When the question arises of who could be the villain in a third Batman movie, I’m stymied. I can’t picture The Penguin or The Riddler or Catwoman working in the world Christopher Nolan has created. Poison Ivy? I don’t think so. The Mad Hatter? Clayface? Kite Man? Bane? Nope, nope, nope and please god no.
The only possible candidates I’ve come up with are Hugo Strange, Black Mask and possibly Deadshot (and, it goes without saying, the Gorilla Boss).
Why is it so hard to come up with a villain for a third Batman film? I think it’s because The Dark Knight so effectively nullifies its own superheroic elements—and I’m not the first one to make note of this. As Christopher Bird of Mightygodking1 observed in his one-sentence review:
There are many reasons to see The Dark Knight, many of which have been repeated elsewhere many times over, but I will merely say this: any movie starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman which trusts one of its most powerful and emotional moments to Tiny Lister, and makes it work perfectly, is a movie that is a cut above.
Lister, best known for playing the president of the universe (bless your ludicrously self-indulgent soul, Luc Besson) in The Fifth Element, is indeed entrusted with one of the most important sequences in the film, and it does work—maybe too well. As Batman and The Joker battle it out atop the Gotham City skyline, the action intercuts with a sequence that brings the story crashing back down to sea level. The Joker, acolyte of chaos, has set up a variation on the classic prisoner’s dilemma by putting bombs on two ferries: one filled with criminals and the other filled with average Gothamites. The catch: the detonator for each ferry is in the hands of the people on the other. The only sure way to save yourself is to blow the other boat up. Then, at the crucial moment, prisoner Tiny Lister takes the detonator on his boat—and tosses it out the window.
What’s remarkable about that sequence is that while it plays out the big clash-of-icons themes in the movie (The Joker’s chaos unfolds, but backfires on him, as chaos is wont to do; figuratively, Two-Face’s coin lands unscarred-side up, validating the morality of chance; good and evil define and demand one another), it also negates the entire superhero side of the plot.
The people of Gotham do what needs to be done and make the right decisions without so much as a pause to ask, WWBD? They save themselves while Batman is busy having a philosophical discussion with The Joker (the brilliantly not-even-remotely-subtle device of flipping the camera upside down for The Joker’s half of that conversation underscores what has happened here: things have changed. As below, so above.)
That would be enough, but just as Tiny Lister steps up to fill the heroic role, another everyman steps into the key villain role. Because the biggest threat Batman faces in The Dark Knight isn’t The Joker or Two-Face or his own inner demons, or even the big screen comeback of Anthony Michael Hall. His biggest threat in the film is an accountant.
There have been more than a few critics who have complained about the film’s numerous and convoluted subplots, but the one featuring Joshua Harto as Wayne Enterprises employee Coleman Reese is perhaps the most interesting. Harto uncovers Wayne’s secret identity not by trailing him to the Batcave or bugging the Batmobile or torturing Alfred, but through simple forensic accounting (in a plot that mirror’s Batman’s follow-the-money takedown of Chin Han’s mob money launderer). Armed with this information, Harto can destroy Batman not in a grand rooftop battle or through a protracted war of ideologies (or by letting Frank Miller write him), but simply by going on television. And because he’s going to do it during the day, Batman is powerless to stop him. So, who you gonna call? Bruce Wayne.
In what I think is one of the most inspired sequences in the film, Bruce Wayne manages to save Harto’s life (in true playboy billionaire style, by crashing a Lambourghini), then looks Harto in the eyes – man to (not Bat) man. With nary a Batarang in sight, with just a traffic accident and a significant look, Bruce Wayne saves Batman.
Which may go a long way toward explaining why Christian Bale is credited not as Batman, or even Bruce Wayne/Batman, but as Bruce Wayne.
The Dark Knight is clearly obsessed with duality. With its layered internal and external conflicts between Bruce Wayne and Batman and The Joker and Harvey Dent/Two Face, a double-blind love triangle and multiple mirroring plots and sub plots, the film is gay for duality. The Joker’s line, “You complete me,” might just has well have been “I wish I could quit you.” But it has its duality and eats it too.
Which ends up making for a surprisingly satisfying meal.
1 mightygodking.com (Pay special attention to his post on why he should write The Legion of Super Heroes. Especially if you work for DC Comics.)