The Dark Knight Review: Characters

The unfortunate reality of The Dark Knight is that it’s a complex solution to a simple problem. It’s basically moot as a legitimate meditation on morality or a stylistic venture into uncharted cinematic territory, yet it levies a vast sense of self importance on the audience. The Dark Knight begs for viewers to be overcome by it’s presentation but there is no reason for the audience to succumb.

No one category ripe for analysis would debase this movie on its own terms better than an analysis of the characters. The movie is bolstered by several great performers providing strong characterizations of their representative, intellectual parts. And yet, the foremost characters in the movie are almost all one-note devices for the fairly simple drama this movie aggrandizes. The drama is one the audience is incited to respect in more maximal terms than the characters can hope to convey. The Dark Knight is intended to be totemic but these characters are incapable of reaching the intricate levels of complexity necessary to make this a meaningful attempt at articulating some position on heroics or ethics. Needless to say, problems ensue.

In this section I will examine the significant characters from The Dark Knight. I’m often forced to compare how the character seems meant to be on one hand and how the character actually is on another. The fact of the matter is that it is from the characters and their desperate attempt to portray something consistent do no favors for the consistency and coherence of The Dark Knight as a complete work.

The Joker

I would very much like to interrogate the Joker myself. He is interesting and I am amazed that the “who is he” and “where does he come from” questions can and do remained unanswered. From that background, I dare say Heath Ledger turned in a tour de force performance especially compared to the majority of other work he did in his life. And yet, even with the mystery surrounding this character which is vividly executed, I think that the Joker is shallow and inconsistent and doesn’t quite merit the effort Ledger put in to deliver this role.

Out of all the characters, the Joker is characterized the best. I and the audience know what he is. The Joker is a rampaging, evil force, psychopathic. He disregards everything surrounding him in favor of his bloodlust or some other, dangerous psychosis of the moment. Such a character is terrifying. I am constantly reminded of No Country for Old Men when I watch The Dark Knight--both with their psychopaths and coin tosses--but there is an important difference between these movies and how the characters come across to the audience. Chigurh actually just acts; when he pulls out a coin and lays some innocent’s life on the line there is no reason for him to do so other than the moment itself. That’s psychopathic.

The Joker, on the other hand, is similarly psychopathic in terms of the audience’s understanding of him, but the writing doesn’t totally match the portrayal. The performance on screen by the actor doesn’t compare favorably to the one off screen by the writer; one is the psychopath, the other is bizarrely rational. The Joker is given multiple, stated motivations regardless of the likelihood that he would have motivations at all. For instance, he ingratiates himself with the Mob by suggesting an alignment in their goals, the Joker wants to “kill the Batman.” Only later, under interrogation, the Joker seems adamant about how he doesn’t want to kill Batman. So, which is it?

“Gotham deserves a better class of criminal,” the Joker explains at one point to the Russian mobster, “and [he’s] going to give it one.” Here is another example of a motivation statement. This is one of the Joker’s more personally ideological statements too. One of many pontifications on what must be done and how, in his opinion. I find it unlikely that such a person who seems simply inclined toward mischief would be able to articulate a mission statement such as this one. Nevertheless the Joker does it all the time, he’s trying to prove something, but his psychopathy doesn’t seem to overrule his rationality.

The Joker describes himself as “an agent of chaos.” The Joker condones “introducing some anarchy” into Dent’s life and thus Gotham’s daily grind. I’m really not sure what the Joker could mean by these things. Being an agent of chaos seems to defeat the meaning of chaos. As Stranger Than Fiction once pointed out, an organization of anarchists would defeat the point of anarchy. While the Joker has the intelligence necessary to hoodwink the Mob and the constabulary, he has an eighth grade level of political science knowledge compelling his every action.

What the Joker says he’s doing is only a part of the problem though. Regardless of how many or how contradictory what the Joker says his motivations are, it could be said to be irrelevant because he is so psychopathic. Here I am forced to examine many of the Jokers actions instead of his lines; the actions he takes are similarly contradictory to the psychopathic characterization Ledger brought to the role. For instance, the Joker as shown in The Dark Knight has a remarkable ability to carry off elaborate heists often with the twists of human manipulation. Like the opening bank robbing sequence. First of all I’m not sure that an individual as disturbed as the Joker would be able to literally focus his efforts on an elaborate heist and social manipulation long enough to carry out the task. To do so would require a level of cognition I don’t believe a psychopath has, one that is above fueling a misplaced desire i.e. the desires of rape and murder that we hear about in the news.

But what’s more is that the Joker seems to have an aversion to planning; as he tells Dent “do I really look like a guy with a plan?” The fact of the matter is that he must plan, one does not simply walk into a bank and take the money. Sure, the Joker does his work with “some bullets… and gasoline” but miraculously he is accumulating massive amounts of such things and organizing their use in an amazingly complex ways. Then he derides “schemers,” I think not.

Another stance the Joker seems to take whenever it fits the script is the notion that people are fundamentally barbaric, perhaps even inclined toward immorality. It’s the nihilist ideology that morals are just a scam. Yet there are a number of counter examples which the Joker acknowledges which would debase his view. I think that the most obvious example his the Joker saying that he “brought [Dent] down to [his, the Joker’s] level.” If someone must be “brought” to reflect a nihilist perspective the fundamental notion that morality is a façade of social life (or whatever) vanishes in the transition from noble to ignoble. The Joker seems oblivious to this fact.

It’s not the only time, though, that the counter example is staring the Joker in the face and he ignores it. The people on the boat fail to annihilate one another. Batman points out that the city “is full of people ready to believe in good.” This is probably Batman’s smartest line because it most effectively counters the Joker ideologically. More than punching him in the face, this line combats the Joker because it proves a contradiction to the Joker’s nihilist ethics. Interestingly enough though, it’s unnecessary because it would only take one occurrence of goodness or moral fortitude to contradict the fatalist perspective of a nihilist. The very concept of Batman as a defender of what’s right is such a counter. The several hundred instances of good individuals on the boat are unnecessary in a city where there is a real moral force or even the idea of a real moral force. But despite living in such a city, the Joker doesn’t get it.

So if all these things are wrong about the Joker, who he is and what he believes, I am left wondering what the best parts of the Joker are. I’m willing, in this case, to compartmentalize and look at what Heath Ledger brings to the character as separate from what Christopher Nolan brought to the character. Ledger was really good in this role. There are moments where he was totally immersed and it’s almost as if he’s not playing. I like that. The scene where Batman violently interrogates the Joker is a good one; Ledger wouldn’t have broken character until the cut if a loaded gun was to his head and Bale gets the luck of the draw of having an the easy way to keep up with his co-star’s performance; “where are they!” I like the strength and reality of the character because of Ledger’s performance separate from all the problems that come with the Joker as a result of the harebrained writing.

There is still a caveat I have with the performance though. There is a lot of sentiment surrounding the performance that elevates it more, I think, than it otherwise would be. Ledger’s Joker, The Dark Knight in general, made a lot out of Ledger’s untimely death. I think that the boundaries of Ledger’s performance are seen as farther than they may actually have been because this is ‘the role that killed him.’

It’s a sad truth, but I don’t think that audiences would have been as universally brought in by this performance if he hadn’t dies so close to the premiere. It’s still a good performance by Ledger, especially considering the other roles that he was known for. He had a really diverse set of characters from Ten Things I Hate About You, to Lords of Dogtown, to Brokeback Mountain, to this. But the fact is that Jack Nicholson is expected to play the Joker the way he did and Ledger is not. Another actor in the role, especially one who is still alive, and audiences and critics would care less. This role was a departure from the norm for Ledger regardless of how good he may have been. I’ll give Ledger credit out of respect and the ability to see what was good about the performance, but I’m not going to deify this as the redeeming fact of the movie.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Like many of Nolan’s characters, the Joker isn’t thought out. He’s conveniently divisive. Most of Nolan’s characters are. Rather than consistent, they behave in certain ways at certain times not because of who they are or who they are becoming but because it is momentarily interesting. In Memento, which is more believable--Leonard Shelby with the gun or Leonard Shelby with the pen. Both are believable on their own, but less so juxtaposed. These characters don’t change. Be it Shelby or the Joker, these Nolan characters can’t learn anything about themselves. Nolan characters are really hollow because they are there to eventually carry out a twist or a punchline and not to change or face adversity.

The case can be made that I’ve failed to understand the Joker. It’s fair. And I’ll even grant that the Joker is something of a difficult character to understand. For reasons I’ve discussed be they the actual shortcomings of the writing or the extravagance of the Joker’s psychopathy, he’s not your usual, everyday villain. Which is a good thing. The obvious counter point to the incongruities that I’ve pointed out is that he is meant to be that way. That he is meant to be incongruous, wild, contradictory. Aren’t these the characteristics of a crazy person. Perhaps they are. As a matter of fact, the Joker’s scar stories would be a really good example of that craziness and I wish more was made of those two scenes. But think for a moment. Rational or irrational, crazy or methodical, what validity does the Joker have as a character--as a characterization--if he maintains all these contradictory positions simultaneously; none.

Batman

Batman is not an enigma to the viewer. Consider not Batman’s character, but Batman’s purpose. There is no doubt that Batman beats the Joker every time. The audience knows that, especially in the case of a superhero saga, the hero wins. I think it’s fine that Batman/Bruce Wayne has struggles about what Batman does and how he does it; rather I don’t mind Batman’s disillusionment. But Batman’s purpose should be fairly clear. Unfortunately the who/what of Batman is consistently redefined and challenged in this movie.

I’ll invite some scorn by saying I think Batman is a fairly simple character. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a lot of backstory or issues that make him complex. A lot of the elements that go into making the Batman could fill volumes of books and technically do by virtue of the expansive comics about him. Nevertheless, in The Dark Knight, Batman is a figure with an incongruous characterization and I think that he needs a more singular role in the film. Assuming the mantle of Batman seems as symbolical as professional wrestling; “We go to a wrestling match to watch the renewed adventures of a single leading character, as permanent and multiform as Guignol or Scapin, inventive of unexpected faces yet ever faithful to his role,” so too with Batman (Barthes).

I find many superheroes highly archetypal; it is their goal to return the world to normalcy. Even in the case of a burdened or tortured or antihero, there isn’t a great deal of complications. Batman could just deal with the difficulty of of his task or even his reason for doing the task, which he does. But under Nolan’s efforts as writer/director, Batman looses some kind of unifier for his character. Motivation, actions, even just being a moral center fall by the wayside because of what it is stated Batman is in this movie. Moreover, what Batman is stated to be changes from scene to scene. I understand that there might be some ambiguity or unknowns to this character, but I think the approach in characterizing Batman in The Dark Knight undermines meaningful ambiguity.

Batman can be a hero, thus something of a moral center to the movie. Batman’s actions generally support that archetypal role as the hero regardless of the surrounding difficulty he may have as far as adhering to some kind of moral code--i.e. “I have one rule”--or personal strife--i.e. Wayne realizing that Batman prevents him from being with Rachel or other personal conundrums. What should be remembered is that it is really rewarding to return to normalcy by way of a character such as Batman with his heroics. Many stories are based around such a character.

He is complicated more by his internal struggles than by the definitional nature of being Batman. Regardless of Wayne, or other characters, or the audience trying to understand Batman, I think that the concept of Batman as a hero is fairly universal. The additions to the Batman character affect Batman-ness less than people realize. Disillusionment is a matter of how the character is portrayed, not a matter of what the character is. The Dark Knight conflates that point by constantly defining and redefining Batman’s character with minor differences rather than articulating those differences as something that have to be dealt with by the characters and by extension the audience.

There is something of a dialectic in Batman’s final characterization here. I’ll begin by looking at the opposition that is dominating in The Dark Knight as something of an example of how Batman’s character is articulated. Especially at the end, as a characterization of Batman, the opposition is the “hero needs versus hero deserves” that is used to define the character. There are a few things that attract me to using this characterization as my understanding of Batman in this movie. First, the needs/deserves split does keep Batman a hero no matter what. Perhaps even more significant it actually calls Batman a hero at all. I think that Batman, no matter how disillusioned, needs to be a hero. Even just to contrast the Joker, Batman needs to be a hero. Thank heavens the needs/deserves dynamic seems to preserve that on its face.

But the people around Batman seem to have a transient notion of who/what Batman is, even at the end of the movie when I search for some closure in the needs/deserves dynamic. Though there could be some inquiry into his position as either a needed or a deserved hero (and the movie gets there), that’s no excuse to add any of these possible other definitions in the totally noncommittal manner taken in The Dark Knight: 1) that “Batman has no limits,” or 2) that Batman is incorruptibly moral, or 3) that Batman is a symbol of good, or 4) that he may be more effective than the police, or 5) that he may be less effective than the police. All of these are posited as ways of conceiving of Batman in The Dark Knight so the audience is left wondering what a Batman is. The final word on the matter, that he is “a dark knight,” is really kind of meaningless; any number of adjective noun combinations work.

There is no need to complicate the character this way. In fact I think that there are reasons not to complicate the character this way. First, suggesting multiple, unambiguous interpretations of the character means that there’s some equal case for any one of them but no case for all of them. Second, Batman just doesn’t deserve all the hoopla. He’s a hero with personal traits in much the way I’m a student with some personal traits. In this way Batman is fairly archetypal and closely adheres to my idea of a hero, sans-hoopla.

The archetype can take on some variation. I am reminded of a few early lines of the Aeneid where Aeneas feigns hope before his men “and stifles the pain deep in his heart.” Virgil knew the weight of being a hero and he gave that as something for Aeneas to bear to humanize him. It’s Batman’s problem as a hero needed or a hero deserved in many respects. But I’d like to just leave it at that. Frankly it’s hard to discuss this character because there’s so many angles that might be addressed. So my reasoning is, why not ignore enumerating what Batman might be in favor of giving the character a simple characterization.

In Nolan’s film it seems like his hero never has a really consistent reason to be what he is. An example would be the final (though by no means the only) pithy assessment of Batman’s character. The crux of this character is “the hero needs/hero deserves” opposition. I guess it comes down to Dent being the hero Gotham deserves, one who can face the masses and protect the city though legitimate channels. Then Batman is the hero Gotham needs because he can always carry out the right action regardless of the situation. But it doesn’t seem like that is something that is present over the course of the movie and I have to ask “what does ‘being more than a hero’ really even mean?” Wait, he’s not more than a hero, he’s just the hero Gotham needs.  Or something.

Harvey Dent/Two-Face

I like Harvey Dent in this movie a lot but there are some drawbacks to going the whole distance from DA to Two-Face with him here. Aaron Eckhart stumbles along as an amorphous, unmotivated character, placed in unconvincing situations. He’s bolstered by some visuals and alliances that purvey the sense of inevitability, thus direction for his character. Harvey least of all is not about suspending disbelief so much as assuming and understanding his characteristics and place in the grand scheme of things that this movie is trying to illuminate. I’m going to consider Dent’s role, his motivations, his actions, and finally his portrayal cinematically.

The closing line to this movie, the closest thing The Dark Knight has to a point at all, is that Batman can be more than a hero (needless to say the way the movie meanders around that point is distracting). Harvey Dent, however, is somehow all talk and no substance in the world of The Dark Knight. Despite his actions. So after being tortured and lied to Dent turns from his earlier good deeds to say the least, but turning from good deeds does not eradicate them. There is this leap of logic made that if Harvey was seen flipping coins all over town, suddenly the Mob would be back on the street and “everything would be undone.” While Dent’s actions certainly don’t end up being particularly savory, they wouldn’t undo the jurisprudence behind the prosecution of the Mob.

Batman, it seems, is less important than what he stands for; he can be unjustly prosecuted for his brand of justice. I suppose that make him dynamic and nimble as an enforcer. Why doesn’t Harvey qualify for that standard is a mystery of his character but one that is unanimously agreed upon by those with an interest. Harvey’s image is protected over what he’s done, Batman’s is not.

Maybe the filmmakers and I just have a difference of opinion on the subject of Batman, but I believe that Batman needn’t be hunted in favor of protecting Dent’s name. See, I’d be glad if Batman more actively posited the notions of the universal morality he represents rather than falling back on the wishy-washy excuse of not going with “the hero [Gotham] needs right now.” Batman isn’t relativist. How important could Dent be, anyways; I live in Chicago and I’m willing to bet that more Chicagoans know the name of this fictional DA rather than the name of their actual DA. (Anita Alvarez as it happens; the Cook County State’s Attorney office is the second largest prosecutors office in the nation.) Dent did a lot of good before he turned over to Two-Face, and the law continues to be immutable.

This brings me nicely to Dent’s motivations. I admire his zeal for justice. It’s a really honest and well placed motivation that initiates the backlash from the Mob. Wayne is right that Dent is a legitimate force for good in Gotham and I like the fact that being such a force raises issues. Even if the Joker is right in some degree that Dent is “just the beginning” and that Batman is more of a threat to crime in Gotham, Dent appears to be motivated more or less for the first half of the movie by exacting Batman’s justice in the arena of Gotham’s courts. I like that. It’s convincing an dynamic and Eckhart really knows how to play that role.

Then things change. About halfway through he movie, Dent is kidnapped and tortured. He escapes only with his life. No doubt he’d need counseling and some aloe-vera to deal with the issue, but what intrigues me more is that he seems far more motivated by the fact that his girlfriend, Rachel Dawes, died in the same debacle and not by some misplaced realization that he’d been barking up the wrong tree justice-wise. While he’s in the hospital, the Joker pays Dent a visit. He seems to be groping at the fact that the system of justice--of all morality--is bankrupt. It could inspire Dent to search out a different, fairer system (symbolized by the coin), yes. Yet when he confronts people, it’s all related to Rachel. Rachel was a romantic interest for Dent. That’s all. Dent seems to conflate Rachel with his previous professionalism. While he’s psychotic and such a misplaced sensibility might be likely, it’s not what the writer intended. That much is pretty clear from the word ‘go’ if not the words ‘coin toss.’

I really like No Country for Old Men as as movie that meditates on justice. No Country for Old Men shows us that we sometimes cannot carry out justice as the sheriff cannot track down Chigurh. Even when the evidence is staring him in the face. But neither is justice done any better by a coin, “it don’t have no say.” Literary geniuses like Cormack McCarthy or the Coen Brothers realize that morality is complex but ultimate, but not always attainable by us humans.

The result of, what I take to be, a crazy Joker plot to annihilate Dent on the way to killing Batman (the Joker denies it, the Mob confirms it; where’s the sense in that) is this vengeful, woefully misguided Harvey in the form of Two-Face. I guess I can see why he’s upset. Gordon should have taken some of the obvious steps to prevent disaster, but Gordon isn’t the problem.

What is a little more baffling is why Two-Face shows up at all. This movie didn’t need another villain I don’t think. One is usually enough as a clash between good and evil. What’s more is, in this movie, either the Joker or Two-Face has equally legitimate reason to be the nemesis for Batman. I’ll grant that the Joker is more of a classic Batman character (although not by much), but it would seem that either misplaced morality is sufficient to conflict with the caped crusader. The point is that Two-Face shows up kind of randomly with fifty minutes remaining in the movie and he doesn’t have enough time to develop. Another example of poor writing.

Thus Nolan turns on his belligerent filmmaking machine again. The problems surrounding Dent/Two-Face are subverted by obvious visual motifs. In this way, after leaving the theater, Nolan has guaranteed a moment of “fridge brilliance” when the audience thinks back on the movie and suddenly realizes that it was Two-Face all along. Nolan is not a marvelous director so much as a marvelous showman. Earlier I discussed how Kurosawa has amazing use of imagery to make a point, but what stands out to me about Kurosawa’s direction is how natural it can be. An image like the one from Seven Samurai just emerges from the scene for critics like me to pick up. But Nolan is kind of different.

Repeatedly Nolan contrasts Dent and Wayne. I like that. There is a comparison to be made. But he layers on top of it a lot of dialogue about faces. How Dent has a face. How Gotham needs a hero with a face. And so on. Nolan is really forcing that reading of the movie down the viewers throat rather than allowing them to discover that there is a real and correct way of interpreting this character and discovering how Dent relates to the others around him.

Like the word ‘face’ there are some visuals of Dent’s face obscured in shadow, shown in profile, and so on. All of these would retroactively prove confirmations of Dent’s eventual turn. When at last the big reveal comes, a conspiracy minded individual would put the two images together and profess brilliance on Nolan’s part for putting it in there. It’s not bad, and it’s a fare use of the medium. One that many might not consider. But it’s also so laborious and obvious that a critically minded individual should be more inclined to see it as the work of a mere director such as Nolan instead of the work of a master such as Kurosawa, Spielberg, or Lynch.

The bottom line on characters such as the Joker and Two-Face is that they are not necessarily bad or wrong. In fact compared to other characters in The Dark Knight, Nolan seems to have taken his time with them. Nevertheless, there is a little bit of thought lacking again. Nolan really seems to pretend at greatness as a director taking his acclaim in stride and putting in the discordant bits that awkwardly make up the primary characters in his movie.

Gordon

Jim Gordon is apparently “a friend,” a good, honest cop. He’s also Gotham’s most useless flatfoot looking into trouble only when and where it strikes. He’s riding Batman’s coattails and he’s blind to basically everything that’s going on right under his nose. Gordon is a most perplexing and most useless character. So I’ll cut to the chase.

For one thing I think that there was supposed to be more explanation of Gordon’s character and the office he represents. Now I know that Nolan got the ball rolling in Batman Begins, but this is a year later so there’s new dynamics and new responsibilities for this character. What he’s doing and how he’s doing it is important. We get a swift explanation of the fact that he works with Batman pretty early in the movie, but I think that the idea here is that with Batman around, justice is unobstructed in Gotham. Gordon “likes to let people know he’s out there.” But as far as Gordon’s role in the story goes, it’s not really clear what he’s doing and especially what he’s doing right. He basically just tries and fails at everything; capturing the Joker, foiling the Joker’s plans, keeping the Mob out of his office, having a good relationship with his wife and so on. Right from the get go I wonder why Gordon is in this movie, because Batman is the one on the front line and Gordon just sits up at the police office with his floodlight perpetually on. I guess Gordon is keeping up appearances.

I see Gordon as having more to do with Two-Face because Two-Face exacts some grand, misplaced sense of revenge on Gordon and his innocent family. The problem here is, as was the case with the Two-Face character alone, that Gordon’s purpose in this movie isn’t made clear until it’s too late for his story to develop. In the last fifteen minutes Gordon’s family is getting kidnapped, Gordon is begging for mercy, and Batman is swooping in to save the day one last time. It’s all to much and it’s all coming after the final showdown to the movie. Is this, Gordon’s plot, so important as to add an epilogue when he’s previously been so useless to Batman and Gotham; no. If Gordon is going to be a full character there would have to be more between him and Harvey earlier to set up something of an arc for this story’s climax. It’d take longer than the fifty minutes allotted.

Thus Gordon spends the first hour and a half or so basically not doing his job right. I guess he get’s an ‘A’ for effort because he tries to hit the Mob where it hurts, but the Mob is pretty sneaky and it comes down to Gordon leaving it up to Batman to get the witness for Harvey to prosecute all the criminals. So even though, with all his pep-talks to SWAT teams and his go-get-em attitude, Gordon’s not doing anything meaningful here. He doesn’t even question suspects, he leaves that up to Rachel (just to give her something to do) and Batman (I guess because Batman hasn’t done enough already).

I also think it’s amazing that Gordon doesn’t seem to have a grip on the people under his command. They’re apparently all dirty cops who’ve been bought-out by the Mob or the Joker or both before the movie even starts. I know that his cops are all crooked before hand because these cops under his supervision keep fishing for hints on when Batman might show up on the police station so that they can clue the Mob into it. They also have shifty eyes. Actually it could probably be made more explicit. It’s also discussed what exactly the Mob or the Joker or both might be using for leverage against these dirty cops, but not that the Mob/Joker are actually doing this until after the fact. But eventually Gordon’s getting promoted so he can keep his watchful eye on more cops.

Of course it also happens that Gordon, a man who spends his days in the police station with other police officers, doesn’t know the force as well a Bruce Wayne and Alfred. Bruce and Alfred are able to find out all the details of Gordon’s cop’s personal lives just by looking up cops on Facebook (although I do wonder how it is that Wayne seems to know the names of every Gotham cop on the beat just by looking at them from his Lamborghini). And if it’s the point that Gordon is oblivious, I say poppycock. This character should know what’s going on. Why? Because he’s a detective--detect, damn it.

See, Gordon is a really paranoid character. Perhaps he’s the most paranoid character in the movie. He doesn’t even tell his wife about his plan to play dead to catch the Joker (although I feel he must tell someone or else how did he not just get taken to the morgue when he was playing possum, but he apparently didn’t tell Dent because Dent is still surprised to see him after the whole chase scene). Suffice it to say that Gordon’s mantra in investigation is that “the fewer people who know about something, the safer the operation.” So he’s always looking out for trouble. He’s even suspicious of the new DA who is actively prosecuting the Mob and getting death threats doing it. Still, when Batman wonders about being able to trust Harvey, Gordon seems to agree that trying to keep Harvey in the dark is a better idea than maybe doing a background check on his officers.

So I wonder why Gordon trusts Batman, a man who’s identity he cannot be sure of over Harvey Dent. Dent is an elected civil servant who’s actively putting the Mob behind bars. I wonder who Gordon thinks Batman is. Regardless, he seems to just trust Batman implicitly for no good reason other than the fact that it seems Batman is basically doing Gordon’s job for him.

The problem is compounded even further when Harvey Dent suggests to Gordon that he might have to do some housecleaning to get rid of possible Mob moles. Gordon doesn’t listen to Dent. In fact he tries to turn the tables on Dent and accuses Dent for having a mole. Dent shrugs Gordon’s incompetence off because he’s got bigger fish to fry--like prosecuting the Mob which he knows to be planting moles, selling drugs, laundering money, and whatever else it is they do. But I do wonder why Gordon still feels the need to keep Dent at arms-length when Dent’s trying to do him a solid. Get with it Gordon.

See Gordon is sufficiently paranoid that he doesn’t trust the new DA. He’s worried about letting the information go too far and likes being effective though Batman. But again, he has fewer reasons to trust Batman than he does to trust Dent. And despite not trusting Dent, literally the least likely person to be corrupt at the outset (keep in mind it takes a tremendous foul-up and twisted Joker plot to corrupt Dent not to mention the loss of his face), it doesn’t even cross Gordon’s mind that people closer to him might be corrupt. If there is any logic to his reasoning, it escapes me.

I’ll admit that as an audience member it did surprise me to learn just how twisted Gordon’s cops were. They organize and execute a plan to torture and kill the DA and his girlfriend under Gordon’s nose. So one of Gordon’s cops had a racketeering charge, maybe the Mob already had the connection, but there’s no explanation of how or when these cops were corrupted before Two-Face looks into it with murderous intentions and even then it comes down to “they got to me early--my mom’s hospital bills” which I guess is all the explanation I’m going to get. There is little explanation of the mechanism by which Gordon’s cops are turned which removes the irony from Gordon discovering that they have turned.

Unfortunately this character is just awash in problems. He serves little function to the story despite his presence throughout. He’s bad at what he does technically as a service to each successive plot point, that is to say that he’s not fighting the Mob compared to Dent and Batman. And finally, he’s just a walking contradiction of paranoia. Gordon takes the cake for the most important character with the worst writing beating the close second Rachel Dawes by a mustache.

The Mob

The Mob is kind of a subplot used to get the ball rolling action-wise in The Dark Knight. But it’s pervasive, even when the focus of the movie shifts from the Joker gaining leverage over the common criminals to the Joker trying to defeat Batman the Mob is still there doing things. I think the Mob is used to some degree to underscore how different the Joker is from the everyday criminal, but with Heath Ledger’s performance it is really impossible not to see how insane the Joker is compared to anything else. I’m really not sure why the Mob keeps cropping up to distract from the feeble story this movie is based around.

Apparently the Mob is trying to do things. Mob things. They sell drugs, and Batman stops them. They launder money, and Batman stops them. Never mind the fact that very little of the actual mechanism by which the Mob operates is shown, the causes and consequences here are overstated. I think that though the Mob is practically doing these various things their real goal is to protect their position at the head of Gotham’s underworld. I suppose with Batman around, there’d be no underworld eventually. Batman “hammered them to the point of desperation.” Fine. “In their desperation they turn to someone (the Joker) they don’t fully understand.” Now that the ball is rolling, though, we’re left with a villain dense film. And the Mob can’t really hack it next to the others.

Examining further the position the Mob is in, really throughout the movie, let’s consider what Batman has done to them. Batman has made life difficult for the Mob I suppose by locking up the junkies that make up the Mob’s revenue. He’s located the laundered money for Gordon, but they haven’t moved yet. Ultimately that doesn’t seem like too big of an issue. Harvey Dent is trying to put the bosses in jail, all he needs is a little more evidence and the moment he gets it he’s the public scourge of the Mob. I’d say Harvey is a pretty noteworthy, secondary threat to the Mob. To me the Joker really is the threat to the Mob because he’s actually hitting them with his elaborate robberies. Then he walks in with a plan to leverage even more over them and his plan is to take out one person by elaborate methods. If I was a mobster in Gotham, I’d “have my boy here pull [the Joker’s] head off.”

Then they hire the Joker to rid them of the problem that is Batman. I guess up the food-chain he’s a little more dangerous because occasionally he can get Lao back to Gotham but Batman isn’t actively challenging the Mob. Further, Batman isn’t trying to leverage the Mob through finance either. Like the Joker says, he can “shut them down one block at a time.” But he can’t leverage the Mob’s own forces against them like the Joker does when he basically bankrupts them. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out.

Hiring the Joker as an investment isn’t the only ridiculous thing about the whole deal here. The Joker says he’s good at killing mans-bats, although he doesn’t have much in the way of a resumé to that end. Quickly he also proves that none of his methods really work; Batman hammered the Mob, the Joker can really only hammer back. Then it’s up to Batman to either break or endure. Without confronting the obvious ideological contradiction that Batman has as the upper hand against a nihilist, they could be “destined to do this forever.” God forbid that ever happens.

But what I think is most irritating about the whole situation with the Mob is that, although it tracks pretty nicely as I’ve outlined, it’s really just a means to an unworthy end in the plotting of this movie. I like watching Eric Roberts play at being the big boss here too and I want to like the Mob as a whole part of this movie. It’s all The Dark Knight has to offer as an escape from the constant grind of its character’s humdrum philosophies. But the only reason the results of the Mob’s actions are what they are is because they’d have to be for the plot to move in the way the writers want it to. Less of a device, more of a simple instigator to begin with, and finally a distraction to end with.

Rachel

Here’s a minor point for an all too minor character. Rachel Dawes is really pretty wasted in this movie. Almost everything I have to say about her eventually comes back to something of an ideological point; Rachel is literally the only female character in this movie worth anything and yet her character doesn’t have an arc. She’s killed off before she can really have something of a development as a character. Although her presence and death cause some things to happen in The Dark Knight, it’s all at the expense of this character who is important, but somehow not relevant enough to have a story.

The ideological issue is that Rachel is really the only woman in this movie with more than just a few lines. She’s played up like a sure-of-her-self lawyer who finds some personal turmoil between Wayne and Dent, but she dies before she can make and deal with that choice. So a lot of development is taken away from her. Needless to say, The Dark Knight has more than enough characters for the audience to be involved with, but nothing like Rachel.

I think that it’s an important precedent that Rachel operates like this. Critically it’s revealing that Rachel does so little herself while having such gross results on the trajectories of other characters in The Dark Knight. What I mean is Rachel is basically nothing more than a glorified plot device. She doesn’t do anything in this movie, literally the moment she’s about to reconcile her own issue her arc ends. So her problems and choices only serve to advance the action in the last hour of the movie and serve no purpose external of that. Plot devices aren’t bad, but Gyllenhaal was not billed as a MacGuffin.

Sure, there’s perhaps a necessity for something to basically excite the final hour of action, but the fact that it is a character set up over a previous hour and half just to die is ridiculous. What exigence or reason Rachel has to be in this movie might not matter so much if she wasn’t so present and so important to two of the foremost characters in the movie. Then her choices and her destiny matter; then the character matters. Otherwise Rachel is just the throw away character that she is.

And it doesn’t matter how challenging or avant-garde it might be to have a character like Rachel in terms of a swift execution. One I suppose meant to evoke some amount of realization that life is often fickle, fleeting, and meaningless. It doesn’t matter because there’s bigger things at work. Namely, that Rachel is the only female lead in The Dark Knight and the tertiary most primary woman basically just weeps over her husband and children. We go from hero, to turncoat, to housewife awfully fast here. I guess there is the woman detective, but she turns out to be something of a conniving, backstabbing type. Not a very positive spin on womanhood here. One would expect there to be something, anything, more from these characters and there isn’t.

I think that the scenes where Rachel says she “knows the briefs backwards” or where she actually gets to question witnesses fit into some broad system of Nolan basically throwing the audience a bone. Rachel doesn’t actually do anything in these scenes, she talks until Harvey gets the chance to make his move with his coin-toss. This isn’t to say Nolan is consciously subverting women (although his female characters do tend to exist in either a negative or a domestic/passively observant light only). In fact I think that Rachel’s gender is perhaps the least important thing about her other than the fact that she has to be attractive to two straight men. Anyone could do what she does the way she does it.

Therein is the real crux of Rachel’s character’s problem both in terms of narrative and in terms of ideology. Rachel should really be a bigger and more important part of this movie than she is, and she’s not. But what’s more is that there is the terrible coincidence that she is also a woman. I’ll give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here, but in the grand scheme of things I’d say that there is a tradition in cinema of featuring women as plot devices that gets to the point of correlation becoming causation. That is to say, even if it so happens that Rachel’s character is genderless and pointless on a theoretical level, because Rachel is theoretically pointless she also happens to be a woman in the movie.

I’m not demanding that this movie be revisionist or feminist. If I’m calling for anything it’s for Nolan to think his characters through better than he appears to. I recognize that The Dark Knight is about Batman, and that women do go to this movie to see Bale flex his muscles some. Yet I find myself fairly disappointed that Rachel Dawes is all this movie has to show for women as some half of the global population. I thought that the world was past that.

Nolan must have some regard for women. After all his wife is the executive producer on most of his movies. But it is noteworthy that his female characters are so simple; always plot devices at most. Frankly I think that his shift toward more talented actors, famous for their roles that aren’t just a pretty face (i.e. a shift from Scarlett Johansson and Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page in Nolan’s work) is something of an entrenchment rather than an escape from his formula for women in his movies. Rather than face the fact that he doesn’t have good women characters in his movies, the movies suggest that because it’s Gyllenhaal or Page it’s a more well rounded and considered role. In other circles, similar patterns of acceptance have been called “racism 2.0,” just to charge this conversation.

It’s not a conspiracy on Nolan’s part. It’s a conspiracy on society’s part. But it is an observation that is relevant to most of Nolan’s films and one that comes out in particular with Rachel in The Dark Knight. Because Rachel is such a limited character; because it happens that she is a woman; because of the position women have been in at the movies and particularly Nolan’s movies as divided between Johanssons and Gyllenhaals, I cannot ignore what might be the most widely grotesque aspect of The Dark Knight’s construction.

Alfred and Fox

Alfred and Fox help Bruce Wayne. Would that I could just leave it at that, but I can’t. I will however try to be brief. The fact is that Alfred and Fox are probably the best characters in the entire film, played by the most seasoned professionals. The reason these characters are so much better than any others is because they serve a simple purpose to the story, such as it is. They’re foils of sorts to Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Alfred can’t possibly fight crime and really he’s just going along with his employer’s insane plan to rid the world of evil. Alfred’s life experience and his vantage point give him the unique opportunity to weigh in on the events that he is privy to. I gain some understanding about Batman through Alfred and that’s the point. Similarly Fox enables Batman do to what he does and occasionally weighs in on the significance of what he does for his boss. This is clean and straightforward storytelling. I like that.

These characters also get the pleasure of delivering the only wit or bantered remarks in the entire film. I would so much prefer the opportunity to enjoy Michael Caine ask for “the Russian for ‘apply your own bloody suntan lotion,’” than be subjected to two rounds of the Burmese Bandit story. The Dark Knight favors one option over the other obviously and the result is yet another drawback; all these characters get used for in the end is Batman’s patronage as he “rewards their faith” and thus an opportunity to further plunge The Dark Knight’s muddled themes into deeper morass. Such use doesn’t help the viewer gain any greater insight into Batman or any other character.