We have to wait a little longer to see Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, and NerdBastards’ Matthew Jackson is dealing with the wait by filling his head with as many other Batman tales as possible. In the six weeks leading up to the flick’s release, he’ll be revisiting all six Batman franchise films so far (yes, even the crap ones) and writing retrospective essays on what worked, what didn’t, and what each film means to the franchise at large.

So, we’ve come to the end of our little  journey, and I feel like I have even less new to say about this film than I did about the last one. The Dark Knight is perhaps the most analyzed superhero film ever made. It’s been picked apart by many a film critic, blogger and Batman geek over and over again for nearly four years, so why add my name to that pile? Well, for one, I still consider it the greatest superhero movie ever made (sorry, Mr. Whedon), and for another, I’ve been writing these pieces largely on the basis of my own discovery. As we approach The Dark Knight Rises, the idea was for me to go back, revisit the entire Batman film mythos and examine how each film makes me feel as I prepare for the coming of Nolan’s last film. When it came time to revisit The Dark Knight, this is what I found.

In my essay on Batman Begins last week, I talked a lot about the theme of justice, what it means to the title character and his villains, and how it would continue to evolve as the Nolan trilogy moved on from an origin story to a clash of titans. When I went back to re-watch The Dark Knight a few days ago, I thought I was going to write something here about how The Joker (Heath Ledger) arrived on scene to change everyone’s definition of justice (“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,” etc.). But while The Joker is certainly an instrument of changing times in Gotham, and is a central figure in what he calls “the battle for Gotham’s soul,” it’s not him that changes what justice means.

Like many people, when I heard that Ledger had been cast as the Clown Prince of Crime, I reacted with very unhealthy skepticism. I say “unhealthy,” because in many ways it went beyond mere skepticism and into the land of frustration. I couldn’t see this man as The Joker. I couldn’t understand why Christopher Nolan would betray me. I was horribly and irrevocably wrong to the think that. Though he’s actually not my favorite incarnation of the character (that honor goes to Mark Hamill’s animated Joker), Ledger’s take on Batman’s most famous nemesis is nothing short of brilliant. He disappears into the role. The voice, the physicality, the absolute lunacy of everything he’s developing onscreen makes it one of the great performances ever put on film (and I really do mean ever). He’s a captivating presence, an addictive presence. Whenever The Joker goes away you wind up craving his return in the next scene (which is, in part, why I think people wrongly condemn that whole Hong Kong sequence in this picture). He’s the dominant presence in the film. He steals every scene, and even when he’s not in a scene we wish he was. But he’s not what changes things.

So, what’s The Joker’s role. For me, it’s outlined by his final line in the film:

“See, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”

The Joker’s the push. He’s the gauntlet builder, the question on your philosophy final that you can’t solve, the morality play with a dozen alternate endings. He describes himself as an “agent of chaos” and asks “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” If you a draw a line through all his machinations, starting with the deal he makes with Gotham’s mob elite and ending with his springing of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from the hospital and his plot to blow up the ferry boats, you can arguably see some kind of grand scheme at work, though it is punctuated by moments of inspired improvisation. But whether he planned the whole thing or not, whether that “little push” that was intended to tear Gotham’s three crusaders (Batman, Dent and Gordon) down, he’s not the one who upsets the meaning of justice. That honor goes to Batman (Christian Bale).

See, as I went back to watch The Dark Knight, I was thinking about the plot setup we’ve been hearing about for The Dark Knight Rises. Batman’s broken, not by Bane, but by what he did at the end of this film. He’s been retired for eight years, and meanwhile evil has crept back into his city. Why is he so broken? Because he blames himself. And he blames himself because he was the one who ultimately changed everything. Yes, The Joker placed him (and Dent, and Gordon) in a series of impossible situations, but in the end Batman made the leap of obsession that made everything different. As The Joker’s schemes of chaos got bigger, so too did Batman’s schemes to snag him, to the point that he designed a machine to spy on the entire city that very nearly made Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) leave him. And then, when he could have made the choice to stand up and face the Two-Face saga before the Gotham public, and explain what happened and explain that Dent was driven insane, he took the blame himself so that the city’s “White Knight” could be immortalized.

Gotham’s protector became its greatest enemy in that moment. It’s the culmination of a series of compromises that Batman is forced to make throughout the entire film. The Joker is the impetus for this, of course. He’s a man who just wants to watch the world burn, an agent of chaos, someone without reason or morals or logic. He’s driven to prod Batman until he goes over the edge, and while Batman might have managed to avoid the edge (we’ll know in a few days, won’t we?). By the end, Bruce Wayne has lost much of what he cares about and Batman has lost most of his rules (except, we must remember, for that one). It’s a staggering tragedy. Here we see the crusader drop all of his principles, strip himself down, sacrifice much of what he’s built up to bring down someone who could give a shit about any of that. And the greatest tragedy is that it was really the only way.

Combine all this deep, dark thematic complexity with stellar acting (Ledger is obviously genius, but Christian Bale is also staggering), beautifully choreographed action (I don’t care about your complaining; that Hong Kong sequence is still badass) and a true sense of ambition that goes far beyond CG effects and budgets, and you’ve got a true epic that transcends its genre.

In a few days: We end this little Bat-discussion with my review of The Dark Knight Rises.

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