When ‘The Dark Knight’ came out, I confess that I did not have tremendously high hopes. Not because of Heath Ledger as the Joker or anything I’d heard about the production, but simply because I had yet to see a live-action Batman movie I actually liked after six tries (I liked the ’89 Batman when it came out, but it hasn’t aged well for me.) Even ‘Batman Begins’ holds the distinction of being the one Christopher Nolan movie I haven’t been able to really get behind (its messages about violence strike me as extremely confused. “I won’t kill this man because Killing Is Wrong! And to save him, I’m going to blow up the building with the entire League of Shadows still inside it!”)
But ‘The Dark Knight’ worked. It was, finally, the Batman movie I had been looking for. A brilliant Joker story that made the character convincing, terrifying, and absolutely riveting to watch. A deep, heartfelt exploration of human morality as the Joker works on Gotham City in an effort to prove that given the right circumstances, with the proper motivation, anyone and everyone will become a killer…and fails. Or does he? Seeing Harvey Dent finally snap and prove that at least for him, the Joker was right is a cruel, twisted, but ultimately honest exploration of both characters. It’s a great movie from beginning to almost-end.
Because that’s the one problem with ‘The Dark Knight’. The ending makes no goddamn sense. (I’ll explain why after the cut. Spoilers, sweetie!)
Okay, so we get the idea that Harvey Dent died a raving madman, and there’s no way that this can ever get out because Gotham City needs him as an inspirational figure and not just one more politician chewed up and spit out by the brutality all around him. Batman heroically volunteers to take the fall for this, letting Commissioner Gordon paint him as the murderer who pushed Dent to his death (which is, um, more or less the truth, because Christian Bale’s Batman really isn’t that good at the whole “not killing his enemies accidentally-on-purpose” thing.)
But this is a Really Bad Idea. For one thing, it gives the Joker the victory he was craving just as surely as if they’d let the truth slip out. The Joker’s endgame was to break Gotham’s spirits by proving that its inspirational figures could become vicious murderers under the right circumstances, and Batman was (in his own way) just as inspirational as Harvey Dent. (Maybe moreso…I don’t think Harvey Dent inspired people to run around the city dressed in suits prosecuting people.)
If Batman is seen to be a cold-blooded, irrational killer, it works to serve the Joker’s ends just as surely as if Dent was. It also has the additional problem of being difficult to believe; despite the fact that Bale’s Batman actually has a pretty good bodycount, Maroni is fully confident that he doesn’t have the guts to kill him when push comes to shove. (Actually, push did come to shove. It was after that when Maroni decided Batman didn’t have the guts to kill him.)
And finally, it’s just plain stupid. If you’re going to lie about what really happened, why sit there arguing about who’s going to take the blame when there’s a ready-made homicidal maniac who killed someone in that very building just a couple of days ago? One who already made an attempt or two on the life of Harvey Dent, to boot.
Just blame the Joker. Tell everyone that the Joker had one more plan, that his goons kidnapped Gordon’s family, and that Harvey Dent heroically trailed them from the hospital despite his horrific injuries. While Batman was across town capturing the Joker and bringing him to justice, Dent saved Gordon’s family, but at the cost of his own life. The Joker’s thugs fled when Batman arrived, sneaking past a police cordon and escaping into Gotham, but they’re now leaderless with the Joker behind bars.
Honestly, why wouldn’t this work? The story’s entirely believable, and nobody involved is really going to be interested in exposing Dent’s mania anyway. The Joker might insist it isn’t true, but it’s not like he’s really got a whole lot of credibility here. “Well, yes, I did kidnap thirty or forty people, plant bombs all over Gotham, murder a bunch of cops by slicing Glasgow smiles into their faces, blow up a hospital, and disfigure Harvey Dent…but this kind of thing is really beneath me!”
I suppose that what happened on the screen is what I’ve got to accept for now, since it’s clearly setting up the grand finale to Nolan’s vision. (And I love that Bane is the villain. Bane is a much better villain than he gets credit for, a much better villain than he was frequently written post-Knightfall, and I am really looking forward to seeing what a hellishly talented writer/director does with the character.) And I suppose that you could claim that both Batman and Gordon were traumatized and not thinking clearly, and that Batman has displayed just enough of a martyr complex in the first two movies that it’s plausible he’d come up with a solution that screws himself over. But I still have to squint pretty hard to buy it.