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Dark Knight in a dark place
Batman is going through a mid-heroic life crisis: is he the right hero for Gotham City? Simon Parke sees the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
"Why so serious?" asks the Joker, as he holds a knife to the mouth of another terrified victim, in the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight. His father had once said the same to him, when as a boy he'd witnessed the abuse of his mother. The father then turned on him, using a knife to slit-slit a permanent smile on the boy's face. And so the Joker was born.

Against him in the battle for the soul of Gotham City is Batman, "the silent guardian, a watchful protector... the Dark Knight." Director Chris Nolan is attracted by the combination in him of both absolute charm and ice-cold ruthlessness. "He's not from another planet – he's a human superhero, flawed. He bridges the divide." And as the dark bat-figure plunges from skyscraper down towards the city, it's salvation today – but will it be suicide tomorrow?

In between Joker and Bat are the people of Gotham: fickle, frightened, feeble and profoundly hard to love. They don't like outsiders – those who are different – and are as quick to believe the worst of Batman as they to believe the best. "We are alike!" says the Joker to Batman in one encounter, and there is truth in what he says. "We need each other! Both outsiders – rejected by Gotham City!"

Out of this unimpressive herd of humans emerges Harvey Dent, the new District Attorney who promises to take on the bad guys; and is also in love with Batman's ex, Rachel. But is Harvey really the hero Gotham needs? He's certainly got guts. But as he says, "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Which would he prove to be?

Meanwhile, Batman is enduring a mid-heroic life crisis. Is he really the right hero for Gotham? "I've seen now what I have to become to stop people like him," he says, as he contemplates his battle with the Joker. To fight a man with no boundaries, must you become one too? And anyway, wasn't it time for him to be more normal? Shouldn't he finally settle down with a woman, with Rachel? Then the Joker declares that until Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true self, people will die daily. This is the last straw. "I have enough blood on my hands already," he says. He begins to believe that Harvey could be the man to take over from him.

And the Joker? The Joker scares even the Mob. Here is a man committed not to money, but to chaos. Money gets in the way of the true game, and so he burns it, piles of it, loads of it – millions. "This city deserves a better class of criminal," he says.

But Gotham City is soon to look back with fondness on the days when the Mob ruled, as the Joker sets out to show there are no heroes in Gotham; no honour, no decency and nothing on which to build a hopeful future. He will "turn" the new hero Harvey Dent. And in a social experiment conducted on two ferry boats, he will expose the people of Gotham city for what they truly are – self-serving scum.

As the climax approaches, for Batman, as with all super heroes, it's a race against time. Harvey says, "The night is darkest just before the dawn." True. But the dawn in this film is not without its sadness.

This is a fast-paced and not uncomplicated thriller. Not everyone in the cinema knew what was going on all the time. Nolan jerks chronology around, has a lot of story to tell, and never goes back to explain. In the midst of the thriller is a study in good and evil; a reflection on how weary the good get; how energising darkness can be; and how true goodness makes outsiders of us all – in Gotham, in business, and in church. The Joker wants to see the world burn; to take people to the pain that is his. The mob wants a scapegoat, and more money in their pockets. But what does Batman want? He has a hard decision to take in the final moments.

As Commissioner James Gordon says, "Batman is the hero Gotham deserves – but not the hero it needs right now." Those who have seen it will know what he means – and the cost.

Simon Parke's new book, The Enneagram, is published this month.
batman and the joker
The Dark Knight
152 mins
Cert 12A (UK)
Director: Christopher Nolan
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