It would be hard to begin an analysis of The Dark Knight without being very specific. Or, in the vernacular, spoilers. So, do not read this if you haven’t yet seen the film. If you do, you have no soul.
That being said, this won’t be much of an analysis. The film was too long and complex to be grasped totally in a single viewing. Every time you watch for one thing, this film delivers something else. When you’re watching camera movement, there’s a subtle foreshadow of dialogue. When you’re entranced by Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing “becoming” (this is more than mere acting), there’s a telling scene composition that cuts to a parallel character. As you become aware of all that’s passed by that you barely noticed, you realize that you missed part of the plot. And I didn’t even see it on IMAX. (Not paying $15 to see it when I’ll later own it for that.)
Best to begin at the beginning. Batman Begins was this new franchise at its truly nascent stage. Still, fetal development is wondrous in its own way; nothing short of amazing for all it is and all it hints at. The forerunner to The Dark Knight was straightforward in its profound simplicity. A sermon on the effects of and harnessing power of fear, it made explicit the theme that Bruce Wayne had been living his whole life until he learned how to master it. While The Dark Knight‘s theme was accessible, it was multi-tiered and as shrouded as the film’s opening image: the bat-symbol moving straight at us, almost indiscernible amidst clouds that blurred that bat’s boundaries.
On the macro level, this is a film that’s worthy of more than the label of “follow-up”. Rather, Batman Begins was a precursor, a setup for the main event. Even the musical score of the first film set the mood of more-to-come, from beginning to end. The Scarecrow’s appearance in the early scene of The Dark Knight was disorienting – a connection with the last film and a villain whose madness resulted in his impotence. Batman’s easy bagging of his old nemesis contrasts starkly with his new one, who will take madness to a whole new level. That early scene’s inclusion of faux batmen also disturbingly pointed toward the identity crisis that the real Batman was soon to endure. Neither good nor bad, these fakes were well-meaning idealists who were incapable of leaving a scratch on their enemies. Still, Batman’s incapability to answer their rhetorical question alludes to the real moral dilemma of Batman: good guy or harmful vigilante? And why couldn’t anyone else do what he’s doing?
The split personality identity crisis, focused most on Wayne/Batman, is obviously personified in no one better than in Harvey Dent. At first glance, the character might seem to be a superfluous one. When the Joker is the real bad guy, why add another obviously inferior one? Simply to make more explicit the dilemma of Batman’s dual nature? The character of Dent is the bridge between Batman and the Joker. He contains the potential for both and illustrates the tragedy of good giving way to evil. Dent’s loss of faith in choice results in him settling with chance. Take note of the coin. Before becoming burned on one side, Dent had no choice – in his own words, “I make my own luck.” The irony is lost on him, however, for a two-headed coin is worse than chance; it is a prison, a one-way street. Only when he is half-destroyed (he admits that half of him is dead), does he have two sides to his coin. The line between a prison of chance and the freedom of choice is fine, indeed. Nowhere is this made clearer in the film than when Dent himself points out to Gordon that he’s always been known as “Two-Face”, even in his much younger days. The transformation he underwent was only superficial, though gruesome. His fatalistic philosophy that “you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dent, then, seems to be the more interesting of the two villains in The Dark Knight. While the Joker’s unadulterated evil causes more death and chaotic mayhem, his unquenchable thirst for destruction is not left open to much psychology by the film. A relatively straightforward (though totally sadistic) bad guy, the Joker’s lack of rules stands chiefly to set him apart from Batman, who has “only one.” And even though the Joker kills more people, Harvey Dent is the more tragic character. As Dent claimed to be Batman in order to protect the real hero, so at the end did Batman take the sins of Harvey Dent on his own shoulders in order that there be a villain for those demanding justice. Both men pursued Rachel Dawes and both were promised her love (of which both were in the dark). When the Joker killed Rachel, the identification between Wayne and Dent died, too. The former became more empowered while the latter switched sides.
There is much more, but who would presume the ability to evaluate or judge a film like this without the name of “Christopher Nolan”? The rest of us will need to watch it again and again, and, as Nolan urged us in The Prestige, “watch closely.”