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Article – The Dark Knight at Ten: How the Film’s Villains Politicised the Superhero Genre


Posted July 22, 2018 by

The Dark Knight at Ten

It seems like only yesterday that the world was hailing the advent of a new kind of superhero film. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, took the camp and colour out of the genre, giving audiences a dark Gotham with chilling villains and a hero who was as desperate to get away from his alter ego as he was out for vengeance. The genre would never be the same and neither would audiences. The world had got its first taste of blood and they were out for more.

Ten years later and The Dark Knight is still held as the pinnacle of superhero film-making. Any and all adapted comic properties are judged by the same standard. What made The Dark Knight stand out, even from its predecessor? Why has it cemented itself in our brains? We look at the most enduring part of this film – its villains – and how they changed the concept of the comic book adaptation.

The Dark Knight at ten-Heath Ledger as the Joker-IMDB

Heath Ledger as the Joker

Heath Ledger’s Joker, when initially confirmed, was summarily renounced by all Batman fans. They couldn’t see Ledger, off his recent success in the breakout gay drama Brokeback Mountain, in the role of Batman’s arch-nemesis.

But, these critics failed to acknowledge Ledger’s ability to disappear into a role in a way that many of his contemporaries could not. Looking back at Ledger’s other famous roles, one can see that no two characters are quite alike, and none of them give us a sense of who Ledger the man was really like. Opposite Christian Bale, another actor who had the ability to disappear into roles, Ledger was always the best choice. Easy to say now, of course, hindsight does have 20-20 vision.

Nolan clearly knew what he was looking for when he cast Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime. An actor who supplanted the Joker onscreen would have ruined the film; an actor who was invisible in the role was the only one who could work. That is what Ledger did brilliantly, and the rest is history.

The central theme of this film was ‘chaos’, and it asserts itself in every act. In today’s political climate, the madness in the film feels uncomfortably portentous. Aren’t we really living in a world where, as Michael Caine’s Alfred retorts, “some men just want to watch the world burn”?

Superhero films often have two or more villains and one can’t help but wonder if Two-Face should have been given a separate film instead of being added here. It works, though, because the connection between the two villains is seamless. Harvey Dent is the up-and-coming District Attorney, a bit of a hot-head, but with his heart in the right place. More than anything else, he wants to do right. Aaron Eckhart’s Dent practically serves as the blueprint for Captain America, he’s such a goody-two-shoes. He has a better sense of humour, though.

The Dark Knight-Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face-IMDB

Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face

Dent’s set-up to become Two-Face is surprisingly long – more than 100 minutes into the film before he is even addressed by his villainous pseudonym. Up until then, the story paints him as Gotham’s saviour and, in essence, Bruce Wayne’s. A man without a mask who can do what Batman can, but within the law, is just what Wayne needs to give up the cowl. He is the White Knight to Wayne’s Dark one.

In an early scene that is easily overlooked, Wayne and his partner appropriate Dent and Rachel Dawes’ date. The discussion turns to Batman, obviously. Unlike others in Gotham, Dent is proud that Batman exists and fights for the little guy. His words are rousing and positive, prompting a look on Wayne’s face, expertly articulated by Christian Bale, of desperate hope, almost a longing, for Dent to be the real deal. He almost is… if not for the Joker’s ministrations. Wayne’s great failing is that he was unwilling to do enough as Bruce Wayne – he left it up to Batman, and later to Dent.

According to IMDB, the Joker’s ‘reign of terror’ lasts nine days, a considerably short time, but his actions, combined with his propaganda videos (shot by Ledger) are chilling enough to elicit fear in any and everyone. The Joker’s methods, his resources, his sources of information, none of this is explicitly stated in the film. They are as much a mystery to viewers as his motives. Had this film been made now, there would have been tons of questions about these, as there were with The Dark Knight Rises. As it stands, the various mysteries surrounding the Joker make him the potent threat he is in the film. He is a terrorist capable of doing anything and everything he wants, that is what makes him powerful.

Ordinary citizens don’t stand a chance in the face of such a maniac. The police force is doing the Joker’s bidding. Hell, even the mob is scared. Worst of all, Batman is scared. This fear isn’t shown in the film but we see the fallout from it. We see the citizens of Gotham baying for Batman’s blood. They would rather see him unmasked than live in fear for another day. Their only moment of honour takes place in the final act when they choose not to blow each other up, an unsurprisingly low standard to be held to.

The cops and the mob, none of whom know anything about the Joker, actively collude with him, enable him and carry out crimes from him. When Two-Face, bent on revenge, asks the dirty cops why they took him and Rachel to the Joker, he is told, “I didn’t know what he was going to do with you”. An irate Two-Face asks, “What did you thing he was going to do?” Turning a blind eye to the Joker’s crimes does nothing for these corrupt cops or the mob; if Joker doesn’t kill them, Two-Face does.

The Dark Knight-Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent-IMDB

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes

And, Batman? He learns the hard way that playing nice doesn’t work. Rachel Dawes, Assistant District Attorney, pillar of the community, general do-gooder in a lawless land, and the only woman Bruce Wayne loves, is murdered. Harvey Dent, Gotham and Batman’s saviour, is blown half to hell and left so psychologically damaged, he becomes the very thing he hates. All this because of one man who wants to “send a message”.

This film is unrelentingly dark and makes absolutely no apology for it. Gotham is lawless and corrupt. Batman may have managed to clean the streets; Jim Gordon has strived to bring some semblance of normality to the police; Dent and Dawes have pushed the law to its boundaries, but there is a systemic corruption in the city that cannot be done away with in a few months, or even years, no matter how many billionaires play dress-up.

That was definitely Ra’s Al Ghul’s message in the first film when he brought the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham. At the time, Bruce Wayne was adamant he could save the city. But, looking at the events of The Dark Knight, one wonders whether Wayne should have listened to Ra’s Al Ghul. He wasn’t able to save Gotham in a year, instead he enabled the Joker, albeit indirectly, to spread terror throughout the city.

Of course, destroying an entire city would never have been the answer. That’s genocide and good guys do not do that. What could Batman have done to stop the Joker from murdering and causing mayhem? Could he have stopped Two-Face from being created?

In 2008, we may have thought differently but now, in 2018, the Joker’s rise, Rachel Dawes’ death and Two-Face’s very existence, they seem inevitable. Look at the state of our world – Trump in power, Brexit, race-relations down the tubes. We live in a world where people are proudly declaring themselves Nazis. If these aren’t real-life Jokers, what is?

Lest we forget, we also have our real-world Two-Faces. Heroes, literary, cinematic, political, have lived long enough to see themselves become villains. Joss Whedon, hailed as a male feminist throughout the noughties and ‘10s, has been outed as a douchebag. Comedian Louis CK, once the bastion of male ‘wokeness’, was caught after years of gross sexual conduct. Even JK Rowling, once the witty, inclusive hero of all things magical, has now lost fans’ trust for enabling accused domestic abuser Johnny Depp to continue working in her massive franchise. The Dark Knight may have just been a superhero film in 2008 but it is surprisingly politically relevant right now.

The Dark Knight at ten -Christian Bale as the Batman-IMDB

Christian Bale as the Batman

The Dark Knight trilogy can hardly be called woke, what with its lack of female characters and POC, but it certainly made some good points about civic sense and society’s duties to the people. The enduring appeal of the film lies in how it appears to reflect the society of today. It is serendipitous that the film’s 10th anniversary should coincide with one of our most chaotic periods in recent history. As we begin to see the problems within our own political systems, it is impossible not to look at a film like The Dark Knight as a cautionary tale. We have enjoyed the status quo for so long that many of us lack the fight needed to bring about change. We imagine ourselves in a world where beating up a few street thugs is the answer to solving crime. It is not. We are thus, sadly in danger of being as arrogant as Batman, who thought his very presence would be enough to deter villains. But, as in the film, we, the citizens of Gotham, need to choose our heroes wisely, judge our villains more thoroughly and strive to be better than what the Jokers of this world expect us to be.


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Louis Skye
Freelance Contributor

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