This movie belongs to Heath Ledger as “Joker” for performance, and to the character Joker for plot.
“The Joker” as he used to be, was always one of my favorite DC Comics villains. He was one of the first villains with a sense of style, however grotesque, and would commit outrageous crimes simply because it suited his mad aesthetic. He is an ancestor of “Hannibal Lecter” as well, committing murders just to show that he could and to demonstrate his superiority. Of late in the comics, the Joker has become a near-indestructible avatar of chaos, which I think exceeds his brief a bit.
“Joker”, as portrayed in “The Dark Knight,” is the nightmare criminal everyone fears. He doesn’t want anything from you but to see your sweat, tears, and blood, and if you soil yourself that’s all to the good. In one scene, he sets fire to millions of dollars in cash, saying, “See, I'm a man of simple tastes. I like dynamite...and gunpowder...and gasoline! Do you know what all of these things have in common? They're cheap!” That is part of what is scary about what Joker does—he uses no super weapons, and in this movie we don’t even see any of the trademark devices like “Joker venom,” which causes its victims to die laughing. He does, however, have a diabolical degree of cunning which puts him one step ahead of the heroes all through the movie. The Joker acts, the “good guys” react, usually in the way that he wants them to. In fact, it’s debatable who won in this story. Joker succeeds in bringing the heroes down to his level: as he says, “I took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. Y'see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little...push.” He succeeds in shattering District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and even good cop Gordon (Gary Oldman) looks the other way while Batman (Christian Bale) abuses the Joker while he is in police custody. The irony is that this is what the Joker WANTS—not just because it’s a moral victory for him, but also because it brings on events that further his schemes. This, I think is a good example of why the abuse of prisoners in the name of gathering information is a bad idea: who knows if they are feeding you what THEY want you hear--.
The movie is very dark, dire, and powerful. It has something I have not seen in a movie in a long time—SUSPENSE. You literally do not know what Joker is going to do next, and wondering if the heroes—or, notably, the common people of Gotham in the final sequence—are going to be able to foil him or not, which adds a much more genuine tension than the either the slasher movies where the killer jumps out to go “boo” in a predictable fashion, or the kind of shoot-‘em-up’s that rely on non-stop action for excitement. Make no mistake, however, there’s a lot of action in this movie, and, given Joker’s penchant for “arson by explosives,” a lot of things get blown up, so much so that it’s kind of fatiguing. By the time the film was over, I would have sworn we had sat through a three-hour movie, although it is not much shorter at 152 minutes.
A couple of reflections: 1) On the naming of names: When he first appeared in DC Comics, and for many years after that, the character was always “The Joker” (much the way the playing card is usually referred to--), which was understood to be an epithet or nom de crime, although Joker’s name before he turned to crime was not, and has never been revealed. Over time, however, in the comics as in the movie, he is more often just “Joker”, which tends to indicate that he HAS no other name (see reference to being an avatar, above). By contrast, Batman has gone from being “The Bat-Man,” to the familiar “Batman” back to, as he always is in the movie, “The Batman.” As a title rather than a name, it puts him back into the category of “creatures of the night” like The Wolf-Man or The Phantom of the Opera. It seems curious and rather disturbing that we refer to the villain in terms of familiarity, while the one who would defend us is held off at arms’ length. This driving a wedge between the people and their defenders is another one of Joker’s goals, which the erosion of The Batman’s reputation at the end of the film, contributes to.
2) Did Joker kill Heath Ledger? Like most fans of cinema, having seen Ledger’s stunning and flawless portrayal of the monstrous Joker, I lament his passing. While sitting in the darkness as the credits rolled for “Dark Knight,” we wondered if the experience of having so closely inhabited that skin in some way contributed to his unfortunate demise. One of the secrets of acting is that, not only do your experiences shape what you bring to a role, you also take things AWAY from the roles you play. In a well-written role, if you succeed in a solid interpretation, you can come to have empathy and understanding for a lot of characters totally foreign to yourself—or maybe, not so foreign. One wonders if Ledger found confronting his own dark side to be too much—or perhaps, just enough to tip him over the edge into terminal depression. I was reminded of the tag line from Fritz Lieber’s story, “A Bit of the Dark World”: “He had a crack in his skull, and a bit of the dark world came through and pressed him to death.” Joker is certainly a bit of the Dark World. The idea that an actor might have been killed by the character he embodied is a very Lieber-esque idea. In fact, we will never know for sure, but one cannot help but wonder--.