Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Plummets Into Real-World Terror
Written by Admin on August 31, 2020
As Tenet continues its release in international markets, we’re taking a look back at filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s entire feature-length filmography, exploring each of his films one day at a time. Today we continue with his sixth feature, which is also one of his most beloved, The Dark Knight.Full spoilers for The Dark Knight follow.A film that grossed a billion dollars when that was still a unique achievement, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was an unprecedented worldwide success, and only the fourth film to reach that milestone at that time. A follow-up to Batman Begins, which would set the template for several years of “dark & gritty” reboots, the second film in Nolan’s trilogy went hand-in-hand with Marvel’s Iron Man a few months prior, ushering in an era of superhero films that, at least nominally, had realistic backdrops. Though where Iron Man was concerned with the mere texture of military politics, The Dark Knight managed to capture something more complex and instinctive about the “war on terror” era.With Batman Begins, Nolan sought to create a highly militarized Batman who navigated the nexus of fear and vengeance, as if representing — in microcosm — America’s post-9/11 national mindset. The 2008 sequel picks up right where things left off, not only by introducing The Joker (Heath Ledger), framed at the end of Begins as a product of military escalation, but by shifting the series’ abstract questions of revenge and justice toward a murkier real-world dilemma: How does one reconcile one’s humanity with one’s impulse for violent retribution?In the latest installment of our deep-dive into Nolan’s work, we look at how The Dark Knight enraptured audiences by creating a chaotic tale of struggling with human limits, how it tapped into the fears and sensations associated with global terror, and how the film resembled a real-life terror attack that took place shortly after its release.A Free-Fall Into TerrorismThe Dark Knight is Nolan’s most straightforward film from an editing standpoint. It features neither flashbacks nor major time jumps nor time manipulations, but how much time the film actually covers is its own little mystery. If you break it down by how the night and day scenes alternate, it spans about about a week — but the film’s power lies in the fact that it feels completely continuous, and completely climactic from start to finish.It captures the acceleration of an era in which responses to catastrophe bred even more catastrophe. At the film’s center is Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a man who still wants to hang up his cape should the opportunity arise, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a DA who represents American idealism turned to chaos, and The Joker, a figure of unknown origins hidden behind “war paint” — Nolan’s ultimate constructed identity — who embodies the feelings of unknowability surrounding modern terrorism.Of course, the factual truth is that terrorism is, more often than not, quantifiable. Its perpetrators tend to lay out their political reasons after the fact. Their motives are known, and their atrocities are often in response to some military aggression elsewhere; Bin Laden claimed 9/11 was a response to American aggression in countries like Somalia and Lebanon, while ISIS grew out of America’s occupation of Iraq. The Joker’s claims of “You complete me,” while a winking reference to Jerry Maguire, can’t help but feel emblematic of terror’s cyclical nature, as if The Joker were an inevitable outcome of Batman’s own militarism.But these political motives behind terror attacks aren’t always clear in the moment, and are rarely a major concern of their victims. The way terrorism is canonized in Western consciousness — as a cultural war against freedom, isolated from its political origins — makes it feel like a force of evil, hell-bent on destruction for destruction’s sake. Whatever the ideological reasons for terror attacks, what often sticks in the public memory is their fanatical end result, immortalized as horrifying images on cable news.The Joker, therefore, is a fantasy version of a terrorist seen through Western eyes, divorced from real political ideology and remixed through popular culture. His narrative purpose is not to expose real-world terrorism, but rather, to reflect the paralyzing fear it imparts, and the chaotic responses it extracts.Living Through a Terror AttackThe image of Batman stewing in his failure, standing amidst burning rubble while framed by firefighters and metallic debris, brings to mind horrific images of Ground Zero after September 11th. But the film was also prescient in unfortunate ways. Just four months after The Dark Knight’s release, the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks (aka 26/11) saw 10 gunmen hold an entire city hostage for nearly four days. Over 170 people were killed and over 300 were injured. I watched most of this from my bedroom window. The Dark Knight was still playing in local cinemas, and I recall several people making the comparison between the film and these events, even as they were unfolding.Batman stewing in his failure, standing amidst burning rubble while framed by firefighters and metallic debris, brings to mind horrific images of Ground Zero after September 11th.No one knew for sure what the gunmen’s motives were at the time, other than chaos and destruction. The accompanying desperation, helplessness, and feelings of being trapped by human limits — experienced by many including myself in that situation — are all present in Nolan’s film, as is the sensation of being in a constant state of free-fall. During that week in November, the list of friends and loved ones affected by the attack seemed to grow longer by the minute, while days blended into nights as we waited endlessly for security forces to arrive. Time sped up and stood still, all at once.Though what stood out about this particular attack was something the film spoke of as well. Mumbai had seen major coordinated bombings before — in 2003 and in 2006, most notably — but the targets were street markets and local trains, populated by the masses. Among the targets of the 2008 attack were several five-star hotels. Many of the victims were foreign tourists and wealthy Indians, and the only surviving gunman was apprehended en route to the mansions of the state’s Governor and Chief Minister. It was this attack, and not the others, that finally changed the fabric of life in Mumbai; airport security-style checkpoints are now commonplace at malls, hotels and theatres. Those in power were finally those in danger. This wasn’t “part of the plan,” as The Joker put it — the plan of a society like Gotham, which saw soldiers and gang members as disposable. “But when I say that one little old mayor will die,” he continues, “then everyone loses their minds.” Even in Batman Begins, the poor’s suffering didn’t seem to matter to Gotham’s elite until it resulted in the Waynes being gunned down (“Their murders shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action”).The insertion of terror into any societal fabric begs the question of how that society will respond. In The Dark Knight, The Joker killing Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and scarring Harvey Dent leads Batman down a morally questionable path, one in which he essentially activates a surveillance state (an idea co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan would explore further in Westworld and Person of Interest). Although, Batman’s security apparatus didn’t appear out of thin air; it was set up within the legal bounds of government telecommunications before it was put into action. This was another prescient plot point, given the intercepting of the Mumbai gunmen’s satellite phone calls, but one that also reflected America’s own 2001 Patriot Act, which expanded the use of “Enhanced Surveillance Procedures” (not to mention the ensuing Snowden NSA leaks a few years later). Batman (Christian Bale) ponders his failure.However, while the film’s foundation involves the realistic mechanics of terror and the responses therein, its story plays out like a power fantasy. It’s a dream of how far one might want or need to go in order to defeat such overwhelming forces.Pushing Batman to His LimitsOne of the first exchanges between Bruce and Alfred reveals the film’s perspective on Batman. “Know your limits,” Alfred tells him, to which he responds: “Batman has no limits.”On one hand, this speaks to Batman’s desire to transcend his physical limitations. There are boundaries to what he can and cannot achieve as a human being — after all, Alfred is responding, with great concern, to the scars on his back. However, the exchange is also emblematic of what moral lines this highly mechanized, highly militarized Batman is willing to cross, and the power fantasies inherent to pushing against both these physical and moral limits.After extracting a piece of brick with a bullet hole midway through the film, Bruce and Alfred engage in an elaborate and distinctly unrealistic method of ballistic detection. They fire similar bullets into several similar bricks, and use them to digitally reconstruct the shattered projectile in order to pull a fingerprint from it (many have pointed out that the fingerprint would ordinarily be on a bullet casing, rather than a bullet itself, but the casing seen in the film leaves much of the actual bullet exposed).This is, in effect, a precursor to the scene in Tenet (glimpsed in the second trailer), in which John David Washington’s character can be seen inverting the flow of time and using a gun to catch a bullet, “un-firing” it from a slab of debris. In The Dark Knight, no such overt sci-fi mechanics are at play, but the fantastical nature of this forensic method feels like its own form of time travel. Not literally, of course, but a fantasy in which one can catch up to a terrorist mastermind by going beyond the limits of human technology… and human perception. (Batman’s use of the CIA’s “Skyhook” device, which essentially inverts the process of jumping out of a plane, speaks to a similar desire.)The aforementioned surveillance tech is based on real security concerns: It turns every phone in Gotham into a live microphone. However, the form it eventually takes is a fantasy too. It uses echolocation to grant Batman omniscience and omnipresence; standing in one location, he can listen in on every conversation in Gotham, and can navigate a three-dimensional map of the entire city. Time and space are no obstacle.It feels almost warranted, though, since the Joker’s deadly schemes are so complicated and elaborate that they feel supernaturally conceived.A Joker for the 21st CenturyA carnivalesque mirror to Batman’s gothic façade ever since 1940, The Joker has had several origins in the comics, the most iconic among them being falling into toxic chemicals. This can be seen in the 1989 Batman film by Tim Burton, though it dates as far back as Detective Comics #168 in 1951.The Dark Knight doesn’t recreate this origin, but the film does borrow elements from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s comic Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), in which this industrial accident is framed as one of several possible delusions (which The Joker calls “multiple choice”). Ledger’s Joker similarly hints at an ever-shifting backstory for his trauma, whether as lie or hallucination, and he becomes unknowable in the process. “No name, no other alias,” Gordon says when The Joker is initially captured.Another notable origin can be found in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s nightmarish graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989), which frames the character not as insane, but as possessing “A kind of super sanity… a brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.” Morrison, known for collapsing the winding, often contradictory histories of DC characters into single canons, reconciles The Joker being written as everything from a mischievous clown to a killer psychopath as the character having no true personality, but rather creating himself anew each day — as if he exists only in response to Batman, as his thematic foil, ever-shifting depending on how the Caped Crusader is written in a given era. Joker (Heath Ledger) imparts one of his origin stories to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).When Batman is a frivolous swashbuckler, like he was in the ’50s and ’60s, The Joker is an elaborate prankster. When Batman is a troubled vigilante, as he often was in the ’80s, The Joker is grotesquely violent, luring him toward insanity. And if Batman is an embodiment of American militarism, pushing the physical and ethical limits of human technology, The Joker is the inevitable blowback, a point of escalation in the cycle of urban warfare, transcending those technological limits.By making The Joker an enigma, and by shrouding both his reach and his methods in mystery, The Dark Knight allows the character to embody the unknowability and unpredictability of lurking terror, constantly inventing new and elaborate hostage situations for Batman to respond to. In order to defeat this overpowering terrorist (with his seemingly infinite network that can kidnap anyone and plant explosives practically anywhere), Batman needs to be in all places at once — hence the echolocation, as the crossing of a major moral and ethical boundary.While the film eventually sees Batman destroying this apparatus, the narrative seems to skew towards justifying its use; were he able to activate it sooner, he might’ve been able to stop The Joker from killing Rachel and corrupting Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight is a fantasy, and a militaristic one at that, in which near-total technological overreach is necessary to capture a major terrorist. However, while the film often leans in this direction from a top-down perspective, the individual questions it asks of its characters tend to cut deeper.Symbols of BeliefThe Dark Knight is “realistic” inasmuch as it has a tactile feel. Its action set pieces play out in lengthy takes (at least, lengthier than your usual, rapidly-cut apocalyptic blockbuster) and its practical weapons, vehicles and Chicago locations ground the comic-book chaos in the familiar. However, between its fantasies of pushing human limits, and the way The Joker embodies skulking dread, the film works as well as it does because of its abstractions.The Dark Knight is a fantasy, and a militaristic one at that, in which near-total technological overreach is necessary to capture a major terrorist.In order to oppose Gotham’s clown-like emblem of chaos, Batman looks to Harvey Dent, a symbol of hope. From the moment Dent first appears in the film (on a screen in Batman’s hideout), he’s framed as a religious figure, arms spread across like Christ and accompanied by the slogan “I Believe in Harvey Dent.” Where Batman’s own symbol falls within moral greys — he fights covertly, in the shadows, by embodying fear and by crossing ethical lines — Dent represents order and moral righteousness.The Joker’s quest to corrupt Dent — to scar him, and to turn him to violence — is an attempt to prove that even symbols are corruptible, and individuals hand-picked for excellence can be broken. However, after Batman has been forced to break his own moral code and kill Dent to save Gordon’s family (arguably, a victory for The Joker), the Caped Crusader accepts the ugly truth behind The Joker’s logic: that the loss of faith is as powerful as faith itself.And so, after Dent’s violent rampage in response to terror and trauma, and after the people of Gotham nearly devolve into chaos after losing faith in the structures meant to protect them, Batman accepts the blame for Dent’s crimes. He replaces him as a symbol of evil so that Dent might remain a bastion of justice. As Dent lays dead on the ground, his arms lie spread out once more; a Christ figure, whose death becomes the foundation of belief.Of course, when the truth itself is this relative, characters are forced to walk a flimsy line between belief and delusion. Gordon fakes his death to keep his family safe. Batman lies about Dent’s actions to maintain the people’s faith in him. Alfred, in turn, lies about Rachel choosing Dent before her death, in order to protect what remains of Bruce’s humanity. These white lies, relative truths and blatant fabrications appear and reappear in Nolan’s films, though in The Dark Knight they’re a microcosm of the ways in which societies often respond to terror.After Gordon’s apparent death and a threat on Rachel’s life, Batman and Dent are pushed so far towards their limits that just halfway through the film, they’re already seen engaging in torture — or what the Bush administration euphemistically called “Enhanced Interrogation.” As Batman tears through a nightclub and drops the gangster Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) from a balcony, breaking his leg, the scene is intercut with Dent playing Russian roulette with a schizophrenic man hired by The Joker, in order to extract information from him.Notably, these inhumane measures do not yield any actionable information, but they represent the slow crumbling of Gotham’s morality in response to widespread panic. When Batman tortures The Joker for answers in an interrogation room, all he gets in return is the wrong information, along with The Joker’s taunts — “You have nothing to do with all your strength!” — as if to expose the helplessness and impotent rage that leads one down a path of torture in the first place.Dent’s torture scene ends not with Batman acknowledging the immorality of his actions, but rather their unsavoury optics. “If anyone saw this,” he tells Dent, “everything would be undone.” In the face of terror, people’s belief in righteousness — that of their leaders, and their own — often means turning a blind eye to extraordinary, even deadly measures. It’s a societal self-delusion, represented by each character’s manipulation of truth throughout the film, each one a lie in the name of security.However, amidst all the film’s action and bombast, the way Nolan captures characters being drawn into their beliefs is what ties the story together. His films aren’t usually known for subtlety; as four-quadrant blockbusters, they tend to be heavy on exposition to reveal their plots. But in The Dark Knight, reaction shots to said exposition also reveal character and interconnected moral conundrums.Pushing-in on HopeWhen Dent first mentions his plans to clean up Gotham, while seated at Bruce’s restaurant, the camera pushes in ever-so-slowly on Bruce, revealing his hope for a better world. When Bruce endorses Dent at his fundraiser, the camera moves in once more, piercing the veil of Bruce’s sarcasm — the wry mask he wears to conceal his true self — unearthing his hope for Dent’s ascendancy, which he sees as a chance to leave Batman behind and start over. Dent, more than anyone else, makes Bruce feel less isolated on his quest to defeat criminality.Ranking the Batman Movie VillainsHowever, the reverse technique appears when Rachel says goodbye to Alfred after handing him a letter for Bruce; the camera pulls slowly away from him as he watches her leave. Not only will Rachel’s eventual demise be crushing for all involved, but it will take with it the last remnants of Bruce’s hope — unless Alfred acts, and manipulates the truth.The ultimate example of the camera slowing down to capture these subtle moments, in which characters wrestle with hope, occurs during the final act amidst a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Joker rigs two ferries — one carrying prisoners, the other carrying common folk — with explosives, and gives each boat the other’s detonator under threat of blowing them both up if one doesn’t act. The Joker expects these “civilized people” to cannibalize one another and shed the veneer of civility when in danger. But in the end, no one presses either button.Among the prisoners, an inmate (Tom “Tiny” Lister) demands the remote, as the camera dollies in slowly to capture his resolute belief that it should be thrown out the window. On the civilian vessel, a businessman (Doug Ballard) strongly considers blowing up the prisoners’ ferry. It’s a reflection of Bruce Wayne’s executioner dilemma in Batman Begins, with the value of criminal life — human life — brought into focus, albeit with much more urgency. The camera creeps slowly towards Ballard’s character, interrogating his casual dismissal of the prisoners’ humanity, until he eventually changes his mind. The tension of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s rising, screeching score slowly dissipates, giving way to harmonious strings, as if signaling hope’s return.The Joker may be captured by the police soon after, but it’s in these moments on both ferries that he’s truly defeated. Because what he represents — humanity plummeting into chaos and bloodshed when poisoned by fear — is overcome by ordinary people, even if figures like Batman have chosen to cross all ethical lines, and leaders like Dent respond to violence with further atrocity.The major characters in The Dark Knight all respond to the abstract idea of terror by readily shedding their moral codes, and lying for the “greater good.” Perhaps it’s necessary, given The Joker’s overwhelming power, but the film ultimately comes down on the side of questioning even this apparent necessity, as if to ask: If extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, what parts of ourselves do we lose when we choose to take those steps?
Siddhant Adlakha is a filmmaker and film critic based in Mumbai and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SiddhantAdlakha.Was this article informative?Read More