If any Hollywood blockbuster makes a film noir list, it will be The Dark Knight. When introduced in 1939, Batman served as a fascist fantasy to resist Franklyn Roosevelt. Those roots are obvious in The Dark Knight. Except the line, ‘Die a hero or live long enough and become the villain’, reduces the distance between noir gloom and super hero paranoia. Fabulous muscles or not, Batman has to battle against a fate that dooms him to alienation and depression.
Gotham in Batman is dystopian. The heroes provide no relief. Ordinary people suffer while the omnipotent and exceptional seek vengeance against each other. The opening shot in The Dark Knight echoes the beginning of Psycho. It zooms into a window in a tall building. In Psycho, the audience sneaks a look below the venetian blind. In The Dark Knight, the criminal invites the audience inside by smashing the window with his machine gun. Windows are destroyed throughout The Dark Knight; the invitation to see by cinema is persistent. This may be for effect but it echoes how the film is obsessed with facial appearance and identity. Batman and The Joker use masks to pretend they are something they are not. Harvey Dent, whose own name is defeatist, becomes a villain when his face is disfigured. The Joker is desperate to see the face of Batman and know his equal. Perhaps, the vulnerable windows that are smashed hint at the random destruction of external identity and our desire to destroy the delusions of others.
After the first wrecked window, the bank heist begins. We are reminded of the racecourse robbery in the classic film noir, The Killing. As that movie insisted, tragedy requires unfulfilled potential. And the Joker is special. Because the mask is permanent, he always amuses and terrifies. Batman, like Zorro, is dull without the mask yet the mask, when worn, only reduces him to an anonymous avenger.
Many interpret The Dark Knight as a response to 9/11; allege it reveals what is at stake for the community when faced with terrorists wanting chaos and destruction. Michael Caine remembers his army company killing a bandit in the forest. They burned down the forest. This is either a liberal warning or fascist assertion. There are many metaphors in The Dark Knight and, at times, some Hollywood mumbo jumbo like the speech at the end of the film. Too many metaphors exist as loose ends for them to be thematic. We can only have our own ideas. But 9/11 analysis reduces the movie and ignores the huge contribution of Heath Ledger as the Joker.
The death of Ledger is sad but perhaps he realised he could not live beyond immortality. His dazzling plea on behalf of the dangerous creative spirit is his suitable and unforgettable farewell.
‘Some men just want to watch the world burn,’ says Michael Caine.
And why not, one is tempted to think, watching Ledger. Being crazy can lead to terrible harm to others and self-destruction but it definitely massages the creative impulse.
Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books. His collection of horror stories called Nightmares Ahead will be published by Red Rattle Books in spring 2015. If you want to read more about American culture click here.