This second installment of Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman and his world offers a psychologically rich and multi-layered portrayal of characters struggling with all-too-real issues of responsibility, trust, betrayal, the role of physical appearance in forming impressions of people, and of psychopathy unleashed. Whereas Batman Begins explores Bruce Wayne's evolution from anxious child to the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight brings us a matured Batman battling against a terrifying psychopath whose main motivation appears to be similar to two-year but with deadlier consequences: he does "stuff" just to see what happens.
This film is really about the Joker. We're lured in to his world, where we learn what he's capable of and what he cares about—what motivates him. Learning more about him is like watching a car accident unfold, but worse and more frightening, because it feels like you might be hit next. Nolan's incarnation of the Joker, and Batman's reactions to him, seem so real that The Dark Knight doesn't feel like a superhero movie, but like a documentary on the emergence of a terrorist-cum-serial killer.
I was repeatedly struck by the Joker's cleverness and restraint: [spoiler alert!] He planned three simultaneous murders, Godfather style. [end of spoler alert] That takes extraordinary planning abilities, meticulous attention to detail, and the ability to defer gratification. Sound like anyone else in the movie--like Batman? This Joker is neither impulsive nor capricious, although he may appear that way at first blush. Just as with Batman, the Joker's actions are designed to create a particular impression, an impression that puts his adversaries at a disadvantage: that he's weird and unpredictable. That you never know how far he'll push something, so take him seriously. This, too, is part of the impression that Batman tries to create. But the Joker's got Batman's number because he knows that Batman isn't entirely unpredictable—Batman lives within certain self-imposed and societally-imposed rules. Because of those rules, Batman becomes predictable…at least to the Joker. Two men with similar talents, but in the Joker's case, his talents are used to create anarchy for his own amusement. Is he a psychopath? Let's investigate.
A psychopath is someone who displays personality traits that involve more than simply engaging in criminal acts. A psychopath:
(1) can be superficially charming and manipulative. The Joker is that. Imagine him without his clown makeup—imagine him with a handsome face doing and saying what he does in the film. He'd make a compelling—versus repellant—figure to some, wouldn't he?
(2) is emotionally callous, without remorse or guilt. The Joker lies freely when it suits him (he gives two different stories for how he came to have his scars, both likely untrue). He doesn't feel badly about his dastardly deeds—the lives he taken or ruined.
(3) has a socially deviant lifestyle. Not only is the Joker a criminal, but he seeks out the excitement of his life of crime. His crimes act as a drug and he needs the regular fixes of the intense stimulation his actions bring. Unfortunately, he seems to develop tolerance to the drug, wanting ever-increasing "doses" and so planning increasingly sadistic and elaborate capers.
Hats off to Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and the cast and crew. Heath Ledger's performance deserves an Oscar.
For more about my take on Batman, look for me on the History Channel's Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight and an essay wrote about "What's the Matter With Bruce Wayne?" in the anthology, "Batman Unauthorized."