With well over $300,000,000 in 10 days (one of many sales records broken), I suppose The Dark Knight would coast by just fine without one more rapturous review. But even though I've seen the film three times, I can't stop thinking about it, and wanted to jot some thoughts down.
Like this year's other genre masterwork, Iron Man, The Dark Knight is a big-budget crowd-pleaser that manages to remain grounded without betraying its comic book origins. Yes, it's got a big budget and huge action sequences. It's a movie to see again and again, if only for one more chance to chuckle, cheer and cringe along with the crowd at scenes like the Joker's pencil trick, Batman's balcony interrogation of Maroni and the first revelation of Dent's disfigurement.
But the action is matched by detailed characterization along with - and this is where it surpasses Iron Man - a plot that raises legitimate, difficult questions about the burden of being a (super)hero, of making extraordinary decisions for a greater good. Batman may have saved lives by unmasking, at least in the short run, but would that have stopped future terrorists from doing the same thing the Joker did? Or worse? Batman might also have prevented killings by taking the Joker's life. But does any one person have the right to make that decision?
The question becomes increasingly urgent as the Joker's "social experiments" slowly raise the stakes from the life of one thug in a bad Batman outfit to a boatload of civilians. A real sense of danger develops. The Joker goes from being dismissed as "some guy in a clown suit...a nobody" to a threat so great that there's talk of bringing in the National Guard in just two hours of screen-time. He may be limited to Gotham, but as the camera pulls away from an exploding hospital it feels like the entire world is at stake. (Compare this to a dud like Superman Returns, where Lex Luthor was somehow able to raise contents without raising any sense of menace.)
It may be impossible to determine how much of the hype behind Ledger's performance stemmed from his death. But perhaps the best compliment I can give his acting is this: not only did the name "Jack Nicholson" not cross my mind until an hour after I'd left the theater, but I don't know that the name "Heath Ledger" did, either. There is not a single scene with the Joker that is not instantly memorable, yet the audience is in awe of the character, not the performer.
Perhaps this is because Ledger sells the Joker as so twisted that he'd act just as bizarrely whether or not anyone was watching, just to make himself laugh. With touches like his pratfall exit from the overturned semi-truck and his dainty skip away from the hospital, it's like the Joker is mugging for a camera that's not even there. The Joker is horrifying because his giggle can switch to a scream of rage at any second, and there's no reason why. Like No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh, the Joker has no past, no history, no motivation beyond "fair" chaos; "nothing in his pockets but knives and lint."
Chigurh's sinister interpretation of "fair" as a life-or-death coin flip also brings us to Harvey Dent. As mentioned before, The Dark Knight poses difficult moral dilemmas, and Aaron Eckhart's performance as Dent should not be overlooked. In many ways, The Dark Knight is really Harvey Dent's movie. Eckhart has got to carry the film's themes through his character's growth and change. Most of them come down to moral relativism; a vigilante is only a hero until he steps over the line, or "until he lives long enough to see himself become the villain," to use Dent's words. Batman and the Joker are well-defined on their opposite poles of discipline and chaos, and reveal each other's nature, but change very little.
Dent's caught in the middle. He is a good man, but too idealistic for his morals to survive the reality of Gotham City. Unlike the Joker, origin is everything for Dent. My little brother complained there wasn't enough Two-Face, but the film gets it right: the character is meaningless without Dent's fall. The final showdown with Lt. Gordon's family at gunpoint is perhaps most chilling when Dent asks "You think I want to escape this?", indicating that even in his madness he realizes the immorality of his actions, but is so distraught he wants revenge anyway.
Dent may try to deceive himself, but his crimes are all the more horrific because, unlike the Joker, he is, or was, too decent a man to act above the law. Once he becomes Two-Face, Dent uses "chance" as a rationalization of the violence he wants to commit. While Chigurh's coin flip is at least a true 50/50, Dent loses any semblance of fair when he starts flipping until he gets the result he wants, like when a coin flip spares Maroni, but a second kills his driver and crashes his car.
The Joker wants to prove that everyone has the potential to sink to his level. Batman really is incorruptible, but he is a vigilante, and the public cannot hang their hopes on him. Dent can bring Gotham together, but the loss of his reputation would be devastating. The symbolism of Gordon turning Dent's face over from the scarred to the untouched side as he and Batman decide to preserve his reputation as Gotham's "white knight" may not be subtle, but the melodrama is befitting of a comic film. And, in a roundabout way, it answers the question of who has the right to make such broad moral decisions as the ones the Joker poses.
We can go to Alfred for an answer: "...that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice." The turning over of Dent's face is important because it shows that Dent, like Batman, or any "hero," is most important as a symbol. This is another reason the Joker's threat feels so pressing: unlike other comic movies, where the girl or the city or the planet is in danger, The Dark Knight takes on the very nature of the struggle between good and evil. Aiming for that can so often seem silly, which keeps even the best comic flicks as just comic flicks, The Dark Knight tackles the underlying themes without sacrificing the pace of the tensest, grittiest and most gripping comic adaptation to date.