In Mr. Nolan’s telling, the Joker, unlike so many other super-baddies that came before him (including Mr. Nicholson’s version of the character), is given no convenient origin story to explain the monster he has become. He just is. Which makes him worse. In the film, when the Joker is captured, we are informed that there are no matches for his fingerprints, DNA or dental records (“his clothing is custom—no labels, nothing in his pockets but knives and lint”). As for his facial mutilation, the Joker continually makes up different explanations, denying us a satisfying explanation as to why he’s the way he is. He is the way so many Americans imagine very real terrorists to be—simply full of hate, operating with no rules or code, and unafraid to kill or die. Watching The Dark Knight allows us to observe such a killer, without feeling endangered. We are terrorized by the Joker, but we are also completely safe.
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW with the L.A. Times, Mr. Nolan said he went back to the first appearance of the Joker in the 1940 comic, who simply appeared without a backstory and set about destruction, showing up without warning like the shark in Jaws. “You don’t care where the shark came from,” Mr. Nolan said. “You don’t care who the shark’s parents were.”
Two other recent movies employed a similar trick when they set out to scare: Funny Games, the Naomi Watts shot-by-shot U.S. redo of Michael Haneke’s 1997 thriller, and The Strangers, a small-budget runaway hit starring Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler. In both cases, a couple is tortured and terrorized by captors who never reveal why they’re doing it (in fact, both films even poke fun at the audience’s desire for an explanation), except that their victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Horror master Stephen King wrote in praise of smaller films like The Strangers resisting Hollywood’s habit of shoving a “what’s it all mean” explanation of a killer’s actions down the audience’s throats (his grandma locked him in a closet! his daddy never loved him!) in his July 11th Entertainment Weekly column: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”
“The idea of giving a reason or motive helps an audience say, ‘Well, that could never happen to me,’” said The Strangers writer-director Bryan Bertino. “It’s a very hard thing for people to deal with the idea that bad things happen for no reason.” He pointed to the Son of Sam killings that panicked New Yorkers in the 1970s. “What was so scary was the idea that you could simply just be in a car and someone could just walk up and fire a gun inside it. That’s what terrified the city.
“I think throughout American history, movies often echo what is going on politically and economically. Unfortunately, with war and terrorism, this is another time when people feel powerless,” Mr. Bertino continued. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. These fears … sometimes people gravitate to seeing them in a cinematic way.” Which would certainly explain the runaway success of The Strangers, which raked in over four times its modest, under-$10 million budget, as well as the inexorable pull on seemingly every New Yorker toward The Dark Knight.
“The cinema has always been a machine that allows us that kind of fantasy play that we don’t normally have,” echoed Mr. Thomson. “It’s a persuasive, lifelike dream form, and it coincides historically with both the breakdown of formal religions and the clear demonstration of a wonderful world where people do terrible, terrible things. When you put all these things together, it’s not really terribly surprising that there’s something that is interested in saying, I wonder if I could do something as bad as that? As dark as that? When movies began it was, can I be as brave as that? Can I be as virtuous as that? True as that? That’s still there—there are still characters like that,” he said. “But the dark has come in.”
Executive producer Mr. Uslan remembers watching televised footage of the Berlin wall coming down and seeing one East German crawl through to historic freedom while wearing a Batman T-shirt. Of the audience excitement for The Dark Knight almost 20 years later, he said, “It’s happening again,” crediting Mr. Nolan’s development of the material and the technology that backs it up. “What Chris has done, he’s made a movie that you cannot say is a great comic-book movie. You must just say this is a great film. Period. That’s the core difference.
“For the last thirty years, I’ve been wanting to see this dark and serious Batman,” he said. “It’s the vindication of the journey of my life. If it was Superman, it would be wrong. This is the true spirit of Batman. This is the way he was always supposed to be.”