Time passes. Gotham is overrun with crime. Every level of its infrastructure is cracking and filthy. Henri Ducard said as much. But there are still good people in Gotham. Bruce still has faith in that. Good people, like his parents, his guardians, his friends.
Batman is going after organized crime in Gotham in The Dark Knight. To weed out the evil who prey on the innocent. But he is also looking for someone to take up his mantle. Someone who would be able to stand up for justice without wearing a mask. And he thinks that he has found that person in the Gotham DA, Harvey Dent, who incidentally is in a serious relationship with Bruce’s once lover, Rachel. It takes a truly dedicated man to put that element in the background and focus on his ultimate goal, his task, his duty.
Enter a very strange man. The antithesis to Batman. I can’t talk about the next stage of Bruce’s character arc without talking about the Joker. Now I have a theory of my own about the scars, drawing from original stories, comics, and cartoons. The original Joker character was a man who had a really bad day, which ultimately ended with him falling into a vat of chemicals that turned his skin white and hair green. Here, what we have is a man who wears make-up. What I think happened is he was a man that took a lot of beatings in his life, lost faith in it all, even lost his mind partially. I think the stories he told about the scars were in part true. He probably did have a abusive father, and a loose wife. He took these psychological tortures until he could take no more. This would lend credence to his opening dialog, “I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.” The things that didn’t kill him, that perhaps should have, only served to drive him slightly mad. But he had no way to express himself. He believed in his own mind that Gotham was beyond saving, that everyone in Gotham is selfish, rotten, and inherently corrupt. Rules are a mirage, because they did not work for him. Structures of society were nothing but shackles for him. I believe he tried to play by the rules and had to pay unjustly for it in his life. So what to do? Along comes another man in a cape and mask who jumps off rooftops.
That was exactly what this man needed. Something to be an exact counterpoint to. As the story unfolds, we see that all along the Joker was very interested in the Batman, and what he could do with him. He even directly blames Batman for what he’d become (“See, this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham!”). So he sticks a blade in his mouth, gets some make-up, and then goes to work obtaining contacts, materials, and a nice suit to do his work. He had to be a pretty well connected person before donning the Joker avatar. He must have come from the underbelly of society. And thus he embarks on a mission to show Gotham what they truly are.
The theme of the movie is CHAOS. That is what the Joker wanted to bring. To take the so called “order” which this society runs on, which is a fabrication by “schemers with their little plans,” and pull the rug out from underneath it all. To show that once the walls of order come crumbling down, the people will eat each other.
Chaos is exactly what the Joker injects into Gotham. Who knows what his plans were, but he is obviously a very resourceful and clever man. He used an army of small time criminals to take down mob bosses. What did he promise them? My guess is Gotham on a silver platter.The promise of all the spoils once this community shows its true colors and succumbs to its true nature. It doesn’t matter. He knows whom to play against who. And he knows that Batman doesn’t kill, but it soon becomes obvious that Batman is the one he wants to play his game the most.
Now let’s back it up. Bruce has chosen Harvey as his successor. Harvey had the guts to lock up half of Gotham’s criminals without ever putting on a mask. And now he thinks he is closer to that day when Gotham no longer needs Batman, that day that Rachel spoke of at the end of Begins. That day when Bruce and Rachel could be together again. Bruce shares this thought with Rachel, who feels confused. Obviously she still has strong feelings for Bruce, but it is different now. Bruce has become Batman, she has fallen in love with another good man… things have changed. But she is still not sure. When Harvey asks her to marry him, she is hesitant. Maybe she too still believes that she and Bruce and be together one day.
Now the Joker comes in and demands Batman reveal his true identity, and for every day he doesn’t, the Joker would kill someone. Bruce cannot take that blood on his hands. This is the point where he finds out the limit of the things he can take. He says that he will turn himself in, that Batman would be done. He tells Rachel that now they can be together, but Rachel tells him that once they take Bruce in, they will never let the two of them be together. But Harvey believes that in order for justice to be served, the people need to be strong and not give in to a madman’s demands. He unexpectedly poses as Batman. And as expected, he manages to fish the Joker out.
But the Joker is one step ahead. He has already set up his next game, the star of which is Batman. Killing is a choice, says Joker. A choice that Batman has to make. Here is where the intelligence of the Joker is made frighteningly clear. Batman is made to choose between saving two people- his successor, Harvey, or Rachel whom he must have realized was of some significance to whoever Batman is (and it makes me wonder if he guessed Batman’s identity). Joker knows that Batman can definitely save one- but only one. And by choosing, he kills the other one. We know what happens next. Rachel is killed. Harvey is burned.
I always get angry when I hear people talking about how the Joker stole the show. What they fail to realize is that the Joker cannot exist without Batman. He said so himself: “I don’t want to kill you! You complete me!” Which harks back to my theory of where the scars come from. There is no Joker without the Batman, because unlike Batman, the Joker has no true, benign purpose. He needed a foe on such a pedestal as he placed himself and his ideals. He wanted to show the Batman more than anyone else that he is wrong about the people of Gotham, that even though Batman has his rules and he thinks the people will save him for his sins in the end, they will sell him out. Hence the game he set up with the choice.
Bruce is devastated. Harvey is plunged into a vengeful madness. Batman feels responsible now. Especially after this personal loss. He meant to inspire good. Instead what he brought was madness and destruction. All this was happening because of what he had done. Surely there was to be reprisals for taking on the mob as Alfred pointed out, but where did Rachel stand in all of that? And what of Gotham’s White Knight, what was to become of him, now half burned? Bruce lost it all. His parents. Rachel. His last chance at a normal life.At love.At peace.For Gotham, and for himself.
Ultimately he finds the Joker by using a machine with the ability to spy on all of Gotham. He asks Lucius for help, who says he doesn’t want to wield such power, that he will help him this one time, but he will quit Wayne Enterprises if such a machine exists there. The Joker sets up his ultimate social experiment, to show everyone in grand style that people are selfish and cruel. But it backfires. Bruce’s faith is rewarded. The people are essentially good. Gotham can be saved. But the victory is short lived. The Joker left one ace up his sleeve- the madman he created in Harvey Dent. Such was the Joker’s dedication to his own cause that he was even ready to take a bullet to the head at the hands of the former DA. Then Dent would lose all credibility and all his efforts would be undone. Those with other agendas would use that as a point to denounce all his work as fraud and release all the criminals he had put away or policy changes he initiated.
But the Joker got more than he bargained for. He turned Harvey into a true believer of his cause. Then he set Harvey loose on the world, to exact his own revenge as he saw fit. This ended in the ruins of the building where Rachel met her demise. Harvey sought to punish Jim Gordon by killing his son. An enraged Harvey questioned why, when he, Batman, and Gordon were all involved in this together, that he was the one to lose everything. Of course, he wasn’t. Bruce lost it all too. His only chance at a normal life. No matter what, he could never love again. And again he was consumed by guilt, because he blamed himself for putting Rachel in that position. He blamed himself for the deaths of those innocent people at the hands of the clown. He probably even blamed himself for the very appearance of the Joker in the first place. Yet he knew what had to be done. After subduing Harvey (who fell to his death), he knew what had to be done. He took the blame for those murders, because it was what Gotham needed. He and Gordon bet it all on Dent, and the Joker tore him down. But they could not let chaos win. So they buried the truth, Batman took the blame, and he disappeared.
But Bruce still believed that Rachel was waiting for him. He didn’t know that at the moment Harvey claimed to be the Batman, she stopped loving in him. She thought that he did it out of selfish reasons. She thought Batman had become more important to Bruce than anything else. The tragedy is that she was wrong. She didn’t understand that Bruce really was going to turn himself in, that Harvey and then Bruce understood what needed to be done. So she chose to leave Bruce for Harvey, rather unjustly. But just as people sometimes deserve better than the truth, so did Bruce at that moment. He had sacrificed so much that he needed to have his faith rewarded. Both his faith in Gotham which was vindicated by the people on those boats, and his faith in Rachel. Just as Bruce kept Lucius’ faith by destroying the machine he used to locate the Joker with.
Bruce left the scene both emotionally and physically broken. The reign of chaos ended, and good triumphed over evil, but at what cost?