The Dark Knight is a Zizekian study of identity and the nature of corruption, a deconstruction of comic book vigilante v criminal mores, and a damn fine sorry-parents-but-so-not-for-wee’uns summer movie. If Orson Wells had read Alan Moore’s Watchmen at an impressionable age, Citizen Kane would have resembled this billionaire instead of the gently rotting Hearst figure.
2005’s Batman Begins charted wee Bruce Wayne’s diversion from adulthood’s inevitably lost ideals and progression into the Batman, the embodiment of his terrors that would take on the corrupted city that created them. Three years later, he has settled into both roles, both the caped crusader and the airhead heir, and desperately wants to be free of both. Past the novelty and constant progression of establishing himself as a force to be recognised and reckoned with, Gotham’s Dark Knight seeks his own permission to escape the years of grinding danger and compromise ahead and have a normal life…a nebulous conception including his oldest friend by his side and all responsibilities taken up by others.
The Dark Knight begins with “the Batman” (Gotham has not yet accepted him enough to be on a first-name basis) tying up loose ends. He successfully catches the Scarecrow—Cillian Murphy in a surprising but appreciated cameo—and a handful of the city’s last remaining mobsters despite the interference of Batman wannabes: thrillseeking fratboys with hockey padding and machine guns. Batman mopes despite his success: he had hoped to inspire a general laundry of Gotham’s soul, not a new gang of brutal thugs. The possibility that this is the best positive sign the deeply stained Gotham could manifest after only a few years of a nascent law and order does not occur to the man, who is sporting more scars than when we saw him last. The Batman is tired, of both the nightly fighting and the daily fopping, and yearns to dump the burden on someone who will inspire lawful imitators. He is not yet the driven borderline sociopath of the earlier whimsical films, graphic novels, or the animated series, but a man who craves an ordinary life, or at least a good nap.
Harvey Dent is the man to relieve him of his burdens, he decides: the flashy and dogged District Attorney hero that Gotham needs (but doesn’t deserve). The Batman wilfully ignores the obvious facts: without a moralistic thug in the shadows backing him up, Dent would be doubly handicapped by fighting crime in the light. He must maintain a spotless image for his prosecutions to hold, both in his own actions and what the well connected criminal network is able to concoct, and he must be a target with none of Bruce Wayne’s money or Batman’s physical protections.
Blinded by the potential loss of his oldest friend and bridge to normality to a love rival—Harvey Dent himself—Wayne selfishly insists that the Batman must disappear after propping up Dent in his stead, despite the proof that Gotham’s White Knight can’t prosecute criminals or even continue to live without the city’s other knight, who can break the same rules the criminals do and deliver them into Dent’s jurisdiction. Even the soon-to-be-Commissioner Gordon admits to Dent that his elite crime unit, established in the wake of the Batman’s first housecleaning, is staffed with formerly dirty cops who continue to be deeply enmeshed in the city’s criminal culture. He has to work with what’s available. Both Dent and Gordon need outside back-up, because Gotham’s legitimate authority isn’t ready or able to stand on its own.
Throughout the film, all the major characters save one choose to break into a new identity, sometimes foolishly, and all are forced by chaos and destruction back into their old molds, sometimes tragically. Rachel Dawes suffers in this the most. She has moved on from her childhood friend Bruce, while keeping his dangerous secret, and established a relationship that is nurtured by her career and ideals, not in conflict. Bruce, meanwhile, has come to see her more as a symbol than his friend, as his “last hope for a normal life.” He asks her to wait for him, and she wavers, but chooses instead to marry the man who is more her partner, and is targeted for assassination because of her work and position—not solely for her connection to a male protagonist.
Rachel becomes a Woman in a Refrigerator, but in an interesting way: textually, she refuses to be defined as part of either man’s self-image and chooses her own future, one that abets her own crusade. After all, it certainly would have been easier to live as the wife of a billionaire, protected and wanting for nothing, than to actively face intimidation and assassination (and more immediately, the hours and numbing drudgery) as a prominent civil servant. Her death is her own martyrdom—she is chosen as a victim not because she is Batman’s girlfriend but because she is an effective, and legitimate, prosecutor. She is part of the Joker’s criminals-and-crimefighters paradigm, not a bystander.
In the fallout from her death, however, both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent focus on her not as a victim but as a life taken from them, and make her the motivation to retreat into the black-and-white identities of Batman and Two-Face. The text doesn’t put her in the refrigerator, but the two men she loves do. Textually, this is as much a tragedy as her death: Dent, who grew from a lawful crimefighter to an amoral, self-centred vigilante, is made an icon of Gotham’s legitimate authority, while Dawes, who died in service to the city, is denied a memorial—except as secret motivation for the Batman’s continued vigilantism, which she refused to support in life.
Only Alfred, the most genre-savvy of the gang, knows the truth of Rachel’s life and death, but chooses to leave Wayne with his misunderstood loss. Himself a former enforcer of rough justice, Alfred knows a hero’s mental limitations.
Aside from one, all characters are asking themselves the same two questions: who am I, and by extension, what is Gotham? In nearly all cases, the fight for Gotham’s soul is an excuse for self-serving choices: Dent wants to be the hero, Wayne wants to abandon being the hero, the gangsters want money and power. Gotham itself is deeply entrenched in corruption and will not be affected by the angsty turning points of these individuals, only by generations of effort. Only Lt. Gordon, with his understanding of compromise and canny long view, is rewarded with a better position in which to fight criminals, and his increase in power is immediate: he saves the vulnerable Batman.
That last character, however…he explodes the delusions these characters have that their destinies are ruled by their own whims, along with several buildings and bodies. The Joker, as Alfred observes, is one of the few on the world who want nothing more than to watch it burn, and hopes for himself only to keep flicking the matches.
As an aside: the Joker is referred throughout the film as a terrorist, and the threats he poses feel like terrorist threats, making the citizens of Gotham powerless and reactive. Terrorists, however, are defined by their ends-justify-the-means goals, their manifestos, the twisted lessons they want to impart to the world. Terrorist efforts have a point, if not one the rest of the world would agree justify their actions. The Joker…if he had a point, I missed it while cowering behind the seat in front of me. He sees himself simply as an agent chaos, looking for someone strong and twisted enough to destroy him. His actions are only twisted love notes asking for more of his chosen other half’s attention.
It’s only a side effect that the Joker’s carnage hammers home to the Batman and the legitimate authority that the fight against crime will not be a one-sided victory.