The ‘Themes and analysis’ series explores the major themes underpinning a movie or a TV show. It also analyses how they function within the story and elevate it.
The Dark Knight is widely considered to be the best superhero movie ever made, though it has little common with the superhero movies being made today. Its ‘superhero’ was just a costumed and well-muscled rich guy – a man without any superhuman abilities.
The film had Bruce Wayne once again donning the cowl and the cape to take on a bad guy he did not understand. Initially dismissing him as just another criminal (who he believes cannot be complicated), he is shocked to see that the Clown Prince of Crime is not so different from him, after all. It’s just that he is on the opposite side of the moral spectrum.
The film is best known for Heath Ledger’s transcendent performance as the Joker. His casting had been controversial. The film released, and nobody complained. Ledger infused the role with deadly charisma and eerie mannerisms that, Christopher Nolan later admitted, were devised by the actor himself. This was no goofy prankster. This was a malevolent, murderous agent of chaos. World’s greatest detective Batman struggled to understand the enigma of the Joker. He sought a rationale, and was horrified to discover that there is none.
One of the things that critics and scholars focused on when it came to the film was all the symbolism smartly propounded by Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David Goyer that was integrated seamlessly into the narrative.
The most important theme that pervaded through the film was perception. The persona of Batman, at least in this trilogy, is based on fear. Criminals think of him as something almost mythical. He is a symbol of dread for them, an avenger prowling the rooftops at night to hunt them. Bruce Wayne himself had to face his greatest fear — that of bats — to build this persona. Now, he is directing his fear towards the scum of society.
At one point, he is told by his trusty butler, Alfred, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.” He replies, “Batman has no limits,” bringing to light the difference between his two identities. While Bruce Wayne is a flesh-and-blood human being, Batman is above all that. Of course, he has to change his methods — one of which is city-wide surveillance — to finally catch and defeat the Joker.
These perceptions of Batman — the people of Gotham see him as a saviour and the mobsters as a fiend stalking them — shatter in the end when he takes the blame for murders committed by Harvey Dent. He does this so that the perception of Harvey as the White Knight of Gotham can be maintained. So people would not lose hope after finding out the person they thought was a messiah turned out to be a cold-blooded killer.
It does not matter if he is really a White Knight. It is all about perception — how people see him. If they think he was a symbol of incorruptibility right till the end, they will honour his sacrifice by being unafraid in the face of mobsters. And just for the record, we see the true Harvey Dent has some temper issues and they are only exacerbated by the Joker, not fabricated out of thin air.
Joker, of course, defies any attempt at identifying him coherently. He keeps changing his tactics and goals, and this is how others, including the Batman, perceive him. At first, he wants to kill the Batman. Then, he wants him unmasked. Then, neither of those. He just wants Batman to kill him so that the superhero would break his code of not killing anybody.
Another theme in The Dark Knight is the fine line between anarchy and order. The Joker demonstrates at one point to the Batman how fragile the veneer of civilisation really is. He says, “To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
One thing that makes The Dark Knight unique in the superhero genre is that the themes of the film drive the plot. This is why often a lot of plot elements appear contrived. It is a symbolism-driven film, and one can see that right from the first sequence (the robbery), when his hired thugs are discussing who the Joker really is and trying to ascertain his motives. Well, good luck.