Back in 1989, the Year of Radical Innocence, the Berlin Wall crumbled, tank tires in Tianamen Square got sticky with student blood, and my family moved halfway across the continent from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Coincidence? Yes. Anyway, after having three summer days to orient myself in a hot flat prairie city with no visible hills or culture, my parents took us to see Tim Burton's Batman. As the first movie I ever saw after my move, the Batman movie franchise always holds a kind of significance for me (the second movie I saw was Weird Al Yankovik's UHF. I always expect a life-changing event to attend a Batman film, and if I recall correctly, something interesting happened to me around the opening of Batman Begins, but I can't remember what that was now. Maybe I realized that I was lactose intolerant?
What struck me at the time was the film's cheerful willingness to abandon all pretense of being a live-action movie and jump into a Tim Burton landscape of perpetual night and fog and pinstripes and gothic architecture. It was a significant leap forward into the now-routine realm of films in which the style is not just the main attraction but the rationale for the work's existence. No one remembers the film for much else - how many people rave about Michael Keaton's performance? - and even Nicholson's Joker seems a little embarrassing in retrospect.* But the original Batman movie set out the basic psychological template for nearly every superhero comic-book adaptation that followed, Donner's Superman notwithstanding. The origin of the hero and villain had to be explained, because even in the amped-up world of Gotham, where corruption is so rampant that it seeps into the air like sewer vapours, there needs to be some explanation for a guy running around in a bat suit. 2005's Batman Begins makes this premise explicit in the very title.
The Dark Knight is supposed to be a sequel to Batman Begins, but I've never seen a sequel rely less on its predecessor. None of the issues or conflicts from the first film make themselves felt in any meaningful way – a masked villain who nearly destroyed the city in Begins is no more than a small-time criminal with a bag on his head in Knight, and the romantic conflict, which is really the pull that Bruce Wayne feels between being 'The Batman' (it's always The Batman in the film) and being Bruce Wayne, doesn't need the first film to set it up. The Gotham of Begins is almost all slum and shantytown; it has the feel of an elaborate set, whereas the Gotham of The Dark Knight is actually a tidy Chicago. They even throw in a detour to a real city (Hong Kong) to anchor the action in a recognizable world.
The Dark Knight's disdain for Begins makes it pretty clear that the Nolan brothers (director Christopher, writer Jonathan) regard origin stories as a load of balls. Example: Heath Ledger's Joker. He has no beginning, no backstory, no prior relationship to any of the characters or to Gotham itself. As far as the mob, the police and Batman are concerned, he is a "two-bit wackjob" who likes to paint his face and pull off the occasional heist. In Burton's movie, the Joker is Jack Napier, a psychotic thug with a dandyish streak high up in the ranks of organized crime. He becomes The Joker after a bath in toxic chemicals destroys his face and his sanity. He is also, of course, the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents and provided the impetus for the child's transformation into a weirdo in a bat costume. It's a neat little trick: the Joker fathers Batman by murdering his parents, and Batman fathers The Joker by pushing him into the chemical vat.
Never mind the origins, say Bros. Nolan - archetypes are where the real money's at. Ledger's Joker has no alter or former ego. His clothes have no labels, his fingerprints match nothing, and his pockets contain nothing but "lint and knives" (and a potato peeler, which suggests to me that he runs one of those fry trucks you see down at the beach). Best of all, he loves to offer multiple and contradictory stories about the source of his scars, overlapping so many layers of pure bull that you wouldn't know the truth if and when he chose to deliver it. He is the boy who cries wolf while pointing at a sheep, then a stone, then himself. You would dismiss him, but there's a look in his eyes like he might go out and bring the wolf into the fold himself. Or maybe he'll just stab you, or blow up your house.
By the way, if you keep reading this paragraph, you'll notice that I completely contradict a point I made only a few paragraphs ago. Why don't I just edit the earlier paragraph? Partly because I'm lazy, and also because I believe firmly in the possibilities of doublethink. Anyway. The Joker is a further development of the notion of superheroic character introduced in Batman Begins - that is, that superheroes exist more properly and effectively as ideas than individuals. That's what Liam Neeson says, and if movies have taught me anything, it's that Liam Neeson's lines always come with a last-act payoff. For that reason, and some other non-interesting ones, Bruce Wayne adopts the supposedly archetypal persona of the Bat. He also has a phobia about bats, and this is all part of embracing his darkness in the reinvention of his identity as a disassociated weirdo whose only superpower is being rich enough to afford a titanium-armoured bat costume. The notion of fractured identity is a Nolan favourite, showing up in Memento as a man who constantly has to construct his personality anew every few minutes, and in The Prestige as part a plot that's too torturous to explain here.
The Joker, who is barely more than idea - when he is accused of a crime, he mockingly replies "Me?", the implication being that there is no "me" to address or accuse - forces Batman to reconsider his relationship with the city that he swore to protect. He starts assassinating politicians and judges in order to provoke Batman into revealing his alter ego. The gambit has the opposite effect, which is clearly the Joker's intention; it forces Batman deeper into the labyrinth of his self. It's the Joker's everyday jacket: to force everyone and everything into crisis, to test identity at its melting point.
Even his makeup is superfluous; underneath the mask are the scars, a permanent mask that has been inscribed on a once-recognizable face. Unlike the Batman, the Joker has no original identity to which he can return: he has cut it away in order to embrace his archetypal aspect. The Joker's physical presence is itself a mask for a bodiless force. As much as his presence radiates a kind of deranged menace, he is even more formidable as a voice than a face. The strange, giggly semi-shriek that Ledger affects is practically its own character, and quite often Nolan has him speaking off-camera for maximum effect. As he says in one moment, dropping his voice down to a rumbling register, "I'm a man of my word". It's a curious thing to say, since the Joker lies without compunction if it suits his ends. But while he may not be of his word, he is definitely a man of words. Where Batman is all physical strength, the Joker is verbal dexterity and misdirection, a voice that destabilizes and terrorizes** with its ghastly propositions. "You have nothing to frighten me with!" The Joker giggles as Batman repeatedly slams him into a wall to elicit some time-sensitive information (shades of 24). "Nothing to do with all your strength!" I'd like to see what Jack Bauer do with him.
Now I'm going to contradict myself once more, because there is an origin story in The Dark Knight. The movie describes the arc by which District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham's white knight, becomes the homicidal Two-Face, a mutilated villain who offers his victimsa 50-50 chance at life. Nonetheless, it doesn't feel like an origin tale, in the way that comic books and superhero traditionally present them. Why doesn't it feel that way? I don't know yet. Maybe I'll watch Batman Forever and compare. Hey look below, there's a paragraph of more persuasive prose that doesn't threaten to undo my argument! Hi-dee-ho.
The Joker's love of talk is probably the main strength and weakness of the film (the plot, which spins so frequently on chance, is the other weak point). Even though it's vastly entertaining to hear Heath Ledger whoop like a dog and drop his words out syllable by syllable, he kind of spoils the film by way of over-expositing, or monologuing, his way through the action. There's nothing lazier in a screenplay than having one character sit around and explain to the other characters who they are and what their purpose is. Those are notes, not lines. But in scene after scene, the Nolans root up the subtext and feed it to The Joker, who then regurgitates it for the everyone else to swallow. It would have been a pleasure to figure out the film for ourselves, but the filmmakers, who never met a grim reversal or clever twist they didn't adore, cannot refrain from spelling it out. Christopher Nolan clearly loves The Joker; I don't know what they're going to do without him.
UPDATE: I just watched the opening ten minutes of Batman Forever. Wow, it sucks.
*After I wrote this line, I realized that I hadn't seen Batman in nineteen years, and in the interim my estimation of the film may have unjustifiably degraded. So I watched it again. The first thirty-eight minutes were wonderful. The film looks like a reinterpretation of German Expressionism, all crazy angles and underlit faces. Batman strikes silent, stiff and backlit poses, his cape spread out like a rejected alternative for Nosferatu. It was a brilliant way to lend the character an iconic power without drooping into camp. In those early scenes I would have been happy to watch Tim Burton make a silent film. As soon as Batman removes his mask and the Joker puts on his makeup, though, the movie settles in for something duller but entertaining. There's a love interest, some attempts at psychology, and plenty of Jack Nicholson hamming it up. Then the last act kicks in and it feels like Burton just gave up on making a coherent film. The setpiece at the top of the church tower reeks of having reached a compromise with someone possessing an inferior imagination (my money's on producer Jon Peters, who's responsible for the giant mechanical spider in Wild Wild West). Eventually nothing makes sense and you wish you'd stopped watching an hour ago.
**Some reviewers, like Dana Stevens in Slate, have claimed that The Joker is a definitive terrorist. I like Steven's criticism, but this is probably the least thought-out thing I've read in a long time. It relates to the notion that terrorism itself is an archetypal force whose physical embodiment is the terrorist, an entity intent on bringing fear and violence to a population. In the real world, that place which we all nominally inhabit, terrorists have clear motivations and objectives. That's why they so often have charters or manifestoes or manuals; it's what corporations would recognize as a 'vision statement'. For The Joker, terror is an end in itself, an explosive demonstration of the fragility of our moral and material certainties. That's movie terrorism, not real terrorism. If Nolan is trying to make a point about actual terrorism, then he's chosen an unfortunate vehicle for it.