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Ten Years Later, “The Dark Knight” and Its Vision of Guilt Still Resonate

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Ten years after its release, there is somehow too much and not enough left to say about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Its politics have been discussed ad infinitum. Its stylistic influence has become ubiquitous, then passé, then somehow aspirational; DC and Warner would kill to have a Batman like this again. Its impact on fan culture (the trolls, dear god, the trolls) is now more a problem for social scientists and psychologists than for film critics or entertainment journalists. It is the biggest hit of Nolan’s career and also the one he’s been trying to live down ever since.

The film, in case you’re wondering, still holds up — especially at a time when superhero flicks, with a few exceptions, have turned assembly-line anonymity into both an aesthetic and a transactional promise. Seen through today’s glut of pro forma blockbusters, The Dark Knight seems like that rarest of movies — a mass-market product that also happens to be a personal picture driven by genuine moral vision.

“What is the most resilient parasite?” we’re asked in Inception, the film Nolan made following The Dark Knight. The answer is, of course, an idea: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Nolan’s filmography both explores and embodies that notion; his characters are often obsessed with an idea, and the films are built as fugues around competing visions of those ideas. Nolan himself has said that The Dark Knight’s central idea was “escalation,” but I’m not convinced that’s it; that sounds like an engineer’s response to an emotional problem. It is even possible that the director, like most artists, is only half aware of what he created. Because after all those years, what stays with me is this: The Dark Knight is perhaps the most powerful exploration of guilt the modern American blockbuster has given us.

Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), was built around the concept of fear: Afraid of action, of facing his tragic past, and of, well, bats, Bruce Wayne had to both overcome his fears and exploit them. So he built the Batman persona, a figure who moved through the night striking terror in the hearts of his opponents. Meanwhile, that film’s villain, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), literally weaponized fear through a powerful toxin that plunged his victims into surreal visions of what most terrified them. In fact, that whole first movie portrayed a Gotham City ruled by fear — an idea that certainly carried weight in a post–9-11 world. At the time, American blockbusters were just testing the waters with evoking still-raw memories of the terror attacks, and Nolan’s Batman films were at the forefront of that effort. (Be sure to read R.C. Baker’s prescient look at The Dark Knight through a 9-11 lens.)

In The Dark Knight, it is not fear but guilt that is dragging Bruce Wayne down. As the film begins, he’s already feeling the weight of having inspired masked copycat vigilantes instead of do-gooding idealists, thus making Gotham an even more lawless place. (“I’m carrying too much weight” is a line he actually utters early on, ostensibly referring to the heaviness of his armor.) In the figure of the heroic prosecutor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce sees a sort of salvation, and a way out of his guilt: Dent is the kind of brave, honest justice seeker that Batman had hoped would follow his lead. By placing his trust and support in this seemingly spotless crusader, Bruce hopes to be rid of his alter ego, thereby clearing his conscience and helping clean up Gotham once and for all. (“Gotham needs a hero with a face,” he tells Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, the woman he loves, who happens to be dating Dent — yet another consequence of Bruce’s actions as Batman.)

The three central figures of The Dark Knight — Bruce/Batman, Dent, and the Joker (Heath Ledger) — all have complicated, changing relations with guilt. Bruce is consumed by it, absorbs it. Dent, the ambitious man of the law, pursues it doggedly in others — so much so that he initially seems to refuse the help of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his major crimes unit, saying there are too many cops on it that he’d investigated when he was in internal affairs. Dent’s relation to guilt will change, of course. After the Joker kills Rachel and destroys half of Dent’s face, the lawyer will himself become a villain, the classic Batman baddie known as Two-Face. Bruce’s earlier words of admiration — “Gotham needs a hero with a face” — ring ironically: Poor Gotham can only ever seem to get savior figures with either no face or two of them.

The Joker, meanwhile, remains utterly free of guilt. He makes a mockery of the very idea: He gives conflicting explanations for the distinctive gashes on his face, each story seeming to play on some notion of guilt and psychic scarring. In one story, his dad punished him as a kid; in the other, he cut himself to make his disfigured wife feel better. Both stories are horrifying. Both are a joke. Right after he murders Rachel (among others) and burns off Dent’s face, we see the Joker in what might be the film’s most indelible moment, as he quietly sticks his head out of a speeding patrol car, letting the wind whip through his hair. Guilt, or rather its pointed absence, liberates him. (Compare that image with the one of Batman, lumbering under the weight of all his armor, a visual metaphor of a man almost crushed by his responsibilities.)

But the Joker understands guilt, too, manipulating and exploiting it in others. Early on, he draws Batman out by killing the deluded citizens who, inspired by Batman’s example, have donned fake Batman outfits to fight crime, thus making the superhero responsible for their deaths. Later, he engineers Rachel’s fiery demise and puts Batman and Gordon in a position to be blamed for it, setting Dent against them. For his part, Dent seeks death as much as he seeks his now-perverted view of justice. Not unlike Batman, guilt consumes and drives him. But as with the Joker it unleashes him as well, for while Nolan portrays Dent’s downfall as tragic, he also hints that the potential for evil was always there: Two-Face isn’t a new name, but a snide moniker secretly given to Dent by the cops long ago; the “lucky coin” he’s always tossing turns out to have always been phony.

If Gotham itself was consumed by fear in Batman Begins, then it stands to reason that this time the city would be consumed by guilt. Almost. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham and its people seem perched on the edge, caught between light and dark, between compassion and complicity. The city becomes both the moral and physical arena against which Batman and his nemeses’ struggle plays out. The Joker constantly tries to turn the populace, and he comes quite close multiple times. He knows that the city is the path to Batman’s conscience, and to the extent that this supervillain has an ultimate goal, it is to bring the superhero down to his level, to break his spirit and to force him to violate his own code.

In that sense, the Joker’s climactic scheme also represents his greatest manipulation of guilt. He rigs two crowded ferries to explode — one holds regular Gotham citizens fleeing the city; the other, prisoners being evacuated. The people on each ferry are given a detonator to blow up the other one, and a deadline by which to do it; if one ferry hasn’t exploded by midnight, the Joker vows to destroy both. He expects, of course, that one of the ferries — ideally, the one with the regular citizens on it — will choose to detonate the other. With that, every person on the surviving ferry will be alive but spiritually destroyed — racked with guilt at having allowed so many others to perish.

In order to stop this — and here we can see Nolan’s stated theme of escalation — Batman himself has to assume a whole new level of guilt. Obsessed with finding the elusive Joker, he has built an elaborate citywide sonar system by hacking into the cellphones of Gotham’s citizens. It’s a brazen invasion of privacy, and, as noted by many critics at the time, an unsettling echo of the Bush administration’s embrace of the surveillance state in the wake of 9-11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s perhaps telling that while Batman finds the Joker using this illegal sonar doohickey, it is not he who ultimately foils the villain’s plans, but the people of Gotham themselves: They finally refuse to kill one another. (Though let’s note for the record that the ordinary citizens do actually hold a vote on the matter, and a majority votes to detonate the other boat — in a movie released in an election year, no less. Parse that.)

We can see Batman’s guilt coming into sharp relief in the scene where Nolan introduces this mass surveillance technology. “Beautiful. Unethical. Dangerous,” is how Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) describes the system, as he vows to resign upon seeing it. (“Spying on 30 million people wasn’t in my job description.”) Batman seems to understand this, somewhat — he says that only Fox has the key to use the system. But there’s something else going on here. In past exchanges, Fox has interacted mostly with Bruce Wayne. This time, however, it’s Batman he’s speaking to: Bruce is in full superhero regalia, complete with the bizarre raspy voice he uses to mask his identity, even though Fox obviously knows who he is. The duality between the Caped Crusader and his alter ego has been an ongoing theme in Nolan’s series, never more so than in the final installment in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), at the end of which Batman “dies” and Bruce Wayne lives. Here, Bruce presents himself to Fox as Batman so that his superhero persona can absorb the shame of what he’s done.

Nolan is, in effect, already setting up his finale with this scene. After the Joker has been defeated and Dent killed, Batman assumes responsibility for the latter’s victims, so that the memory of the crusading attorney can survive, guilt-free. During the stirring montage when Batman relays to Gordon that the cops must now turn on him (“You’ll condemn me. Set the dogs on me. Because it’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more.”), we see Fox destroying the surveillance system by doing what Batman had earlier instructed and setting off a self-destruct mechanism. The surveillance state is Batman’s great crime. He knows it, and has known it all along, and perhaps always planned to assume the guilt for it. When he tells Gordon to blame him for Dent’s crimes, he isn’t merely accepting blame for people whose deaths he did not cause; he is in fact punishing himself for his own breach of ethics and decency.

Where then does that leave Gotham? The Dark Knight ends with the city living a lie, but seemingly out of the darkness. (At least for now, since The Dark Knight Rises would show the disastrous consequences of Gordon and Bruce’s duplicity.) And yet it’s hard to look at this movie, made at a time of violent divisiveness in the country over issues of surveillance, of complicity, of violence born of fear, and not see a snapshot of a society — not Gotham’s fictional one, but our own, real-life one — ready to plunge into the abyss of fragmentation, of self-serving chaos. Maybe that’s why Nolan’s film now feels so poignant. Today, it’s hard not to feel that humanity’s worst impulses have won, that those without conscience or shame were allowed to sow endless dissension, hatred, and cruelty, using our own sense of guilt against us.

To put it another way: We detonated the other boat. And we watch The Dark Knight now from a world where the bad guys won.

 

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