The Gotham City of 1989 is fantastical, a city that never was and never could be, architecturally and technologically and cinematically, a city of Gaudiesque styles, with old-style lightbulb flash photograph co-existing alongside high-end computers, and somehow, a sense that things didn't matter so much in the grand scheme of things, that pleasure untainted by the urban environment could still be found in moments here and there. The Gotham City of Nolen's 2008 film is a city that belongs to our world, a certain fantastical information technology aside (you who've seen the film, you know what I mean). The towers are all Bauhaus; the criminal and non-criminal economies are internationalized; homes like penthouses and walk-up apartment complexes are detailed; mobile telephony keeps everyone in contact; Bruce Wayne has so many scars. Gotham City wouldn't be wildly out of place in the actually existing United States. "Is this what Americans think about their cities?" I asked my fellow (mostly American) watchers. Did The Dark Knight do so well among American and non-American audiences because they thought that this was relevant to their lives?
The plot was well-constructed, a standard story of the hero undone by his good intentions, in the context of his personal relationships and in the context of the wider world. Here, the Joker emerged as a highly distinctive personality, a criminal anarchist devoted to bloody gaming with the man whose own Batman persona made crime a matter of personalities in the first place. The acting's of very high quality, with Christian Bale's withdrawn and fragmented persona, Maggie Gyllenhaal's quietly assertive Rachel Dawes and (let's be quite honest) her beauty, Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of a man who really believes in his office and the righteousness of his cause, and, obviously, Heath Ledger's wonderful portrayal of the Joker as an intense nihilist who's both easily bored and quite imaginative. Christopher Nolen, meanwhile, does a great job of directing.
What's the troubling undertone? It's all about the politics. I'm certainly not the first person to mention this, as the previous Google search will tell you, but the willingness of almost everyone in Gotham City to accept a vigilante as the city's guard against crime, not the criminal justice system--and then, rejecting the vigilante not on moral principles but for the pragmatic reason that his personality is inspiring not just crime but actual terrorism--is disturbing. It's somewhat ironic given her country's history that it's a Russian ballerina, Bruce Wayne's date sharing a table with Wayne and Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent, who says how disturbed she is that Gotham City is protected no longer by laws but by people; it's even more ironic that it's Harvey Dent, Gotham City's attorney-general, who justifies the Batman as a necessary and legitimate feature and goes on to support him fully. Dent even accepts Batman's extraordinary rendition of Lau from Hong Kong (a Hong Kong, it should be noted, where the police are as thoroughly penetrated by organized crime as Gotham City's) since it gives him the information necessary to prosecute the various mafias.
The debate over whether or not this film is a neoconservative one is fundamentally misplaced, and reflects a basic misunderstanding of the fears which drive this film. People are afraid of the terrifying cities which actually exist; people are willing to accept whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves; people fear impersonal crime but fear personalizations of anarchy and nihilism even more; people don't care about the rules. That's the universe of the film; that, I'd argue, is the universe that we live in. Quite apart from its considerable artistic value, The Dark Knight documents quite well the zeitgeist of our post-9/11 moment.