On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
It’s pretty much impossible to discuss The Dark Knight without discussing the Joker. Like many of the best villains, the Joker has come to transcend the film itself, existing in culture as a reflection of the vices he represents: in this case, a distilled nihilism, not so much evil as the refutation of good. But as much as the Joker is often removed from the context of The Dark Knight and turned into a kind of nerd totem — picture Creed, Dwight, and Kevin all dressing up as him for Halloween — the character’s function within the structure of the movie is deceptively complex.
The Joker’s on-screen histrionics, enabled by Heath Ledger’s gonzo performance, work as a smokescreen for what Christopher and Jonathan Nolan do with him on a deeper level. If The Dark Knight is a movie about rot — institutional, societal, internal — then the Joker is its manifestation, with roots that stretch deep enough to erode screenplay conventions. Because of the Joker’s putrefaction, and the effect it has on those around him, the Nolans can tell their story with a remarkable leeway: at any point in the film, they can plausibly undermine and betray their protagonists, their situation, and even the logic of the story — and they can do this in a manner that reinforces their own themes. In no scene is this represented more clearly than the one between the Joker and Harvey Dent at the hospital.
It’s worth understanding what it is The Dark Knight doesn’t do. A few years back, Slate published a piece illustrating how deeply Blake Snyder’s screenwriting manual Save the Cat seemed to have pervaded Hollywood. Whether you believe that Save the Cat in particular is the blueprint from which every blockbuster seems to be operating, however, the more instructive point of the article is showing the similarities between big-budget movies, The Dark Knight included — it appears in the introductory paragraph.
But while it’s certainly true that the individual beats of these films often match up in uncanny ways, what’s more noticeable is that the function of the characters do as well. There’s the hero, who tends to be flawed, tempted, but generally good; and then there’s the villain, who is introduced into the film, sows discord between the hero and his allies, isolates and/or alienates the hero, appears to be on the brink of victory, and then, for some frequently inane reason, gives up his advantage, allowing the hero to triumph in the end. The villain works as a catalyst for the hero’s journey and serves little more purpose than that.
The Dark Knight takes a different approach, in which the Joker’s relationship to the hero is less important than his relationship to the film as a whole. In a sense, he is just as much, if not more, the main character than Batman.
That takes us to the hospital scene. By the time the Joker’s wearing a nurse’s outfit and a wig, presiding over the now two-faced Dent, he’s already (1) robbed a bank and killed all of the guys who helped him; (2) won over the mob with a promise to kill Batman in exchange for half of their money; (3) killed the police commissioner and the judge presiding over the case against the mob; (4) attempted to kill the mayor; (5) kidnapped Harvey Dent and his girlfriend/co-prosecutor, Rachel Dawes, despite getting captured by the police; (6) killed Rachel and burned half of Harvey’s face off; (7) escaped from jail; and (8) pledged to blow up a hospital if Colton Reese, a lawyer who pledged to reveal the identity of Batman, wasn’t murdered by the public.
In all of these events, the Joker’s influence works at the atomic level. How did the Joker poison the bottle in the mayor’s office? How did he get so many of his men into police uniforms, and turn so many actual cops? How does he seem to have bombs planted literally everywhere? He’d need a small army to pull all this off, and aside from a few half-hearted attempts at explanation — crazy people like to work for him; Martinez’s mom is sick, or something? — the Nolan brothers totally punt on any greater scheme for justifying, in a practical and schematic manner, the vast manpower and loyalty he commands.
And it’s fine! The reason it’s fine, the reason it works within the film, is stated very explicitly by the Joker to Dent in the hospital. (Again: how did the Joker get into a nurse’s uniform, get into the hospital, get into Dent’s room? Who can say.)
The Joker begins by doing what does, which is what we wouldn’t expect him to do. He loosens Dent’s restraints, hands him a gun, and allows him to point the gun at his head. He pleads his own case as a “wrench in the gears,” a “dog chasing cars,” and puts the blame on people like Commissioner Gordon and the mob, whose plans are the reason why these bad things end up happening: the victory of one side means the defeat of another. Then he speaks the key phrase: “I’m an agent of chaos.”
This scene is fascinating for a few reasons. First, it shows Nolan’s attention to detail: the Joker wears a Harvey Dent campaign sticker on his nurse’s uniform, and Dent’s CGI face, which we’re seeing for the first time, is made more convincing by the traces of blood it leaves where it touches the pillow.
Second, it demonstrates when the Nolans’ dialogue, rarely the strongest aspect of their filmmaking, is at its best: if the brothers struggle with believable conversation and low-stakes interactions, they excel when a character is essentially stating his worldview and/or the themes of the movie. (This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not: that’s hard!) And third, it reveals how strong of a grip Nolan the filmmaker has over the myriad parts of his films, even if this will, in Dunkirk, come to verge on the fetishistic.
The Joker is an agent of chaos, but he isn’t just an agent of chaos in the way he means, which is by upending conventional notions of right and wrong in favor of cosmic randomness — an explanation that, as he knows it will, wins over the despairing Dent. Of course, that perversion of Dent, the flipping of the white knight into a dark one — two dark knights! two dark knights! — was the Joker’s plan, and it serves as a reminder that the Joker isn’t nearly as aimless and random as he claims to be: he has an agenda as much as any other person in the film, and that’s to create a world without morals and rules, because in an immoral, rule-less world, the man with the fewest internal morals and rules will reign supreme.
In that way, he again nods toward his function in the script and the structure of The Dark Knight. Thanks to the agent of chaos that is the Joker, a story element that allows almost any act of carnage, havoc, and violence to be plausible if it’s attributed to him, the Nolans avoid getting bogged down in the backstory and mechanics that plague so many superhero movies while still indulging in endless twists and turns. The Joker’s plan is to appear as if he has no plan, and by hiding the plan — and, most importantly, disguising the inevitably tedious moment in which the villain reveals his plan, as the Joker does in this scene with Dent — they reinforce the Joker’s purpose. It’s a coup for the film, and it’s one of the reasons why, ten years after its release, The Dark Knight continues to stand above the million comic-book films that have followed in its wake.
Kevin Lincoln has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York, Grantland and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.