I went to see The Dark Knight on opening night on the Imax screen. Overwhelmed, I knew that I had to see it again to give it a proper assessment. Then I got my hands on a copy of it to watch at home and spent pretty much all of last weekend unable to extricate myself from the movie’s world. Now that I’ve seen it a few times, deconstructed it, reverse-engineered it, and savored my favorite scenes over and over, I realize that it’s not just great. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, graceful as a ballerina, and will be one of those benchmark movies that we judge others against for decades to come.
For all of the comparisons to Heat and GoodFellas, I am mostly reminded of Natural Born Killers. Both movies share a go-for-broke fearlessness in their vision of a world in which what we’re seeing is real. They go way over the top, but bring the story in for such a skillful landing that you not only buy it as possible, but probable and even likely given the right circumstances. Batman Begins showed us Batman’s world in a way that made it feel absolutely real. The Dark Knight shows us the real world pushed to an extreme where Batman makes perfect sense.
Much of the attention the movie is getting centers on the acting. Everyone’s going nuts over Heath Ledger, but I found Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon to be the stand-out performance here. But Gary Oldman is always great, and Jim Gordon is not at the centre of the phenomenon of this movie. The Joker is. Some have tried to make the case that the attention Ledger’s performance is getting has more to do with his death than the actual job he did. Bollocks to that. Cesar Romero’s is the best screen representation of The Joker as portrayed in the comics, but Nolan’s and Ledger’s is an absolutely perfect characterization of The Joker as he would be if he were a real guy. And this brings me back to my Natural Born Killers comparison.
I used to love to talk about NBK with people who didn’t like it. The most common criticism of it was that it offers its loathsome protagonists as heroes. I then point out that the genius joker of it is on the social commentary level where it makes the point that if Mickey & Mallory happened for real, in the age of Marilyn Manson on the radio and Geraldo on TV, it would happen exactly as depicted in the movie. And then those characters became genuine cultural icons from inspiring tributes and homages across various media, all the way down to dressing up as Mickey & Mallory becoming a rite of passage for couples sharing their first Halloween together. I don’t even want to get into the real-life copycat crimes. I’m getting back to The Joker, I promise.
To get the most out of The Dark Knight, you need to have been following the various viral websites that comprised the greatest marketing campaign for anything, ever. There were websites for everything from Gotham’s transit system to the newspaper to the 24-hour news network, complete with a weekly magazine show featuring characters from the movie as guests (all of the websites were ‘defaced by The Joker’ a week before the film’s release). I’m surprised that no other reviews have mentioned the brilliance and skill in how, via these websites, they started telling the story two months before the movie even came out. At the beginning of the movie, when Batman asks Jim Gordon if he trusts the new District Attorney, you know all about him because you followed his campaign and landslide victory on the internet.
But that’s all small potatoes compared to what they did with The Joker’s own site. For over a year leading up to the release of the movie, ‘The Joker’ had people sign up to join his organization and then he gave them orders over the internet. It was a big series of flash mob events, the grand finale of which led participants to their local cinema to be the first to see the film’s trailer. The campaign had rabid fans appearing in cities all over the world, in Joker make-up, often in large gatherings. And that doesn’t even touch on the number of people not taking part in the campaign who painted Joker make-up on themselves in their Facebook profile pics. And this is where The Dark Knight one-ups Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone held a mirror up to society so as to raise alarm to the fact that we live in a world where people might identify with Mickey Knox – an anarchic psychopath. The marketers of The Dark Knight not only encouraged us but offered us incentives to declare full-on allegiance to The Joker – an anarchic psychopath.
In Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a big part of the story involves young people, without a more appropriate role model, falling under the influence of the villain. Within the world of the movie The Dark Knight, I imagine that The Joker would likewise inspire a host of followers, copycats, and imitators, and would probably even use the internet in much the same way that the movie’s marketers did. I thought that this would have been something worth exploring in the movie. That is, until I realized that they didn’t need to because they had already done so BY MAKING IT HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE. How much more of a nudge would it have taken, were this much power and influence in the hands of an artist with a slightly more anti-social creative vision, to push those Joker-philes to a place where life imitates art in ways that we don’t even want to think about? And if that were to happen, you’d have to wonder what kind of force would emerge to stop them.