We are super pleased to bring you the middle installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s three-parter looking at the hero’s journey in Christopher Nolan’s now-completed Batman trilogy. To read part one, go here.
THE SECOND PRISON: THE DARK KNIGHT
The Dark Knight opens with a swift and violent bank robbery masterminded by the Joker. We watch as a group of masked men execute an intricately planned heist and then double-cross each other (to death) until, finally, the Joker kills the last hired thug and makes off with millions of the mob’s money. It would appear that a new breed of criminal has emerged in Gotham–and Bruce Wayne will discover that even the training and tools of the Batman are inadequate to contain him.
In this new climate, the leaders of the mob have become desperate. Gordon and Batman have shut down all of their money-laundering operations; only those of Chinese national Lau remain. Gordon and Batman form an uneasy alliance with new district attorney Harvey Dent to shut down the mob, once and for all. But Dent and Gordon don’t trust each other. Dent distrusts Gordon’s officers, many of whom he investigated in Internal Affairs. Gordon distrusts Dent’s glib cockiness, suspecting that mobster Salvator Maroni has spies in Dent’s office. Batman, meanwhile, is convinced that the highest priority should be given to driving the final nail in the coffin of Gotham’s organized crime.
But Gordon doesn’t want to turn his back on the the Joker for a second. The Joker may be for crime what Batman is for justice in Gotham. Batman tells Gordon, “One man or the mob? He [the Joker] can wait.” What he doesn’t know is that the two are in cahoots: the Joker has offered to kill Batman for the mob in exchange for half of their cash. After Lau is captured (and squeals), the mob, in desperation, agrees to Joker’s terms.
Joker announces that Batman must turn himself in and unmask himself or people will die. He begins by killing the various men who have been inspired to copy-cat Batmen. Next he starts knocking off the judges and lawyers the mob is afraid of, planning to execute Dent personally. Dent, however, is saved by Bruce Wayne, who confronts the Joker as Batman. Their game of cat and mouse culminates in Dent claiming to be Batman and turning himself into police custody. When the Joker (presumably) falls for the ruse and makes another attempt on Dent’s life, Batman and Gordon capture him and put him in a holding cell.
It is in this second prison cell that Bruce, as Batman, has his famous conversation with the Joker. In a true tour-de-force scene (Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar that was 100% deserved), Joker begins by correcting his interrogation and torturing methods. “Never start with the head. The victim gets all fuzzy. He can’t feel the next–see?” Bruce is hopelessly in over his head and doesn’t realize it yet. There is nothing in what Ducard taught him that accounts for this man. Soon the Joker has turned the tables on him–“I wanted to see what you’d do and you didn’t disappoint. You let five people die. And then you let Dent take your place. Even to a guy like me that’s cold.” The Joker has deftly pinned the guilt for the death of five people on Bruce.
It turns out that the Joker never had the slightest interest in killing Batman. He’d strung the “mob fools” along with a story they wanted to hear. If the Joker didn’t have Batman he’d have no one to play with. Of Gotham’s citizens Joker says, “You see their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down these `civilized’ people will eat each other.” As soon as Gotham doesn’t need Batman they will reject him.
Alfred had warned Bruce that the Joker couldn’t be bought off, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with, and the Joker drives the point home when he laughs at Batman’s methods and motives. “You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.” Where in the first prison Ducard gave Bruce Wayne a path, in the second prison the Joker drags Batman kicking and screaming into an impossible game. “Killing is making a choice, choosing one life over another,” he says, before revealing that Batman has mere minutes to save either Harvey Dent or his beloved Rachel Dawes. Joker tells him where to find both Dawes and Dent but lies about who is trapped where. Batman goes to rescue Rachel but discovers Harvey Dent. Gordon and his team go to rescue Dent but don’t arrive in time to save Rachel from being incinerated.
Batman’s capture of the Joker should have been his greatest victory, but the Joker turns it into his most humiliating and heartbreaking defeat. Dawes dies, and Dent is savagely burned. Realizing his lies and schemes cost Rachel her life, Dent is furious but, like Ducard, turns his wrath outward. He blames Gordon for not realizing how corrupt his team was, accepting the derogatory nickname that Gordon’s crooked cops had come up with for him while he worked at Internal Affairs, Two-Face, going on a killing spree of his own while Gotham is terrorized by the Joker. When an exhausted Batman stops the Joker from blowing up two ferries full of Gothamites, the Joker retorts, “You didn’t think I’d bet everything on the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you? No, you need an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey… I took Gotham’s white knight and I brought him down to our level.” We learn that Dent has killed cops and mobsters who double-crossed him and kidnapped Gordon’s family. Batman arrives in time to stop Two-Face from killing Gordon’s son., but at a terrible price. The Joker predicted that Batman would break his one rule and it proved true–Bruce Wayne couldn’t save Gordon’s son without killing Harvey Dent.
Tragically, Harvey Dent was only Gotham’s white knight for as long as he could make his own luck. Once he couldn’t Dent chose to become the sort of man that Bruce nearly became in Batman Begins, a man murderously consumed by personal vengeance. Knowing that Dent’s crimes would invalidate the arrests he made of mobsters Gordon frets that Gotham will lose hope. “The Joker won”, Gordon says despairingly. In his final hours Dent tells Batman, “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time but you were wrong.”
Having let Dent take the fall for Batman, Batman decides to take the fall for Dent, to accept responsibility for Dent’s crimes and for the death of Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne doesn’t want the city he loves to give up hope and he concludes that “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more, to have their faith rewarded.” While the substitution may bear some undeniable resemblance to A Much Older Story, it is actually a deeply disturbing ending. Batman and Gordon gamble on building a new peace for Gotham on a lie. Bruce chooses to become the scapegoat rather than find a scapegoat (a la Ducard). But while the self-sacrifice is certainly laudatory, Batman is not God. He doesn’t realize that his heart and Gordon’s marriage can’t bear the weight of these lies. His victory is not really a victory at all. He has compromised the one rule that he held most dear–not to kill. Because make no mistake: he stopped Two-Face by killing him. In another terrible irony, the Joker may have told the Batman that he is “truly incorruptible,” but the Joker’s mercurial schemes and killings have, in fact, corrupted the Dark Knight.
In the superhero genre, a villain telling a hero he must choose between one life or the other is an all-too-common set-up. And in almost every instance, the superhero triumphs by figuring out how to save both lives. Not so in The Dark Knight. Here Bruce Wayne fails to save the woman he loves and fails to save the district attorney, who then becomes a vengeful killer with a death wish. Bruce laments to Alfred, “Batman was meant to be a symbol to inspire good, not madness, not death” and in the prison cell with the Joker Bruce Wayne is confronted with a terrible reality, that his weapons of deception and theatricality are useless against a real “agent of chaos.”
Eight years later Bane will wonder which would break first, Bruce Wayne’s soul or body. And Bane will fool himself into thinking that he has managed to break both. But Bruce’s spirit wasn’t broken by (any iteration of) the League of Shadows, it was broken by the realization that the only way to “win” against the madness and killing of the Joker and Two-Face was by promoting an untruth. As we will see, The Dark Knight cannot rise until he stops trying to outsmart the truth and lets it have its day.
To read the third and final part, go here!