At the end of Batman Begins, detective Jim Gordon tells Batman that somebody calling himself the Joker has begun to make waves on Gotham’s criminal scene. Batman tells him he’ll check it out, setting up what is sure to be a showdown between Batman and his archenemy in the sequel. What we get is hardly a rote exercise of a dark superhero foiling more bad guys, however. Instead, the Dark Knight—the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy—is a pointed and compelling examination of the very character of Batman: how he helps to create and escalate the villainy he seeks to destroy; how close he is to becoming a villain himself; and how untested he really is. The Dark Knight isn’t just the best installment of an outstanding series of superhero movies. It is easily one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
As the story begins, Batman has wrought havoc on Gotham’s underworld, but it seems like he is inspiring as many bad guys and lunatics as he is putting away. So when Bruce Wayne notices the idealistic, popular and squeaky-clean district attorney Harvey Dent, he senses that between Dent and Jim Gordon—a man whose star is finally rising within the corrupt Gotham Police Department—the pieces might be in play for Gotham to no longer need a costumed vigilante. That all changes when a maniac in clown makeup calling himself the Joker starts killing people, blowing things up and sowing chaos in a direct bid to force Batman and his allies into impossible moral conundrums. As the Joker menaces everything and everyone Batman holds dear, he wounds Dent so severely that it turns the former prosecutor into Two-Face, a monstrously disfigured psychopath who dispenses his own twisted justice with the flip of a coin. As the stakes get ever-higher for Batman, he must confront in the terrible reality that he has made for himself: in every war, there are casualties. And since he started his own war on crime, the responsibility for every casualty falls on his cloaked shoulders.
As the second act in a three-act arc, this is when things generally go south for our hero, and boy, do they ever. As this chapter of the story begins, Batman is still relatively untested, because he has never known the sting of defeat. He might have suffered setbacks before, but never anything so severe as to make him question his methods and purpose. And ultimately, that is what this story becomes: the chronicle of Batman’s failings as a hero and as an idea. Almost all of it comes at the hands of the Joker, a pure distillation of elemental evil. He deftly foils each of Batman’s traditional methods, which were never designed with a psychotic terrorist like this in mind. And in so doing, the Joker sets up a contest between the world’s greatest detective and somebody who, as Alfred the butler points out, just wants to watch the world burn. The Joker promises asymmetrical warfare on a superhero’s scale; and too late does Batman realize that the only way to beat it is to not fight it, and to not fight it is against everything Batman stands for. The Joker wins just by showing up.
As a result, Batman loses everything that matters to him. As the casualties mount in his battle with the Joker, he loses his dream of living a happy life just as Bruce Wayne, not a costumed vigilante. As he resorts to methods he knows are wrong to stop the Joker, he loses his moral high ground. And as he is confronted with villains created directly from his battle with other villains, he loses his certainty that he isn’t doing more harm than good.
The moment of truth in all of this comes in a particularly powerful scene where the Joker has rigged two ferry boats full of hostages to explode. On each ferry is a detonator that will explode the other boat. The Joker informs his prisoners that he will blow both boats to kingdom come at midnight, unless one of the boats hits the detonator on the other (thereby saving themselves in the process). At this point, Batman can’t really can’t intervene; he can only trust that the people of Gotham, whom he has always contended are worth saving, and capable of redemption, prove him right. How the situation resolves itself is a moment of immensely rewarding storytelling that proves Gotham’s path out of darkness relies not on the work of a caped crusader, but on regular people finding the courage to draw from their own reservoirs of human decency, even when they are given the most compelling reasons not to. And even here, what is meant to be a moment that renounces the Joker’s mantra of chaos still comes off as a kind of victory for him. If the boats explode, he wins because chaos and death prevail. If one boat explodes, he wins because Gotham turned on itself. And if none of them explode, he wins because Gotham proves that it doesn’t really need a guy like Batman after all. It just needs to be a better version of itself.
Batman has fought for the soul of Gotham without realizing that he is just as much a part of its problems as anything else. The city has really been a theatre in a proxy war against his own personal demons. If he really cares about it, he must make it hate him and the very idea that it ever needed a costumed hero in the first place. Batman’s biggest act of heroism is to stop being one, and while he has longed to hang up his cape, he never wanted to do it under these conditions. That he follows through on it anyway is an irony so cruel, the Joker himself would burn up knowing he didn’t think of it first.