‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes,’ Galileo says in Brecht’s play of that name. Galileo wasn’t thinking of superheroes, of course, but Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, the writers of The Dark Knight, the new Batman movie, are certainly thinking along Galileo’s lines. What is Gotham City to do without a hero, since organised crime is always, it seems, far too much for the official institutions of law and order to handle? Yet what is it to do with a hero, when his sheer success with the old criminals attracts new ones, drawn to the challenge like gunslingers in the old West who have heard tell of the fastest gun alive?
Actually, the hero’s success in this movie attracts only one new criminal, but that’s enough, since he is a brilliant and genuinely frightening incarnation of the Joker, the best psychopath in movies since Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, a man for whom crime is a gratuitous act, neither reward nor compensation but merely the playing out of a huge, perverse pleasure. At one point he climbs, slides down and then burns a mountain of banknotes, to the consternation of his supposed partners, the consolidated mobs of Gotham. It’s alright, he informs them with a cackle, he is burning only his half of the proceeds. The background to this event is an anecdote-cum-fable that Michael Caine, as the faithful servant Alfred, tells Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne. There was a bandit in Burma, apparently, who stole jewels at will from almost everyone and was never caught – because he didn’t want and didn’t keep the jewels, he just stole them because he could. Alfred understands, as Wayne doesn’t, even in his other life as Batman, that there are minds bereft of what anyone else would call a motive.
In retrospect the title of Christopher Nolan’s earlier Batman movie, Batman Begins (2005), seems to declare a programme, even a contest. It implies that we shall get the tale of the origins of Batman, as indeed we do: the child’s ordeal in the cave of bats, the murder of the child’s parents. But we had the tale before, in Frank Miller’s wonderful graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and in the film Batman (1989), where an edgy Michael Keaton, engagingly, never managed to look as if his heart was in his superheroic second life. ‘Batman begins,’ we suspect, means: ‘This is the real thing, the series starts here, forget about those old impostors.’ Keaton gave up the role after Batman Returns (1992), but the series continued with impostors Val Kilmer, in Batman Forever (1995) and George Clooney in Batman and Robin (1997). I’m more than happy to forget the last two of those films, directed by Joel Schumacher, but the first two, both directed by Tim Burton, have much to recommend them – not least the presence of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, whose cheerful idea of havoc, very fine in its way, if essentially identical to what Nicholson is up to in most of his other movies, offers a very good point of comparison with what happens to the role in the new film.
The best grounds for believing the new series really is a fresh start are a mixture of style and content. Batman Begins is elegant and sombre, and portentous lines (‘To manipulate the fears of others you must first master your own fear’) are delivered with enough conviction to allow them to do their work, enough irony to allow us to enjoy their sheer hokum – Liam Neeson, as the martial arts master who looks like a corporate executive, is especially good at this. The new movie doesn’t have this kind of stylistic control, and becomes positively, earnestly talky at the end, which itself arrives about half an hour too late. Batman is ready to take on himself the crimes of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the district attorney once described as Gotham’s White Knight and now just the corpse of a crazed avenger. ‘He hasn’t done anything wrong, has he?’ a boy asks, meaning Batman. The boy’s father, Jim Gordon alias Gary Oldman, commissioner of police, Batman’s sole friend among the officials of Gotham, says: ‘He is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the hero it needs, and so he will be hunted. He is the dark knight . . .’ You can’t enjoy this as hokum, because the patent sincerity of the script and the character get so entirely in the way. Also, the point of both movies is that Gotham needs rather than deserves Batman.
The content of these films is curiously abstract, a fact half-masked by all the gadgetry and mayhem: in the new work a motorbike constitutes itself out of the wreck of the batmobile, and there are plenty of grand explosions, including a whole hospital tumbling down in flames. There are also pointless fistfights whenever the director feels the going may be slow. Lots of broken windows too. But the abstraction carries an interesting anxiety. The bad guy in Batman Begins, and one of the bad guys in The Dark Knight, is a vigilante like Batman: in the first case a good guy who goes too far (Liam Neeson wants to destroy Gotham City, in the spirit of the God who had had enough of Sodom and Gomorrah), in the second Harvey Dent, a former good guy enraged by the loss of the woman both he and Batman love. And the difference between these fellows and Batman is . . . that Batman won’t kill. This distinction, morally crucial in the first film, becomes Batman’s weakness in the second, or at best a personal faith maintained wishfully against the odds. When Batman, at the end, agrees to be taken for the killer he is not, we are supposed to feel the distinction still matters greatly. It does, in all kinds of ways, because the distinction between law and lynching, to say nothing of life and death, always matters. But you can’t make lynching OK by stopping it short of murder, and the scene in which Batman, enraged by his own helplessness and incomprehension, batters away at the Joker in a police cell, tells us the whole story. The amoral villain has won this moral round, and perhaps the whole fight.
The repeated claim for all Batman movies since Frank Miller’s graphic novel set the tone is to have discovered the darkness in the superhero’s life. This darkness, it turns out, means he’s an orphan and very angry, and in Nolan’s two films is a question of imagery and sound rather than plot. Batman’s mask is not only angry but vicious, and Bale’s voice has been fixed to sound like Clint Eastwood’s in Dirty Harry’s most snarling moments. What’s dark is whatever lies between this figure and the life of Bruce Wayne.
None of this is very interesting, and fortunately it is all rendered irrelevant by the appearance of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Everything conspires to the perfection of this part: writing, make-up, acting. When the Joker says, having shot a man during a bank raid, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you . . . stranger,’ the old proverb adapted from Nietzsche (‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’) acquires an entirely new life. And when he takes off a clown mask to reveal a badly painted clown face beneath it, we know we are in for a scary treat. The eyes are circled with smudged black, the cheeks violently rouged, the lips smeared bright red, half-hiding long scars on either side of the mouth. The Joker likes telling stories about how he got these scars, especially when he has a knife to someone’s face. His drunken father wanted the boy to laugh while his mother was being beaten. ‘Why so serious?’ the father kept saying; and slit the boy’s mouth to create a smile. No, that can’t be it, because a little later he tells a different story. He was trying to amuse his wife, who was sad because she had been scarred by an operation. So he stuffed some razor blades in his mouth, moving them around like chewing gum, just to make her laugh. And you know what, after that she couldn’t bear the sight of him. Later still, the Joker starts on but doesn’t finish yet another story of his scars, and we now know we are in a world of complete fiction. At one point he says he is the agent of chaos, because he knows that’s the sort of thing he ought to say at least once in a movie like this. Mainly, as he remarks on another occasion, he just likes burning things. And even more than that, making up tales that demonstrate both his indifference to truth and his uncanny sense of what will worry others.
Heath Ledger, who died of a drug overdose at the beginning of this year, was until now best known as the stolid hero of a remake of The Four Feathers (2002) and as the rather more complex figure at the centre of Brokeback Mountain (2005). Nothing we have seen of his career prepares us for what he can do as the Joker. By turns authoritative and wheedling, often speaking casually, with long pauses, as if talking to himself, always acting, aware of circumstance and timing, and very rarely manic (unlike the always manic Nicholson, for example), he creates a character who is attractive and horrifying in exactly the right proportions: attractive because horrifying, perhaps. Even his rages seem parodies of rages. He projects an enduring sense of calm beneath his craziness, so that you have to admire his poise even as you wish he had never been invented. Whenever he appears, or even whenever he seems to be in the offing or behind a piece of action, the movie wakes up. A judge whose life has been threatened is instructed to drive herself to a place of safety, its location indicated in an envelope she has been given. Unfortunately, although the plan is the official one, it’s been taken over by the Joker’s men. The judge sits in her car, opens the envelope. It contains a sheet of paper with one word on it: up. The car explodes.
This isn’t funny, but it is witty. And the Joker makes even evil seem a puzzle too easily solved because there is nothing he can’t make a joke of, and because, unlike Batman, he is not the prisoner of a traumatic past but the inventor of one: he can have any past he likes. Any future too. It’s striking that several people in the movie call him a terrorist, an appropriate term only in a very loose sense. He certainly terrorises people, in the movie and in the cinema. But terrorism, strictly, is a political weapon, and the Joker doesn’t have any politics, any more than he has any morals. In this respect he resembles the slouching killer of the Coen brothers’ recent No Country for Old Men. He is not only someone we don’t understand, he is the image of everything we don’t understand, a travesty of highly intelligent, meaningless design.