Troubling, dark and horrifically absorbing, The Dark Knight provides an unsettling glimpse into the American psyche at the start of the 21st century.
Director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, are British, as are several key cast members. This may have contributed to their uncanny ability to give us a potent metaphor of our country’s “war on terrorism” and its chilling implications on both the personal and collective levels. From its opening scenes, The Dark Knight propels us into a world so much like our own that the film is familiar and distressing.
The Dark Knight amassed more than $500 million dollars in sales in the United States, second only to Titanic (1997). This reflects the immense resonance that the story and themes have had on its American audience, as well as the power of film to capture our imagination and to explore and illuminate our strengths and weaknesses. This descent into the dark side of human nature provides a compelling examination of our duality, the war of the opposites, and how a confrontation with evil may very well lead us to commit even greater evil, in the name of justice.
Set in a very modern-day Gotham City, an outstanding Christian Bale returns in the dual roles of billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego, Batman. Bruce Wayne’s playboy persona is a “mask” he wears to hide his identity as Batman, who is his more true self, a man obsessed with fighting to protect the innocent and to bring the guilty to justice.
In the earlier “Batman Begins,” Nolan reveals that Bruce Wayne’s deep need for justice stems from his childhood trauma of standing helplessly by as his parents are brutally robbed and murdered. Fueled by his anger, and psychologically obsessed with justice as a way of compensating for his childhood helplessness and fears, he projects his victim-hood onto all of society. Working outside the legal system, as Batman, he takes the law into his own hands, and the vigilante superhero of Gotham City is born.
Through the successful results of Batman’s vigilante justice, Police Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) wise leadership, and district attorney Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) determination to fight organized crime and clean up the streets, the criminal element of Gotham has been left in complete disarray and forced underground. With the help of his assistant district attorney, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dent is attempting to put the entire mob, including crime boss Maroni (Eric Roberts) behind bars.
Bruce originally conceived of Batman as a short-term crusade, a symbol of good that would inspire the citizens of Gotham to take back control of their city. The goal was the complete elimination of organized crime, which is eerily reminiscent of our political leaders’ determination to wipe out all terrorists, worldwide. Early on, Harvey Dent foreshadows, “Either you die a hero, or live long enough to become a villain.”
Bruce begins to realize the personal toll of living this double life, and longs for a normal life and a future with Rachel, the love of his life. But Rachel has made a heartbreaking decision that she cannot have a life with Bruce, as long as he is Batman. So she has moved on, and formed a relationship with Harvey Dent, who loves her and wants her to be his wife. Torn between these two, Rachel’s situation psychologically suggests a split animus, as she must make a decision between the Dark Knight vigilante, and the White Knight hero of Gotham. Intent on winning back Rachel, Bruce now sees the All American Harvey Dent as his way out.
Ironically, Batman’s presence as a vigilante symbol of good has triggered an enantiadromia – an equal and opposite reaction: teams of Batman-inspired copycats are invading the city, causing chaos and needless death. Terrified by the escalation of violence, angry citizens rise up and begin to hold Batman responsible.
Meanwhile, Gotham’s most notorious gangsters are holding a meeting following Lt. Gordon’s attempt to confiscate the laundered cash they have deposited in several city banks, one of which was recently robbed by someone calling himself “Joker,” whom Maroni calls a “Two-bit whack-job… He’s a nobody.”
Enter Heath Ledger, whose sinister and shattering portrayal of the Joker represents one of the cinema’s most powerful depictions of pure archetypal evil. Presaged by the Batman wanna-be’s, the Joker arrives as the true enantiadromia of Batman’s symbol of good – an embodiment of evil rising up from the abyss. The Joker soon has the mob under his thumb, and declares that the solution to their problems is to kill Batman, a task he will complete for the price of half of their financial assets, as well as for the sheer pleasure it will bring him.
The horrific image of the Joker personifies our greatest fears of a world gone horribly wrong. His presence as an agent of irrational chaos provides the basis for the profound psychological twists that make The Dark Knight an engrossing film about the ethics and tragedies that flow from the battle of the opposites, forcing us to examine the limits of human morality and to acknowledge the good and evil potential within us all.
Psychologically, the Joker is the psyche’s response to Batman’s extremely onesided identification with goodness. Thus, they form a powerful representation of the shadow archetype. Their ongoing struggle, with each carrying half of the whole personality, is both the heart, and driving force of The Dark Knight. This is a grueling metaphor for the savage aggression that makes up the headlines of our daily news reports.
Impacted by the negative transference of the people of Gotham City, Bruce seeks the counsel of his loyal butler, trying to figure out what the Joker is after. As the wise old man, the Senex, Alfred (Michael Caine) counsels Bruce that “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money… they can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
While this may be true of the Joker, Alfred’s explanation is too simplistic when applied to the metaphor of the Joker as a representation of international terrorism, and it serves as a cautionary reflection of our own naiveté. Rather, our world is littered with psychic time bombs that are cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, economic and political. Our best hope is that these factions of humanity consciously develop a relationship to their own cultural complexes as well as those of their allies and enemies, so that our inner wounds and unresolved conflicts are not projected onto the “other,” whom we then seek to destroy.
Eventually, Lt. Gordon captures the Joker, who has kidnapped Harvey Dent and nearly killed Batman. Detectives watch through one-way mirrored windows as Gordon interrogates the Joker. “What have you done with Dent? Where is he?” The Joker smiles. “Depending on the time, he might be in one spot… or several.”
Gordon gives Batman a chance with the Joker. Reflecting our own national shock after the attacks of 9/11, Batman asks, “Why do you want to kill me?” The Joker starts laughing, almost sobbing. “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? No, you… Complete. Me.”
With these words, we have a stunning articulation of the unity of the opposites.
The tension escalates as the Joker reveals that Rachel Dawes has also been captured and is about to die. Batman jams a chair under the doorknob to keep the other detectives from intervening. The ultra-violent scene that follows is reminiscent of the atrocities we committed at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other unidentified prisons, where terrorists were interrogated and tortured in the name of justice, while others watched, but remained unresponsive. Batman pummels the Joker until he gives the addresses of Dent and Rachel. As he races out, the Joker, bloodied but grinning, notes that there is only time to save one of them, and Batman will have to choose who lives… and who dies. Batman is off to save Rachel, and Lt. Gordon races off for Dent.
In different locations, we see Rachel and Harvey are each bound to a chair and surrounded by dozens of metal barrels containing diesel fuel, which are hooked up to a detonators, with timers counting down: 2:47… 2:46…
Batman smashes through the door to find Harvey Dent. Both are equally horrified as Batman realizes that the Joker lied about who was in which location. As Batman pulls Dent out of the building, Lt. Gordon and his team arrive at the industrial warehouse where Rachel is trapped. Axe in hand, he runs towards the entrance. There is a tremendous explosion and the warehouse morphs into a fiery inferno. It is clear that there is no possibility that Rachel has survived. Across town, a second explosion ignites. His face covered in diesel fuel, Dent burns and sizzles until Batman manages to extinguish the flames.
What can it mean that Rachel, the anima figure of both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, has perished in a gruesome Calcinatio? In her book, “The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption,” Marie-Louise von Franz describes a kingdom in which the spiritual feminine has been lost. This leads to a long period of emptiness that symbolizes a lengthy bout of lacuna to which we must submit, to allow psychic energy to build in the unconscious. The beloved Rachel has died, and the birth of a new feminine principle is essential for our development. Something utterly transformative is required to redeem and renew the lost feminine, which the hero must then integrate.
Rachel, as the anima, engaged the wounded psyche of Bruce in an attempt to help him move beyond his wounds towards a healing restoration and wholeness – a normal life. But as Batman, he is unable to find and save her. Rather than being therapeutic, his connection to the anima becomes tragic, which deepens our sense of the hero’s suffering and fate.
Lying in his hospital bed, the right side of Harvey’s face is normal, but the left side is destroyed – the skin is blackened and shriveled, his teeth are exposed and the eyeball stares from the socket. The mercurial Joker pays Dent a visit. “Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying…. But introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order and everything becomes chaos.” Through his loss of Rachel, the Joker takes Gotham’s White Knight and brings him down to his level. “It wasn’t hard,” he later tells Batman. “Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” With a gun the Joker gives him, Dent sets out for his revenge, completely possessed by his shadow, Two-Face.
Throughout the film, Batman seems impotent against the machinations of the Joker, which can never be anticipated. This is a new kind of war, which breaks all of the rules, and spreads through the world like a killer virus. By the end, Dent dies having committed grievous crimes. Were this known, he would never be regarded the White Night of Gotham, but Batman and Gordon agree to withhold the truth so the people will not lose hope. Dent will be honored and live on, as a symbol that good will ultimately overpower evil.
Batman takes upon himself the blame for the multiple murders that Dent has committed. He becomes the hunted person whom the world demands be brought to justice. He flees, pursued by dogs and policemen. Knowing the truth, Lt. Gordon’s young son runs to him. “Why’s he running, Dad? He didn’t do anything wrong!” Gordon pulls his son close. “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. We’ll hunt him, because he can take it.”
The Bat-pod streaks through Gotham’s underground streets, his cape fluttering behind. Quietly, with great irony, Gordon tells his son, “He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector… a dark knight.”
In the final image, Batman races up a ramp into a blinding light.