Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Dark Knight in Gotham Part III: City, System, Character

WARNING: more spoilers, and also considerably more random and rambling than the previous two posts on this film.

At the outset of The Dark Knight, we flash from an enigmatic burning texture to an elevated agoraphobic helicopter shot, descending into the city through the rooftop of a mob bank. This is one of the most sweeping, open shots of Gotham we're going to get in Nolan's film. Through the course of the story, we will explore the pits and tunnels of Gotham’s urban wasteland, and ultimately, in the final scene of the film, Batman will emerge from these tunnels into daylight. Here, in the finale, he is exposing himself and leaving his native element, shedding the shadows for the harsh light of public ridicule. This formal device -- beginning the film with an entrance into Gotham, and then ending it with the exit from beneath the streets -- goes a long way toward showing how critical this urban landscape is to Christopher Nolan's vision, and how integral the city is to the characters who inhabit it.

So I guess I lied in that last post. Gotham isn't only shown from beneath in The Dark Knight. Like so many critical assertions, this one buckles under scrutiny, and I have to account for a few key scenes where Gotham is envisioned from above, rather than from below. One of these is the final showdown with the Joker, which takes place in a skyscraper overlooking the harbor. This scene may be elevated, but it's still labyrinthine and tangled in shadows, and almost subterranean in this way. Whereas Tokyo involved bright sunlight, flight, and lots of exterior shots, the skyscraper showdown in Gotham was played out on the ground and in the construction rubble between floors, and the height never seemed to matter much.

The other elevated scenes in Gotham were rather different. These are not Batman's territory... we only see Gotham from above, in open spaces and bright lights, when we're watching Bruce Wayne, looking unresolved and anxious from his penthouse windows. The scenes where Bruce is most himself, in all his tortured uncertainty, are the ones at the tops of buildings, in open spaces and bright lights. Such is the scene where he is escorted by two women into his apartment, such is his helpless moment in an apartment building overlooking the Commissioner's funeral... and such is the long pause where he overlooks Gotham through his penthouse windows and ponders love and responsibility.

The difference between Gotham from above and Gotham from within is an apt analogy for the difference between Bruce Wayne as an alienated playboy, kept at a distance from the world he cares so much about, and Batman as the bad temper lurking in the back alleys of the urban environment. The fragmented setting foregrounds the main character’s fragmented existence, his need -- as Gotham’s self-proclaimed adjudicator -- to have both a wide perspective in framing the law, and a strong fist for enforcing it.

Of course, Gotham isn't simply an analogy for Batman's struggle to uphold the law. It’s also the keystone at the heart of this struggle, and as such, it has a pronounced role in the battle between Batman and The Joker.

By the middle of the film, The Joker begins to foresee that he and Batman will become locked in struggle that can’t be resolved. The Joker calls himself and Batman "an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object," and this observation demonstrates his intuitive understanding of the eternal struggle between them. In fact, by the time he utters this line, The Joker no longer even cares to kill Batman, even going so far as to protect his adversary's identity. In the interrogation room, when The Joker informs Batman that he depends upon him to be his foil and his mortal foe, the dynamic of their relationship changes immensely.

Okay, so Batman refuses to kill the Joker, and the Joker has decided not to kill Batman. They're not technically "mortal" enemies any longer... what's left for them to fight over? When two opposing forces reach equilibrium, a third element needs to complete the system and mediate between them, and in Nolan's The Dark Knight, this third element is Gotham itself. The Joker wants to rule Gotham’s streets, and as his social engineering games attest, he also wants to rule its soul and its psychology. Batman’s sworn role -- to protect Gotham's citizens from crime -- implies a pledge of loyalty to Gotham, and a pledge of faith in its humanity. When their conflict can no longer be resolved directly through death or defeat, The Joker and Batman turn Gotham into the rope in their tug of war.

Batman's writers don’t always make this three-part "eternal struggle" structure explicit, but we all understand it intuitively, as part of our knowledge of Batman himself. As long as the Dark Knight is out there, he needs the Joker as his essential adversary, and these two personalities need a system within which to carry out their exchanges. This system is Gotham, and it will always be Gotham... just as they fight over order, and hope, and humanity within the city limits, so Batman and The Joker are also permanent features of Gotham’s landscape. They could never join Spiderman in New York. They just wouldn't work here, in these provincial neighborhoods -- and could Gotham City ever exist without Batman and the Joker wrestling over it?

Christopher Nolan captured something about Batman and the Joker that could have slipped by another director, but that’s indispensable to the mythology that he was building upon. He built not two, but three strong personalities -- Batman, the Joker, and Gotham City -- and by leveraging these personalities, he did due justice to the legend of the Dark Knight.

No comments: