Ok…I have been planning to write this for some time now… but somehow couldn’t find the words. (Believe me – that is rare.) Once in a while, one is subjected to an experience, one cannot completely grasp the significance of. Atleast not immediately. It then occupies latent brain-processor cycles (like the SETI program), tugs on the recesses of one’s intellect and often leaves one undecided about what to make of it all. That’s what “The Dark Knight” did to me the first time I saw it. It left me dazed and confused – those are definitely not the typical effects of an “action movie”. And even more atypical for an action movie where the hero wears a silly costume.
Having said that…if any silly-attired-crusader can invoke feelings above the ephemeral – it is Batman. For one…he really doesn’t have “Super Powers”. He is just a morose rich guy with no girlfriend and with lots of top-secret technology and a super-butler at his disposal. So – there is a touch of realism in his capers. (also the same reason Ironman worked so well…) There have been various attempts to create a “human” persona for batman…and a couple of them have been commendable. But all of them – in the name of gratuitous entertainment – have eventually in some way or the other, reduced that human persona into a comic book character. (Don’t get me wrong – I am a big fan of the first two Batman movies with Michael Keaton – but for different reasons.) So when the amazing Chris Nolan took the helm of Batman Begins – my instincts said that he would do something different. And he didn’t disappoint. In the second installment from Nolan – you can sense genuine agony and doubt in the caped crusader. He realizes how difficult his job is and that he is not infallible, especially when he comes face to face with an equally powerful (not in strength – but in conviction) enemy who lies squarely on the other end of the morality scale.
Which brings me to the reason why I had to see the movie a second time before writing about it. Now people around the world have been waxing eloquent about the late Heath Ledger’s seminal performance as the Joker – so I shall refrain (OK…He is PHENOMENAL!). Anyone familiar with the history of Batman comics – will know that amongst all the Batman villians – it is the Joker who brings out the best (and the worst) in Batman. To draw another cinematic reference – as Samuel Jackson’s Elijah mentions in the movie “Unbreakable” – each superhero has his arch enemy amongst other enemies. This arch enemy is typically very similar to the superhero – just believes in causes which are diametrically opposite to the beliefs of the superhero. Usually in the conflict between the Superhero and his arch enemy, against the backdrop of the larger fight between “Good” and “Evil” – the mental and physical (in that order) conflict between the hero and the villian takes centerstage. It becomes personal. Both see their reflections in the other…to the point that the existence of one, hangs on the existence of the other. Chris Nolan handles this complex relationship between Batman and his arch enemy with considerable insight and for the lack of a better term – tenderness. But that’s not what makes the movie work so well. It is Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker – and what the character stands for – that shocks, provokes and gives an entire new meaning to the on-screen villian.
The Joker is essentially an anarchist. He has no specific objective (“I am like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do, if I caught one”). He just feels that with the coming of Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon – the balance between good and evil is getting lopsided. He feels there needs to be “a new class of criminal” – to create destruction for the sake of it. He is anti-thesis, anti-gravity and anti-establishment – all rolled into one. He represents the other side…and actually believes his existence is necessary for the existence of the regular or “good” side. He dislikes the scheming plotting planning nature of “socially acceptable” humans – as he sees no “grand” plan in how the world unfolds around him. He believes that the Sun is there to burn…not warm. He believes that evil should exist in the world without purpose – and hates so called criminals with monetary objectives. He doesn’t mind if people call him a freak – in fact he revels in that. He believes that there is a Joker hidden inside every human being…and he wants to bring that side out. Most of all…he is crystal clear about his purpose and role in the world. (How many of us can say that? ;)) Don’t mistake the joker as unhinged. He probably is the only one not.
And all this is magnified when projected from behind the ultimate mask of duality. The face of a clown. Good when there is evil. Laughter where there is pain. Heath Ledger’s potrayal of Joker is nothing short of terrifying. To me he makes Alien Vs. Predator look like a kindergarten costume party. And this is partly because he makes it look so frighteningly real. But what he also does is that he defies our instinct for rationalizing everything we see. When we see a real life villian like Osama Bin Laden fly planes into our buildings – we rationalize, cook up conspiracies, wage wars. Because there is a “reason” why someone would do this…right? The Joker defies reason. And that is the most unsettling bit about Heath Ledger’s character.
Batman had given himself the purpose of cleaning Gotham’s streets. But if you dig deeper into the character – he still feels that he is “forcefully” rationalizing his existence – by juxtaposing it with these cheap criminals. “I have to do good things – because I have to give the citizens of Gotham a better life.” With the joker – he realizes (as you see at the end of the movie) that he doesn’t have to “appear” good and that appearances are rationalizations. He realizes when he comes face to face with his arch enemy and the broken hero “Two Face/Harvey Dent” – that he exists because a character like the Joker exists. He attains the same amount of clarity of purpose and role – that the Joker has. And this non-rationalized purpose is what makes Batman complete. It is the Joker who makes Batman believe in himself.
One of my favorite Joker dialogues is when he hisses, “You make me complete.” I now realize that he was speaking for both of them.
I hope all of you have watched this movie – if not, I hope you watch it. And not just for the awesome special effects.