ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 10 – THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
In the latter half of the previous decade, the world held its breath in anticipation of the Comic Book Movie Event of the Year. There was so much hype, and so much expectation. Much of this had to do with the Superhero in question, as well as his previous cinematic outing; but this time around, the media focus was on the appearance of an iconic villain, played by an idiosyncratic, against-type actor whose performance was going to redefine the character as we knew it, or else fall hopelessly short of the already impossibly-high bar we’d set for him. By opening day, the film had shattered records, whipped up a media firestorm of discussion, and the franchise in question reached a point of no return. Nothing would be the same again for the series, or the men and women involved in its creation.
Yes, I’m talking about THE DARK KNIGHT. I’m also talking about SPIDER-MAN 3. These two have a considerable amount in common. Stop looking at me like that. No, fuck you. I’m being serious.
The scenarios were the same for Spidey and Batman in 2007 and 2008, respectively. SPIDER-MAN 3 was heavily-promoted due to the inclusion of Venom (something no one wanted except for people who absolutely deserve what they got, both times); THE DARK KNIGHT featured the first appearance of The Joker since Jack Nicholson’s iconic scenery-chewing back in 1989. While Heath Ledger’s second-best onscreen performance* was the aspect that earned the BATMAN BEGINS sequel its white-hot frenzy, there was another villain hanging around there in the backseat who was also making his second Big Screen appearance; yet unlike the Joker, around whom the bulk of the marketing was centered, Two-Face hadn’t yet had his due. Love Burton’s take or hate it, we’d already gotten a worthy take on the Clown Prince of Crime. The same couldn’t be said for Batman’s more dramatically difficult and underused nemesis.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we were served in BATMAN FOREVER. The casting of Tommy Lee Jones suggested a more dramatic take on Harvey Dent, particularly following the actor’s previous collaboration with Joel Schumacher, THE CLIENT. Dent was always portrayed as a younger, more viral man – a contemporary of Bruce Wayne, and one who’d built himself into a legendary force to counter the corruption in Gotham without the benefit of an inheritance, or a goofy Halloween costume – and unfair as it might sound, Jones looked like someone for whom the makeup artists needed to create the unscarred side rather than the other way around. This serious take on an MPD villain was one we’d yet to receive, as BATMAN FOREVER plays like a home video of that time that Dad embarrassed himself at a family cookout in a desperate (and pathetic) attempt to hog the spotlight away from a younger, cooler Uncle.** The unfortunate decision to dress the character in tiger stripes and somehow manage to fuck up something as simple as his name (“Harvey Two-Face”) didn’t do the actor any favors. Pairing him with an unleashed Jim Carrey was simply the three-story ham that broke the camel’s back and left it pinned to the ground as it died a slow, agonizing death. But at least we had popcorn to snack on while we watched its death throes, so there was that, I guess.
We can argue the relative merits of Heath Ledger’s unquestionably iconic take on the Joker, and how he managed to eclipse Nicholson’s equally historic performance (and I assure you, we will); but the presence of the beloved Prince of Knaves overwhelms and obscures a fundamental issue inherent in THE DARK KNIGHT, and it’s the fact that Christopher Nolan actively dislikes comic books, and has made absolutely no effort to disguise this fact.*** Two-Face is the best example of the notoriously pretentious director’s preference for the non-fantastical elements of this particular property, which is kind of problematic when dealing with a fantastical concept.
Right from the start, THE DARK KNIGHT abandons the sense of epic grandeur and contemporary mythology that made BATMAN BEGINS palatable as a “grounded” spin on the Caped Crusader’s career. This sequel is most frequently compared to HEAT, which is fairly appropriate: both are complex crime dramas featuring numerous interlocking threads built around an ensemble cast. Both are grungy, sweaty, and decidedly contemporary in terms of portraying various infrastructures operating to compliment or oppose one another, and strong political parallels can be inferred. If anything, THE DARK KNIGHT is too reality-based, as the central character looks and sounds shockingly out of place in a story that is, theoretically, about him. His early appearance in the bank vault almost completely destroys the illusion of possibility that was methodically constructed throughout BATMAN BEGINS, as we all know that if a guy in that outfit walked onto a crime scene, no one – no one – would allow him to leave unless it was in the back of a squad car. That would be after the battle-hardened cops of Gotham City had themselves a good, long laugh. Anyone arguing otherwise is taking this film much too seriously, as the director would have it…and there are many, many who do.
It’s clear that Nolan was given carte blanche to indulge these sensibilities. Batman’s screen presence is minimized, and what time he’s allotted is dedicated to presenting him more as a private military operative than a masked vigilante. Even the costume is redesigned such that only the horns and cape betray the underlying conceit. “The Bat” as a concept seems eliminated from Bruce Wayne’s agenda; he’s now a one-man strike force. The subtle but palpable shift away from the more heightened aspects of BATMAN BEGINS include the decision to present The Joker as terrorist in greasepaint; even his trademark smile/scream is the product of realistic violence instead of an unplanned swim in chemical waste. Everything is so po-faced and overwhelmingly sincere, and in a fashion that makes THE DARK KNIGHT completely unrecognizable (and thus unwatchable) to the target audience: kids.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than in how Harvey Dent’s story is told. Nolan rightly takes his time to develop the heroic young District Attorney, who appears, for all intents and purposes, to eliminate the need for the entire Batman enterprise. He’s young, charismatic, good-looking, and has no problem standing up to the right (and wrong) people in the name of Civic Justice. If Bruce Wayne was seeking to create an incorruptible symbol, it’s Dent who can truly inspire the people of Gotham, as well as the future Powers to follow. Batman exists to execute missions the law is unable or unwilling to address in proactive fashion; Harvey Dent has no such hang-ups. It’s ultimately to be his downfall, as tragedy is inevitable. This is what makes the dual nature of Two-Face, and his incongruous belief in a bilateral system of Right and Wrong, as well as the randomness of Chance, far more unpredictable than the Joker can ever hope to be.
But Nolan isn’t interested in Two-Face; he’s interested in the man before Two-Face. Harvey Dent’s backstory is the director’s preferred arena, and it’s a compelling one that has been fleshed out over numerous decades, specifically designed to lend pathos to another villain created around the notion of a gimmick. Half a beautiful face; half a scarred one. A two-headed silver dollar: one side clean, the other marked. Flip the coin, and do the right thing or the wrong one. Death traps built around the number two, or associated literary and historical references (Gemini, Janus, et al.). TWO-FACE. This shit writes itself, kids.
As BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES demonstrated fifteen years prior, Harvey’s alter-ego could make for a truly scary villain. Physical looks aside, the notions of childhood abuse and disassociation are relatable, and result in an enemy whose actions are impossible to predict given the 50/50 odds for every subsequent response. These combined factors set up calculated chaos, which Nolan instead makes the Joker’s M.O. despite there being no historical precedent for the elaborate nature of his depicted madness. Quite the opposite: The Joker is a villain whose recurring theme is a homicidal lack of impulse control. The decision to redistribute the very characteristics that define Two-Face effectively eliminate him from a narrative that seems designed to introduce him for later (and ongoing) use.
The fact that Nolan has no such designs is made bafflingly clear with the Third Act appearance of the scarred, coin-flipping Harvey Dent, who, apart from a sequence in which he plays second fiddle to the Joker, has only a duo of scenes in which he gives his two cents before squaring off with Mob Boss Maroni, and then gets attempts to even with Gordon, too.**** In other words, as soon as Dent become Two-Face, his story ends.
So why did I bring up Venom and SPIDER-MAN 3? There are few who will disagree that THE DARK KNIGHT is a better film than Raimi’s famously fucked-with third installment, but there are fewer still who recognize that the supposed “crime” perpetrated against Eddie Brock and his alien symbiote is virtually identical to the one that was actually, no kidding, inflicted on Harvey Dent. The only difference is that one of these films is beloved while the other is reviled, and the obsessive devotion to THE DARK KNIGHT as THE BESTEST BATMAN MOVIE EVER! is the only reason this gets a pass.
In both cases, the director had no real use for the villain once fully established, but rather saw his creation as a means by which to reflect the protagonist in a new light. I wrote about Venom’s handling in SPIDER-MAN 3 at length, so there’s no need to return to that particular well beyond restating the obvious: Raimi saw the dramatic possibilities in presenting a counterpoint to Peter Parker – a Peter Parker who was all Power and no Responsibility. Once Brock’s use as a means by which to convey this idea was no longer necessary as determined by the hero’s place in his particular part of the story, the introduction of Venom was rushed through and completed because it simply wasn’t interesting (or perhaps demanded a subsequent film by which to craft a compelling reason for the utterly worthless and creatively bankrupt non-character to exist in the first place besides Hot Topic).
The only difference here is that Two-Face is not “utterly worthless,” nor is he “creatively bankrupt.” Two-Face is more compelling than Harvey Dent, because he’s a natural outgrowth of Harvey Dent. Everything that makes him a worthy foil for Batman is baked right into his backstory, but it’s backstory. It’s the foundation on which the entire character is built. SPIDER-MAN 3’s similar problem had the weak but justifiable excuse that Parker’s dalliance with the alien symbiote was a tale unto itself: Venom was simply a mechanism by which later writers brought the otherworldy black costume back into the series proper. His introduction was, in effect, a sequel to the original Secret Wars storyline that had produced Spidey’s new threads for the sole purpose of selling tie-in action figures If SPIDER-MAN 3 gets a pass in its hasty, obligatory setup and execution of Venom, it’s in the fact that the preceding events depicted – namely, Parker’s acquisition and corruption by the symbiote – was canon. It was a story unto itself that ended with a ringing bell, and should have remained as such.
Apologists have bent themselves into logic pretzels making excuses for the similar handling of Two-Face in THE DARK KNIGHT, and they’re arguments without merit. The ambiguous final shot of Dent lying flat on his back, eyes closed, creates the possibility that the character had been rendered unconscious by his fall, and would return in full glory to fight another day. Nolan’s firm headshake told us otherwise, and the opening, Gotham-based moments in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES confirmed this notion. As it stands, the villain is wasted, and for no other reason than the inarguable fact that the director doesn’t actually like this stuff. It’s corny. It’s juvenile. It REQUIRES ELEVATION! Anyone watching THE DARK KNIGHT and claiming it’s somehow the best take on the character and his universe is somehow immune to the stench of contempt emanating from their home theater system, and lacks a fundamental understanding of who and what Batman is meant to represent. That level of fantasy is greater than anything we ever see take place in Gotham City.
*BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN contains Ledger’s finest performance. You might agree, unless you’ve stubbornly refused to give it a chance because you’re a shitty, worthless homophobe.
**Tommy Lee Jones said, at the time, that he took the role of Harvey Dent/Two-Face because the character – who hadn’t appeared on the 60s television show or any of the cartoon programs prior to BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES – was his son’s favorite villain. This was standard lip service from Hollywood actors who considered themselves above this sort of material, at least prior to The Comic Book Movie becoming a relevant and acceptable genre. If Jones was being truthful, then the embarrassing home video comparison remains particularly apt.
***Before anyone accuses this writer of speculation, I would refer you to The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy, in which David Goyer recounts examples of conversations in which he – as both screenwriter and comic book Fanboy – attempted to pitch characters and scenarios to Nolan, whose eyes glazed over until Goyer could present a “realistic” interpretation or justification for the very mythological aspects he was hired to adapt. It’s absolutely fair to counter that his agenda was specific in terms of how he presented these elements, but once you have to fundamentally change almost every aspect of a villain (SEE: Bane), there’s something wrong with your approach.
****I’m really, really sorry.
(Bonus thanks to imagin78 for pointing out that I incorrectly identified THE CLIENT as A TIME TO KILL!)
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)