When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
— Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
These civilized people, they’ll eat each other.
— The Joker (Heath Ledger)
“People get the heroes they deserve.” True or not, this assertion serves simultaneously as catchphrase and acuity in The Dark Knight. Chris Nolan’s second go at Batman is like that: precise and jumbled, frequently reductive and sometimes redemptive. Setting its titular hero against an array of hysterical villains and tabloid reporters, the movie examines — again — the harrowing, traumatizing expectations “the people” impose on their champions.
This time, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) begins in a split state, weary of the superheroic imperative and caught up in that whole secret identity business. In his first scene, following a spectacular bank robbery, Batman clobbers criminals while surrounded (but not much helped) by apparent Batman wannabes, men in cowl masks wielding large weapons and gnarly dogs. Aptly confusing and cacophonous, the scene lays out Batman’s very complicated relationship to his public, mutually needy and resentful.
Though he mostly wins the night, Batman heads home battered and torn, announcing that he needs an upgrade — a lighter, less cumbersome suit, something like a one-man version of the leaner-meaner fighting machine envisioned by Donald Rumsfeld. Duly accommodated by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) — in that portion of our program devoted to gadget demonstrations and dry wisecracks — Batman proceeds to philosophize grimly about his place in the world. “You either die a hero,” he says, “or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” It’s a credo worthy of any self-proclaimed visionary who believes future history will redeem him, condemning the public’s fickle morality while knowing he will always be right.
Freed of the first film’s origin-storytelling imperative, the sequel envisions a world that is emphatically post-9/11: Gotham is not just dark, but deeply cynical, equally in love with victimhood, vengeance, and tabloid media. When the nefarious gangster Naroni (Eric Roberts) goes on trial amid a predictable media frenzy, new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) puts on a show of his own, punching out a witness/would-be assassin (it’s as if he’s transformed into Rudy Giuliani in an alternative universe). As soon as TV news gets a hold of it — courtesy of tabloidy anchor Mike Engel (Anthony Michael Hall) — Dent’s anointed the city’s brandy-new “White Knight,” the straight-up righteous guy who will squash evil and instill hope.
So you don’t miss the contrast, Dent is also engaged to Bruce Wayne’s ex, Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a threeway allowing for plenty of longing and regret on all sides. Though it’s plain that Rachel still loves Bruce/Batman (their fraught history is on disjunctive display in Batman Begins, when she was played by Katie Holmes), she’s willing to embody the population’s desire for “change,” for an uplifting, articulate, and apparently incorruptible hero. Batman begrudges Dent his halo, but also imagines the hype might be right, that a White Knight might be able to do more good than his own Darkness. But even as he decides to step aside, Dent’s high-profile savior-hood catches the attention of the Joker (Heath Ledger).
He’s the pulsing, forceful center of this film, and not just because Ledger’s death provides discomfiting meta-hype. The Joker is quite plainly Batman’s better half, and they both know it. “You complete me,” the Joker taunts him, by way of explaining why he does not, in fact, want to kill Batman. Not only are they both disturbed, spectacularly walking wounded, but they are also both furious. The Joker tells several versions of his own origin story (he had a bad father, he had a bad wife), each calculated for a specific moment, to elicit a mix of sympathy and horror. He’s the damaged child come back to abuse his abusers, the vulnerable lover who means to exact vengeance for the wrong done to him.
An exemplary citizen turned inside out, he’s been devastated by forces beyond his control but also found ways to strike back. He’s a terrorist, creating havoc to inspire fear, reshaping the political and moral landscape but still pretending to offer comprehensible, old-fashioned choices to his adversaries. When he tells Batman and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) that they have options as to which kidnapped victims they might save, it’s clear immediately that he’s got extra tricks in store, that his confession resulting from torture by Batman can’t possibly be “truthful.”
The Joker’s noisy explosions and threats cast the city into a perpetual state of anxiety far broader than any secret activities by Batman. When Batman mounts a super-surveillance system that even Fox rejects (while deploying it: “This is too much power for one person, spying on 30 million people”), the Joker finds other, more visible ways to invade. Explaining himself to Dent, the Joker condemns the politician’s rage for order and identifies himself as an “agent of chaos.” The fact that he’s dressed in a female nurse’s uniform — with a pretty little ladies’ watch pinned to one breast and a “Vote for Dent” sticker on the other — only makes the Joker’s speech here seem more convincing. (It certainly helps the film, as well as the Joker’s self-promotional cause, that Ledger’s performance is mesmerizing: licking his ever-dry lips, mulling over each phrase as if he’s conjuring an ethos on the spot, fierce and weird and possessed of an especially brilliant waddle.) In the Joker’s mind, chaos is an answer to complacency and lack of ambition, it’s a way to make people pay attention. “Look what I did to this city,” the Joker observes, “with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets.”
It’s not exactly news that the Joker’s mind is like Batman’s. “What would I have to become to stop him?,” Batman worries, even as you know he’s already become it. The question here is not who believes what or even who commits what crime/action, but how that belief and crime might be spun. Batman’s dilemma in The Dark Knight is how to use his bad press, whether he will embrace it or continue to fight it, to try to make everyone believe he is the hero even when he knows he’s not.
If Batman is still hung up on the secret identity/split self quandary, the film, helped along by Lt. Gordon, here promotes a more refined sense of how the mask works. Playing something like the editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Gordon understands — like the terrorist, like the Joker understands — that the only way to control even a little bit how the 24-hour-always-audacious-always-mundane media cycle works, is to give in to it. If the Joker is a villain for his time, so too is Batman. “They’ll hate you for it,” Gordon warns. And that is, they agree, “the point of Batman.”