What’s so deeply frightening about the Joker – and, by extension, The Dark Knight – is that he comes awfully close to achieving his goal. The Joker’s daily murders shake Gotham’s faith in Batman, and even make Bruce question the power of his alter ego. Bruce tells himself Batman can have no limits, but faced with an unfathomable threat, he nearly succumbs to hanging up the cowl and turning himself in.
It’s Harvey Dent who steps in to protect Batman’s identity and, in turn, restore Gotham and Bruce’s faith in the Dark Knight. Harvey is the film’s representation of what individuals can do at their very best; like Batman, he enacts meaningful change, but he does so without the mask. He doesn’t need to become a symbol to inspire Gotham, and for that, Bruce idolizes him as much as he idolizes Batman.
But the Joker is intent on turning Harvey into a symbol, “pulling him down to our level” and rendering him, in the Joker’s worldview, corruptible. Again, what makes the Joker’s machinations so unsettling is that if even one action went differently, he would be proven right; as Two-Face, Harvey does horrible things, crimes that would shake Gotham’s faith in its white Knight and, by extension, the city itself.
It’s Bruce’s next major philosophical breakthrough that saves the day; with Harvey dead, Batman realizes his own adaptability. As a symbol, he is not only powerful, but malleable. Just as he was there for Gotham as a beacon of hope, a ray of light in the darkest of times, he can be a repository for anger and sadness. The grief the city would surely feel over Harvey’s crimes can be transmitted to Batman; he can take on those emotions, just as he has under different circumstances for the past year, and keep the city’s hope alive in doing so. As a symbol, Batman will change, but his effect will not; he will keep Gotham going, because he’s more than just a man, or a hero, or any other simplistic label we assign to icons.
Or, as Gordon says: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
Though it has changed, the symbol survives. Bruce’s thesis, presented two films earlier, continues to hold true.
This takes us to The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan has said he was hesitant about returning for a third installment, because he was unsure of where the story could go next. His caution makes sense. If the series is an examination of Batman’s symbolic power, how many more avenues of exploration are available? If the symbol could survive even the Joker’s assault, what is there left to prove? Is there any greater hurdle to overcome?
To my mind, there’s only one: death.
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