The film begins, clinical in its depiction of a clever and perfect bank robbery. The camera hovers closer and closer to the side of a skyscraper, its windows and interiors indistinguishable from each other until one of them cracks, exploding outward. It jumps back and forth between several sets of goons in clownish latex masks, garish and iconic in their simplicity. They go about their business, assured and confident in their work, chatting curiously about their mysterious employer, The Joker. He makes his appearance, sating our own burgeoning curiosity and anticipation for this moment. Briefly, after intimidating a vigilante bank manager, the camera closes in on his face so intimately that the frame is nothing but a mixture of red, chalk-white, and a sickly oil-soaked green. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…. stranger,” his mouth contorting into a rictus of pleasure and satisfaction. The film manages to embody this quote wonderfully.
There are wonders on display here. Christopher Nolan and company do a skillful job of aligning the heavens and allowing dark and intriguing inspiration to peek through. It is a brilliant piece of work, its structure and tone for the first half of the film plodding and methodical. It could very well grate on the nerves for some, waiting ever so patiently for Heath Ledger’s quirky and endearing psychopath to grace the frame with his presence. As The Joker, he definitely dominates the screen, and we adore him for it. However, it’s his ingenious ideas and labyrinthine schemes that illuminate the cleverest corners of this stirring yarn.
After an astonishing and quite simply unreal car chase sequence through the streets of Gotham at night, The Joker taunts and urges Batman to run him over. He whispers to himself so violently and convincingly “I want you to do it. I want him to do it.” His urgency and intonation made me realize that if he was hit and thrown like a rag doll by Batman’s mechanical toy, he’d gain a sick satisfaction from pushing him that far… even in death. Of course, this doesn’t happen, and he’s eventually able to enact his plans (which are numerous and byzantine in their construction.) He doesn’t just plan, he improvises, and he uses these things to create a chaos and moral vacuum that makes people question themselves and their motives in the world, much like Batman himself.
The film just takes off after that, with shocking and heartbreaking turns that are worth every bit of pathos they engender. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has disappeared by now, The Batman taking him completely and utterly. The Joker’s interrogation scene is a perfect example of this, with The Joker predictably giving him a hard time. Batman proceeds to beat him to a pulp in the hopes of getting important information from him, all the while Joker’s dissonant and nails-on-a-chalkboard theme scratches around in the background. Each renewed blow is a reminder of The Joker’s victory over him, Batman’s violent takeover complete. “You complete me,” The Joker says with glee and whimsy. By the time the film incarnation of Brother Eye appears, you’ll be riveted and curious to see how long Bruce’s battered moral high ground will last.
As one of the biggest comic book geeks around, I’ll have to admit that I felt unimpressed and jaded for a while. The film seemed haphazard and sloppy in its handling initially. I thought of things midway through of what could or could have been handled better, but by the time it had reached the halfway point.. I didn’t want it to end. It is rich with complexity and its intelligence is almost more than summer audiences deserve.
My personal treat didn’t come until the end. Batman is gearing up for his final confrontation with The Joker, and he flies towards the building in a flash, Gordon’s agonizing wail still echoing in his mind (a cry for a character’s dark descent into insanity.) With a speed and agility that doesn’t seem possible for a mortal man, Batman takes out cops, dogs, thugs, and the deserted building’s own unstable infrastructure. The film is playing Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s rousing and inspirational Batman theme at full blast now. The editing is fast and furious, Batman shoots sticky bombs at key structure points. He loops wire in and around a group of foes, rendering them incapable of fighting back. With all of this going on, all I can do is feel giddy and amazed because a film has finally captured the manic perfection of him. I loved Heath Ledger as The Joker and all, but is it too much for me to adore the absolute God-like depiction of our titular hero’s actions.
It’s difficult to capture a powerful character from print into the moving image so well as Nolan’s attempt has. I haven’t said or written nearly as much as I have thought about this film. Its themes, universal and textured, resonate better today than one would think. The performances, decidedly memorable, Ledger’s own uncanny re-invention in everyone’s mind. If there’s one other scene of his that I believe sums the feeling of this movie up, it’s his speech and introduction to Gotham’s own seedy underworld.
He sits down in front of them, a person calls him crazy for his suggestion about his fee percentage. He quietly says to himself, most likely inaudible to the mob, “No, I’m not.” He says it, half trying to convince himself but definitely sure of what he is saying, Ledger saying more with this line and his delivery of it than in most of his entire career. He knows what freedom is, this chaos of his, and we witness it for two and a half hours. We enjoy it. Who would we be to attempt to distinguish ourselves from him? The Joker is 21st century malaise and modernity personified. He just wants people to admit it to themselves. The film helps people to do just that.