Evil has to exist for good to make sense. So if you make a movie with superheroes, where the superhero is the imagination of extreme goodness incarnate, you’ll need to contrast that with extreme evil.
This is one of the many reasons why Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie The Dark Knight is still the best superhero movie ever made. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you clearly have no interest in the superhero movie genre, so I guess a spoiler-warning is unnecessary. If you’re just too young to have seen it at the cinema and you are a fan of the superhero genre, please go watch the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
It’s kind of telling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started that same year, releasing at least two movies each year, and although many of them very good, none of them have reached the highs accomplished in Christopher Nolan’s second installment of his Batman trilogy. Technology has progressed exponentially and the Marvel movies make good use of that; they’re certainly more spectacular than any of the Batman movies. Many of the featured superheroes had multiple solo films so it can’t be denied that Marvel did a wonderful job at developing each of their characters’ personalities. And they managed to do the impossible by giving all of them a part in the latest film Avengers: Infinity War; they all got their moment in the sun and all their previously established character-traits were done justice, a neat feat to pull off in 2.5 hours.
As great as they are, where all the MCU movies fall short is in the department of evil men, and this is where The Dark Night shines with a blinding light. Much has already been said about Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance of the movies antagonist, The Joker, so I won’t say anything about that other than I agree fully with all the praising superlatives that have been thrown at the actor’s feet through the years, and that I sorely regret to never be able to see another performance by him. Instead I’ll point out the brilliant manner in which good and evil are portrayed in this film that gave us the best superhero and super-villain in superhero movie history.
“But wait, The Joker is a menace to Gotham City, while Thanos threatens the entire universe, surely that’s a far better depiction of pure evil” I hear you think. And that’s true, I’ll even grant you that with Thanos the MCU has it’s best antagonist to date and they even gave him a background to almost make him human, so we could even understand him and his motives. He’s no joke, but he isn’t a Joker either. Even if we add Iron Man’s personal vendetta with Thanos, who has been tormenting his soul since the first attack on New York in the first Avengers movie, the contrast between pure goodness and pure evil isn’t as profound and “in your face” as in The Dark Knight.
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred perfectly sums up The Joker here, and Heath Ledger proves this point in many scenes, most evidently the one in which he burns a mountain of money while he berates the other criminals because all they care about is money…
The other depiction of good versus evil in this movie is in Harvey Dent, who starts as Gotham’s white knight, descends to evil, but is permitted by Batman and commissioner Gordon to be buried as Gotham’s hero. In his descent to evil, Harvey becomes Two-Face, the other antagonist in this film. The ways in which good and evil are symbolized in this one character are used so brilliantly… He has his coin with a face on each side which he uses to determine the fate of his victims. He has two faces himself because exactly half of it is burned into a gross evil mask. And he’s indifferent about good or evil himself, unifying the two in a bizarre manner. Gordon and Batman decide to bury his evil deeds so that Gotham City can have it’s white knight, while Batman himself takes the blame and becomes Gotham’s Dark Knight…
Nolan used Two-Face in a most daring way, as he is one of Batman’s most famous super-villains. But Nolan didn’t save him for a sequel, but instead killed him right away and used him for the above mentioned contrast and to increase the contrast beween Batman’s good and The Joker’s evil. The way he’s being used and set up by the main antagonist makes The Joker look even more evil.
Good needs evil to exist and The Joker makes this abundantly clear in the interrogation scene with Batman. He laughs when he says that killing Batman was never his intention, that he needs Batman as much as Batman needs him. “You complete me” isn’t some funny reference to the movie Jerry Maguire, but maybe the most essential line in the entire movie.
He explains that they are both freaks with masks and that, although Gotham’s people need him now, they’ll cast their bat-hero aside as soon as they don’t. The Joker says that they, the people of Gotham, will throw their moral code aside as soon as they’re threatened. In this scene The Joker also brings out the worse in Batman, who’s supposed to be all good. The theme of the everlasting struggle between good and evil, yin and yang, is exploited on so many levels that it’s almost too much to handle when you think about it, and the best is yet to come.
You see, Batman doesn’t win in this movie. Harvey Dent doesn’t win and neither do The Joker or commissioner Gordon. It’s mentioned a couple of times in the movie, but you might have missed that the real fight was to save the Soul Of Gotham; The Joker says this to Batman while hanging on a rope. In that same speech he describes their fight like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Really, every scene, every line of dialogue, every camera angle is there to drive home the opposing forces fighting against the backdrop of this movie’s true winner, the soul of Gotham.
The Joker’s final test for Gotham City is when the two ferries are set adrift which each of them containing a bomb. The passengers are informed that each boat has a detonator for the other ferry’s bomb and that they can save their own lifes by exploding the other boat and killing all passengers on it. The Joker is confident that one of them will explode, but much to his dismay, the passengers on both ferries ultimately decide to not use the detonator. One of the boats is filled with prisoners, criminals of the worse kind, and Nolan even further accentuates the good versus evil theme by having these criminals be the first to decide to throw away their detonator, while the supposed good citizens take much longer to reach that decision.
I haven’t even discussed all the other small and big things in this movie that paints such an excellent contrast and unification of good and evil. The unsung damsel in distress, Gotham, is the backdrop for an epic battle between the eternal forces. Marvel is doing a great job. The Wolverine, played for more than a decade by Hugh Jackman, in Logan comes close. But for me, Batman is still the best superhero to ever be put on the big screen and much of that is because he had the best super-villain ever in Heath Ledger’s Joker.