5. Joker’s Social Experiment
“Madness is, as you know, like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”
As Joker’s arc comes to an end, we see him try to set the residents of Gotham against its prisoners in the ultimate test of the city’s people – there are two boats, each with a trigger that will destroy the other. If they blow up the other boat, they survive. If neither blows up the other, they all die.
It’s a simple moral conundrum played out with all the verve of Nolan’s best work, the Batman desperately clawing his way through henchmen and SWAT teams to get to Joker whilst the passengers on the two boats debate whether they should push their buttons. On the boats, it’s Tommy Lister Jr’s portrayal that proves most memorable – the large and heavily tattooed prisoner telling the boat’s captain ‘give it to me so I can do what you should have did 10 minutes ago’ then throwing the switch out of the window – but it’s when Batman finally confront Joker hand-to-hand and man-to-man that the sequence is elevated to even loftier heights.
After a short physical tussle that Joker gets the upper hand in (proving his worth as the Bat’s ultimate foe), Joker pins Batman down and forces him to witness what Joker expects will be Gotham’s people blowing each other to smithereens. It’s an important moment to the Bruce Wayne underneath the mask when they eventually choose not to and the clock ticks beyond Joker’s deadline, the people of Wayne’s city – the city Ra’s al Ghul had claimed was too far gone in Batman Begins – proving to him that they are worth fighting for, illustrating exactly what it is that Wayne believes deserves to be saved. As they prove to Wayne that as a people they are not beyond redemption, they also prove the same to Joker, and it is here that Ledger offers perhaps the most nuance of his entire performance, the mania draining out of his face to be replaced with a wide-eyed and almost emotional series of expressions that seem to hint at the humanity beneath the makeup and cause us to truly bask in his loss.
As Batman attacks from underneath and kicks Joker from the high structure they’re fighting on, Joker falls to the earth laughing as if he too has been redeemed by “killing the Batman” ideologically (making Batman kill another man), but Batman saves him, proving to Gotham as they have proven to him, that he is the good guy, that he is worth believing in, even though he illegally and secretly spied on them. As Joker hangs upside down and the camera twists into his perspective, Joker’s final line gives Ledger’s performance the ultimate send-off, allowing us a moment of contemplation for the glory of the performance we’ve all just witnessed. It’s a sensational Batman moment.
4. The Interrogation
Joker’s capture and imprisonment makes for a useful story beat in The Dark Knight that suggests the intelligence of his actions (which at other times seem unplanned). In this scene, in which he is interrogated by the Batman in a police holding cell, Joker and Batman have their first dialogue exchange of any meaningful length, the scene henceforth taking the form of something closer to a film by Martin Scorsese than your typical superhero movie.
‘Never start with the head; they can never feel the next… see?’ makes for a tantalising introduction; one that illustrates immediately how Batman’s usual tactics of brute force shan’t be enough for this particular foe. As the scene progresses, Joker is seen at his most dastardly, his most threatening to Batman’s belief systems. He teases Batman throughout their physical tussle, eventually positing Batman’s ultimate test: to save Harvey Dent or the woman he jumped off a roof to save, Rachel. They’re both tied up and set to be exploded, one in one location and the other in another. Batman chooses to save Rachel, the ultimate pay off to Joker’s plan being that Dent is actually stored where Joker said Rachel is; Rachel dying as Batman saves the District Attorney.
Even before he asks “do I look like a man with a plan?” to Harvey Dent in the hospital, Joker illustrates how he is here. He knew Batman would come, hence why he had Rachel and Dent tied up in the first place, and he knew Batman would get physical: which is how he’d get out of the holding cell (using a shard from the two way mirror Batman smashed him into as a tool for taking a police officer hostage). He even planted one of his unhinged followers in a holding cell, a mobile phone turned explosive device stitched into his abdomen (and due to explode per his legally required phone call).
It’s a moment that hits all the marks for both a Batman film and an exciting blockbuster, but it also functions to increase the threat of Joker to Batman, as well as the involvement of supporting players like Gordon and Dent, whilst ultimately saying goodbye to one of the trilogy’s main characters to this point: Rachel Dawes.
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3. Joker Blows Up the Hospital
It’s a moment as iconic as any Joker moment in this film, but one that transcends the medium itself to be recognised by even the least knowledgeable of filmgoers; and it functions as both the conclusion to one of Joker’s most despicable plans but also a visual representation of his effect on Gotham and more specifically Bruce Wayne’s ideological beliefs. Whilst the fire at Wayne Manor in Batman Begins represented Bruce’s challenges regarding family legacy and finding himself, this hospital explosion in The Dark Knight speaks of Joker’s capabilities to burn all of what Bruce believes in.
The direct result of Joker’s actions here cause Wayne to buy into a sonar-spy scheme that Lucius Fox opposes and ultimately goes against Wayne’s belief that Gotham can save itself, but unbeknownst to Batman the hospital explosion is also representative of Harvey Dent’s turn to the dark side and how Bruce Wayne’s belief in a new hero with a face are quite literally going up in flames. What’s more is that Joker hits Gotham at a hospital, illustrating how Joker’s antagonising runs deeply into the veins of Bruce’s city in a way that the first film’s antagonist, Ra’s al Ghul, ultimately couldn’t achieve; threatening every civilian of Gotham without prejudice.
It’s one of the most outstanding visuals in 21st century cinema, the Joker walking in full makeup and a nurses gown away from a hospital that is being blown up from the inside, the slight pauses between explosions causing outstanding moments in which he turns to face the building seemingly frustrated with it not quite going to plan. And it’s made all the better by how director Christopher Nolan filmed the actual demolishing of a building for the scene, making it all the more real and all the more timeless.