Order, Chaos, and Faith: The Themes and Form of ‘The Dark Knight’

Originally a story about the perils of combating organised crime, The Dark Knight makes several radical departures that frequently result in the main characters being split among tonally disparate contexts whose relevance to each other is not always immediately evident.
2008-07-18 (General release)

The only thing critics savour more than lifting a piece of mass-art onto a plinth for worship is the act of tearing it down once it is perceived to have to risen too far above the mere mortals who placed it there. The satisfying act of airing an opinion previously silenced, or of redressing some form of natural balance to the pop-culture dialogue, is a phenomenon particularly relevant in an age where any fool with a keyboard (cue awkward moment as I regard myself in the reflection of my screen) can hope to influence discussion, or at the very least get some quick page hits from a topic everyone has some opinion on. Therefore it was inevitable with the growing success of the Marvel formula, as well as the perceived inferiority of the path taken by their key rival DC, that would help fuel a resurgent backlash against a previously lauded work which firmly opposes the former, and arguably inspires the latter.

Indeed The Dark Knight was a picture begging for a dressing down from an audience that had raised it up to the top of the hallowed, yet obviously problematic, IMDb top 250. With a grandiose attitude towards its pulpy subject matter, as well as a lacklustre follow-up which exposed just how easily such an approach can become over bearing and absurd, the film was ripe for the serious re-evaluation it has duly received in the last few years. I mean to contest this negative shift, and highlight the film’s ingenious use of form and character to drive the film’s story and themes, rejecting the assumptions that seek to limit the film and its genre.

First of all, it seems oddly obvious to highlight how the backlash The Dark Knight has garnered recently is less surprising than the films initial success–a phenomenon which always struck me and many others as something of a pleasant surprise. The picture is often overbearingly sullen and downbeat, lifting its heroes up for the singular purpose that it will give them further to fall, with a continuing air of menace and violence clouding the extensive running time. Most important is also the manner in which it rejects the traditional clear three-act structure, or even the gradual build-up to a spectacular climax that most mainstream pictures rely upon, instead employing a highly erratic, heavy serialised form. Such a construction can be incredibly frustrating upon initial viewing, with its writers appearing convinced they can tell a dozen storylines within a single narrative.

Originally a story about the perils of combating organised crime, the picture makes several radical departures into various tales: Batman giving up his identity, a hero having to fight the powerful reach of modern terrorism, the outwittingof international extradition rules, avenging the death of commissioner Gordon, investigating The Joker’s identity–all while navigating a love triangle of Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes, and Harvey Dent. Its many action sequences are equally chaotic: dancing in between sometimes four simultaneous conflicts that frequently result in our main characters being split among tonally disparate contexts whose relevance to each other is not always immediately evident.

However, upon release these elements were not perceived by most as issues of contention, and instead praise was lavished on the film, in particular its remarkable perspective on the issues facing contemporary society, the visually striking and visceral action sequences, and most of all the central dynamic between Batman and The Joker. Herein lies the reason behind the film’s continued popularity despite the significant reaction against it in recent years: The Joker and his profound, all-encompassing influence on the film. This is hardly a secret given the praise and awards garnered by Heath Ledger for his now iconic portrayal. But the character’s success goes well beyond the quirks and patchy face paint of the performance, and resides within the crucial role he plays in the structure and narrative of the picture. Within The Dark Knight there lies a very simple, almost dull narrative in which our heroes, ‘schemers trying to control their little worlds’, pull apart the forces undermining law and order; one which is constantly frustrated and never realised due to the interference of The Joker as the villain.

In the actual narrative however, the deranged clown does not merely disrupt their plans and provide the necessary conflict for drama to develop, but actively upsets the film’s pace and structure. With every appearance The Joker changes the direction of the plot, undermines any progress made by our heroes, and lives up to his self-anointed title as an agent of chaos, both against the fictional world of Gotham and, perhaps, against the very fabric of the motion picture itself. It is this volatile relationship between content and form that results in the films serialised nature. But by tying it directly to a character, the filmmakers not only add agency and a dangerous excitement, they also reduce the potential for irritation such a format could easily create. The Joker isn’t just the ‘villain of the week’ that most films in the genre employ to provide impetus for existing; he defines the picture in nearly every aspect, his very appearance changing a scene’s mood and construction: shots become tighter, rarely straying beyond the mid-shot, and also linger on the action, increasing the sensation of discomfort and unease. The audience is informed by the picture in every way possible that this character could bend or break the film in any way he desires, that both the other characters and the audience are subject to his whims, and can never be sure of where they stand or where they’re going.

This atmosphere of disturbing uncertainty walks hand-in-hand with the central theme and conflict on which the whole picture hinges: the struggle between the forces of chaos and order, and whether the latter can exist at all. Order, as it exists in America today, rests firmly on the dual principles of faith and fear. The Dark Knight ’s predecessor spent ample time establishing the role and importance of fear, both an intangible idea that cannot be identified or destroyed, and one that Batman would have to embody to obtain power. So in many ways it is up to this film to explore the other principle: faith.

This faith rests upon the notion that all humans in such a society are inherently good, or can be trusted to do the right thing, and that the laws established by society will protect them if they continue to do so. Such a positive vision is absent for a majority of the film’s running time; instead we are witness to a cynical and pessimistic view of Gotham’s citizens, who are shown to be powerless to stop their city’s descent into chaos, and sometimes even accelerate it, as evidenced by their attempts on the life of Bruce Wayne’s disloyal accountant Coleman Reese. As the film illustrates, The Joker fully expects the citizens of Gotham to abandon the faith on which their society relies, tearing it to pieces through selfish acts that will instil doubt in others, encouraging the ‘bare’ animal acts and motivations to emerge from the surface. Altruism, philanthropy, and decency are all constructs of ‘schemers’ trying to establish order for their own benefit, denying the true nature of humans as creatures of chaos–entirely self-motivated atoms ricocheting off each other, inevitably causing violent reactions that can only result in the ensuing explosions growing in scale, until everyone is engulfed within.

For a mainstream picture to include, and indeed focus upon such notions, appears to again be a step towards commercial suicide at best, and an arrogant act of folly at worst. The extent to which the film succeeds in doing justice to a conflict deep within the human condition, or should even have tried, is not a question I can solely answer. However, it certainly does not take the easy path of simply appropriating the themes to add cheap meaning and significance to its established property. Somehow the picture manages to ride the wafer-thin line between examining its themes and providing an absorbing, character-driven drama that stays true to the recognisable elements that brought its audience in front of the screen. Nowhere does it push this boundary further than in the moment on which the whole film pivots: the ferry sequence. Here is where the forces that have driven the film are finally placed nakedly face-to-face, not through the avatars of Batman and The Joker, but through the force that matters most, namely the citizen. Stripped of the ancillary traits and foibles of the key characters, faith and chaos are finally put to the test in a situation where none of our heroes or villains can influence the outcome. With both sides having made their respective statements in the form of both speech and action, it is up to the people of Gotham to decide which side of humanity they wish to be defined by.

Thus, to say the events on the ferry ‘merely’ represent the victory of order over chaos would be both right and wrong, as the passengers do not simply act ‘logically’ or in accordance with what society might deem acceptable or morally right: to save the innocent at expense of the guilty. They are in some way inspired by fear of a mortal or perhaps even spiritual character, but they do not act out of terror of the law or indeed of Batman, as their dilemma remains unknown to the world beyond the two vessels. Instead they choose to put total trust in the very faith The Joker has undermined and denied throughout the film. This one defeat is not a victory for the ‘schemers’ order he has been trying to destroy; instead in many ways it proves the very existence of such a construction to be false, as it supposedly relies upon the nonexistence of the very virtues these ordinary citizens have so humbly displayed: altruism and trust.

The Joker’s blank and clueless reaction to the ferry’s shared sacrifice neatly displays the simple fact that he cannot hope to comprehend these impulses or motivations, in very much the same manner as Batman fails to fully understand the energies that drive his antipode. Batman also fails throughout to recognise the endurance of such selfless traits in the citizens of Gotham, his mind so clouded by the deafening roar of The Joker. Thus, he resorts to extreme measures throughout the film to try and combat the clown, partly out of his own heroic selflessness, but also out of his own lapse in faith that ordinary citizens in the city still retain the ability to exercise these virtues themselves. At crucial points in the film he attempts to surrender his identity, and greatest power, then later assumes control over the telecommunications of every citizen, compromising their privacy and liberty, all in the belief that they no longer have the desire to protect it themselves.

This is the paradox at the heart of Batman in this film: through his very existence he is admitting that he has lost faith in the citizens of Gotham to uphold their own values and law, and so he must himself subvert such law in order to restore order. As long as he is required to uphold order it cannot truly exist; like all great dramatic paradoxes it is ironic, tragic, and self-perpetuating.

The solution is presented here as Harvey Dent, who does not feel the need to appoint himself as the protector and martyr for the city, but instead stands as one of them, ready to fight for, and as part of the peaceful order rather than from the outside as a constant reminder of its own weaknesses. Through him Gotham itself can prove, as the passengers of the ferries do, that the foundations it rests upon are strong enough to stand unaided, that they can police and protect themselves. The result, that corruption within those very foundations directly leads to Dent’s destruction, is the dramatic tragedy of the narrative. Unlike those passengers, Dent loses his faith in the virtues they uphold, abandoning the order he has fought so hard to protect, curiously choosing to replace it not with chaos, but instead with his own warped form of order: the amoral and blind fate of chance. The fact that he does so out of grief for a terrible loss at least presents the audience with some hope that no person would do so out of rational choice, granting us some comfort against the Joker’s assertion that deep down we are all the dark side of the coin.

But it would still represents a defeat for Batman, and a victory for The Joker (and indeed for Chaos itself), were it not for another altruistic gesture, this time from The Dark Knight himself. Even the super-heroic individual is a product of the actions of the many, and with his own faith restored by the actions of those on the ferry he chooses to place it in them and what they represent. At the film’s end he rewards their faith with his first true act as a hero. It is still the act of a martyr, but one which places his trust back into the hands of Gotham’s citizens, relinquishing his legitimacy and the position of superiority he had assumed over the people of Gotham and their laws as both a vigilante and paternal protector. The paradox undermining the city and its people is finally broken. By doing so he cedes back the citizens the belief they have the agency to defeat the forces that menace them–as both Batman and Dent had failed to. While this action is partly inspired out of a (ill-natured but perhaps well founded) distrust in the people of Gotham to be able to handle the truth, it is also because the fate of one, whether it be Gotham’s dark or white knight, is not as important as that of the many–especially on a night when they had proved that they were capable of overcoming the most dire of circumstances without either guardian to guide them.

Still, it remains an incomplete victory for either order or chaos, as is evident in the film’s stubborn refusal to have a traditional ending with a clear moment of victory, instead opting for a proud yet sombre denouement: our heroes, the forces of order, have not won, but they have endured.

Atypical of the film industry, the conclusion is completely in step with the film’s unconventional approach to the various genres it touches upon. While far from flawless (certain plot developments feel misjudged, a prime example being the faked death of Gordon, which seems only to exist to reintroduce his family so their fate later on will hold more dramatic weight), the execution remains professional and daring enough to render such complaints trivial (though still perfectly valid). The Dark Knight remains a triumph: cinematic design reflects themes, characters inform structure, and action serves the plot– never the reverse. Next year appears to present opportunities for the powerhouses of the genre to attempt such feats, with both Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman allegedly prepared to respectively tackle the concepts of civil liberties versus national security, and the responsibilities and limitations of the power of the individual. But the two already appear crowded with characters and commercial concerns that threaten to neuter any potential they may have to convey something unique and compelling about us and our world. It seems relevant here then to point out that the first superhero film to break free from the constraints of its genre, to become a cultural phenomenon, to win an acting Oscar, and to make one billion dollars set its pivotal sequence on a pair of ordinary, stranded ferries, its heroes having nothing remotely ‘super’ about them.