Yes, Heath Ledger redefines the Joker, in a performance that certainly deserves consideration by the various awards committees. And Aaron Eckhart deserves more attention than he has gotten, for a deeply-realized portrayal of a crusading D.A. who fights monsters so hard that he becomes one.
Indeed, the question of how to fight monsters without becoming like them is the heart of the movie. (Well, that and a lot of black latex, and some explosions.) And so naturally, there is an argument brewing about the political content of the picture. There are spoilers below, so please exercise caution.
Writing on the WSJ editorial page, mystery novelist Andrew Klavan argues that Batman is, basically, George W. Bush:
Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past. ... "The Dark Knight," then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror.
He goes on to complain that whereas Hollywood liberals can make anti-war movies that are realistic and contemporary, conservatives have to hide their pro-war sentiment behind the mask of historical fantasy ("300") or, in this case, actual masks.
On the surface, Klavan seems to have a point. As comics readers know, Frank Miller -- whose graphic vision of Thermopylae was the basis for "300" -- is an unabashed conservative, and his groundbreaking 80s miniseries, "The Dark Knight Returns," portrayed a Batman who might have inspired subway vigilante Berhard Goetz (although Miller's Batman is a far better-developed character than the supposedly flesh-and-blood Goetz).
And the movie at hand makes no secret of its political subtext. The Joker is referred to in the script as a terrorist, and rightly so. He works with criminals, but makes a point of saying that his goal different than theirs. They want to get rich; he is "an agent of chaos." At one point, in fact, he lights up an enormous pile of cash, while delivering, a speech to effect that he doesn't need money since "the things I like -- gasoline, gunpowder -- are all cheap." Fighting against Batman, whose work is prodigiously funded and hi-tech, the Joker is a model of asymmetrical warfare.
So Klavan is right about the Joker. But he misses the point about Batman. Yes, our hero does "push the boundaries of civil rights," and pushes them pretty hard. At one point, questioning a mobster, he deliberately breaks the guy's leg just to show that he's serious. He eavesdrops on a colossal scale, at one point bugging every telephone in the city. But much of the movie's action hangs on the idea that Batman operates by a strict moral code -- he will not kill his enemies, no matter how hard they try to kill him, and no matter who else they may try to kill. When another character threatens a witness at gunpoint, Batman intervenes, arguing that (a) the witness probably doesn't have any useful information, and (b) the good guys have to stay good.
(This is an old and absurd trope in superhero comics -- the Lone Ranger used to shoot guns out of the hands of bank robbers. Reaction against this absurdity led to a slew of 80s comics in which heroes abandoned the code and killed their enemies; as recently as last year, even Wonder Woman did this. But Batman, one of the comics characters best suited for wetwork, has studiously avoided it.)
This code stands in symbolically for all the actual ethical codes that we tell ourselves (with ever less justice) separate us from our enemies. Without this code, the story would collapse. In one of the climactic sequences, of which the picture has too many, the Joker hatches another plan to commit mass murder, which depends upon the willingness of people, both criminals and ordinary citizens, to commit murder in order to avoid being murdered themselves. (Think of soldiers massacring a village for fear that it sheltered one or two insurgents). Batman's strategy, which ultimately succeeds, depends upon his conviction that people -- even criminals -- are fundamentally decent. Without his direct intervention, they save themselves simply by expressing, despite the temptation not to, their own moral decency.
And the movie provides one set piece in which it gives a blunt opinion of how effective torture is as a tool against terrorists. The Joker is captured by the police, and interrogated by three people:
(1) Commissioner Gordon asks him some questions, to which he gives no useful answer.
(2) Gordon leaves the room, and Batman enters, using a great deal more violence than the police are allowed to. It works -- he tells them what they wanted to know, the location of the McGuffin. Except it doesn't work, because he tells them a deliberate lie, which sends people going to the wrong places, and results (as the Joker intended) in death and mutilation. In this episode, Batman seems tough in a way that is emotionally rewarding to viewers, but in fact he loses dramatically.
(3) Another cop decides to beat the Joker up -- not torture for the sake of extracting information, but as an expression of rage. The Joker seizes control of the situation, and not only escapes but creates mayhem on a vast scale. If they had just left him in jail, he would still have killed a lot of people, but not nearly as many.
The message is not crystalline, nor should it be, but it is still pretty clear: The inappropriate reaction of "civilized" people to terror is what gives the terrorists their power. Torture doesn't work; it deprives us of our moral advantage without conferring any meaningful tactical advantage. Even the truly wicked have rights which must be observed, as much for our sake as for theirs.
The movie may not be intended as a rebuke to President Bush, nor to his thuggish vice-president; it may not be intended as a rebuke to Guantanamo Bay and the extraordinary renditions. But it seems very likely that the director and his co-writer set out to rebuke the primary expression of militant conservatism in Hollywood these days, specifically with regard to the questions of torture and the rights of detainees. Bruce Wayne is neither a stand-in for the president nor a response to him; he is a comic-book character who answers another comic-book character: Jack Bauer.
"The Dark Knight" is the Anti-24.