to save Gotham, even when others have given up on it.
Director Christopher Nolan epitomizes this clash of ideologies when the Joker performs a social experiment to expose Gotham’s rotten core. He rigs bombs to two ferries, and each boat contains the detonator for the other; one boat is filled with prisoners, and the other with civilians. He tells the passengers that unless one of the boats blows the other up before midnight, he will detonate the bombs on both. He assumes that like him, people only look out for themselves, and inevitably, one of the boats will blow the other up.
In the end, neither boat blows the other up, and all the passengers live. This shows Nolan’s view on human nature- that at the end of the day, there is some good in humanity. But the most significant moment is when one of the prisoners takes the detonator from the warden’s hand, and without hesitation, throws it into the river. This act, in all its simplicity, shows that even prisoners, people who are considered to be the least moral, are good at heart. With this action, he rejects the Joker’s primal ideology, and also shows that there is no “dividing line” between good and bad people.
However, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the Joker’s main goal is to drive the epitome of “good,” DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) insane. He does this by killing Dent’s girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall).
After the police take the Joker into custody, he gives Batman two addresses. In one building is Dawes, and in the other is Dent. Both locations are rigged with explosives and are set to blow up at the same time. However, when giving Batman the addresses, he switches who is where. Thus, thinking he is going to save the love of his life, Rachel, Batman instead saves Gotham’s biggest source of hope, Harvey Dent. The Gotham Police go to the other location but are too late to save Rachel.
Even though he is saved, half of Dent’s face is severely burnt, and on top of this, he is left severely traumatized by the death of Rachel- he believes Batman made the wrong choice of who to save. This sends Dent down his own killing spree, leaving 5 dead, as he turns into the villain Two-Face. His fall from grace completely undoes the system he’s worked so hard to achieve (putting away 549 of the city’s most dangerous criminals), along with validating the Joker’s views on human nature. This is why the selfless act of the criminal is all the more important, it is done with completely no thought; the purest act of good, from the least likely source.
While he never lost hope in the good of the people of Gotham, seeing this allowed Batman to make a choice of equal magnitude at the end of the film and to become Gotham’s scapegoat by taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes, leaving the city’s faith in law protection unsullied.
This also provides a brilliant origin story for Two-Face: the product of an imperfect hero; Batman’s inability to save Rachel’s life or Harvey’s soul. I just wish we got to see more of Two-Face. But let’s be realistic, that big of an open wound would have caught a severe infection within a matter of days.
This is why no Batman movie will be able to come remotely close to this masterpiece. Ben Affleck tried in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017), and Robert Pattinson is starring in a Batman movie being released in March of 2022. But the producers don’t understand what Christopher Nolan did: it’s not actually about Batman. Don’t get me wrong: Christian Bale was a phenomenal Batman, he definitely had the gravitas for the role; and Affleck was not bad at all. But what sets Nolan and Bale’s movies apart is the philosophical conflict going on underneath the surface level, physical battle. Additionally, the “Dark Night” trilogy provides more realistic elements: Batman is an imperfect hero and is unable to save everyone. In fact, at times, he is also overpowered and manipulated by the Joker.
And of course, this film would be nothing without Heath Ledger, may he rest in peace. Ledger didn’t just act, he became the Joker. Per koimoi.com, prior to shooting, he locked himself in a hotel room for six weeks and read every comic that he “could that were relevant to the script and then just closing [his] eyes and meditating on it”, as he said in a 2007 interview with Empire . This was also where he improvised the Joker’s blood-curdling laugh. This maniacal laugh, the makeup (which he did himself so it appeared like it was done by a madman), and his desire for anarchy create a truly terrifying movie villain and, upon watching the movie for the first time, left me absolutely frozen in fear in my chair. To which the Joker would ask me the same thing he likes to as his victims: “Why so serious?”