WARNING: The following article reveals several of The Dark Knight’s plot twists. If you have not yet seen the film and would like to maintain the element of surprise, please refer to our spoiler-free review.
We are living in anxious times. We have lost faith in our government, where the executive branch has scammed us repeatedly, and a new Congress has failed to bring the change we need. Add to the toll the crushing spike in gas prices and a new economic disaster each week, and our nation is quickly becoming desperate for good news. It seems that what we need now, more than ever, is a morale boost, a chance to escape into a better outlook for a while.
Our national mood has issued a silent cry to Hollywood, the great creator of our dreams, to deliver a brighter reality, a hero who will fix all our problems while showing us that it is still possible to remain pure of heart. Last week, Hollywood sent us two very different candidates, and with resounding emphasis we chose not the cheerful optimism of Mamma Mia!, but Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the most depressing superhero movie ever created.
At first glance, our choice seems strange. For the record, it’s not that Mamma Mia! did poorly; it did manage to break box office records for a musical. No, the real surprise is the roof-shattering success of The Dark Knight, which on the surface appears to be constructed of every motif the American public should be sick of dealing with by now.
In this new sequel to Nolan’s Batman Begins, the city of Gotham is plagued by crime, an endless succession of destructive events that mirror the more invisible problems we face in our own lives. It also looks more realistic this time around, without the futuristic elevated trains – as if we needed the setting to be more relatable. The Joker is wreaking havoc at complete random, without regard for human suffering, and we cannot help but think that somewhere in the real world there are terrorists who could provide the inspiration for that character’s method of operation. And when we look to Batman to be our savior, to give us hope, we find not so much a superhero as a conflicted, imperfect human being who is just as worried as we are and doesn’t always do the right thing.
Luckily for us, The Dark Knight is not actually as nihilistic as it seems. The mood is indeed undeniably dismal; the Joker is psychotic, sadistic, and terrifying, and Heath Ledger’s death greatly compounds the ominous taste of it all. And yet, the film is strangely triumphant, and when all is said and done, the triumph feels all the more real because it wasn’t served up amidst bright lights and Meryl Streep singing Dancing Queen.
One particulary tense sequence toward the end of the film perfectly embodies this subtly inspirational quality. With chaos threatening to swallow Gotham whole, two ferries are loaded with passengers to move them safely off the island; but of course, the Joker has other ideas. He has loaded each boat with barrels of gasoline, and given each captain the detonator to blow the other ferry out of the water. It is a sick execution of game theory’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, pitting the two boats against one another with the expectation that one group will pull the trigger and claim the lives of hundreds of innocent people in order to ensure their own survival. To complicate matters, one ferry is filled with convicts, who were shipped off the island as soon as possible so the Joker couldn’t utilize them in his maniacal game.
On the boat occupied by regular citizens, the passengers argue that it is only right for the convicts to take the fall, as they have shown themselves to be of criminal character. It seems likely that the convicts will act first, though, as they have already proven their disregard for human life. Meanwhile, the audience is despairing; we knew the Joker was terrible, but now it seems inevitable that his evil will spread to the good people of Gotham. And so, when both sides discard their detonators, and the Joker is left stunned and victimless, it is a strangely beautiful moment, reassuring us that even in our darkest hour, we are capable of the most difficult act of selflessness.
Of course, it’s Batman himself who must ultimately recover our spirits. It’s nice to see ordinary citizens demonstrate some altruism, but above all we came to the theater to see a superhero make us believe that everything will be okay. Yet as Bruce Wayne pursues a losing battle against Joker, and even briefly throws in the towel, it seems uncertain that that moment will ever arrive. But Batman comes through in the end, and while the acrobatic fight sequences are awe-inspiring, it is a much more subtle act that truly lifts us up.
It is the Joker’s ultimate goal to turn inspirational, golden-hearted District Attorney Harvey Dent to the dark side to drain Gotham of their biggest source of hope; an event so crucial that the film’s writers were willing to kill off Bruce Wayne’s love interest to make it happen. When Dent finally dies after killing a number of innocent people, it seems the Joker has won. Here, however, is where Batman comes to the rescue, not with well-aimed punches but with a few growled words, commanding Lt. Jim Gordon to blame Dent’s murders on him.
For the first time in the film, our hero is certain of his decision, which is reassuring in itself. And although we know the Joker succeeded in corrupting Harvey Dent, it is strangely inspiring to see Batman claim responsibility, even for actions that were not his own. He is taking Gotham’s broken spirits and carrying them on his back. He is playing the part of scapegoat for an entire city, even as he himself nears the emotional breaking point. He is willing to do anything to keep his fellow citizens above ground, and we can’t help but admire his sacrifice.
Back in the real world, we have watched a housing crisis evolve into a banking crisis, and no one is taking responsibility for anything. No one has claimed guilt for what happened, and no one has stood up and vowed to fix it. We are ready for our superhero to come and lead us to better times, or at least to steer us in that direction. In The Dark Knight, we find a setting similar enough to our own to seem applicable, with a few moments of inspiration to assure us that even when it seems hopeless, we can make the choices that will pull us back up.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.