Remember when the Michael Keaton Batman was considered "dark and edgy?" Today, I couldn't even write that without the ironic quotation marks, and without laughing, a bit like the Joker. Because The Dark Knight, that's dark.
These must be dark times, at least for some of us, because even the dark movies are darker. Or not that, really. They are dark, but also bleak. Look at No Country for Old Men, or some earlier films of the same ilk. Alien3 and Leaving Las Vegas come to mind. I left them as I left The Dark Knight, impressed but a bit deflated. I needed a recharge after each one. Which characters don't lose in those movies?
That's not to say there wasn't much to like about The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger, as everyone's been saying, made the definitive Joker. Minutes into his performance, you know that every other version, whether in the comic books or in the hands of Jack Nicholson, only hinted at what the character was really about, and they're all forgotten. Insane and focused, yet unhinged and random, Ledger's is the real fearsome face we'd all dread if he haunted our city.
His Joker is one of the greatest of all movie villains, and yes, I'd still say that if the actor were alive. Right up there with Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, HAL, Norman Bates, and Nurse Ratched.
But his Joker also dismantles the universe that the other characters live in. Batman included. Right and wrong, good choices and bad—no one knows what's what anymore. And not just inside the movie, but for me in the audience too. This Joker is so dastardly, so industrious, so fiendish, so insidious, that everything the good guys try near the end is fruitless, even when they "win." Again, Batman included. And you know, I'm not sure that's what I go to superhero movies for.
There was another extraordinary performance in a comic book movie this year: Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. Downey made that movie, and owned it, and it was fun. I wanted more, right away. In The Dark Knight, Ledger owns the movie too, as he deserves to, because his Joker steals it. How appropriate. But somehow, he steals it from us in the audience as well. Then he unmakes it.
Would I have watched more of Ledger's Joker if he had lived to play him in another Batman sequel? Yes, I think I would. He was mesmerizing. But that won't happen, and the Batman he and director Christopher Nolan have left behind is so hollowed out I'm not sure I want to see more of him. I wonder whether that feeling will linger in a few years when the next sequel arrives, Jokerless.