Quietly, assuredly, Christian Bale gives a fascinating portrait to Bruce Wayne’s moral and spiritual crisis in The Dark Knight. Last time around, fatherly confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) warned Bruce he was “getting lost in this monster”; Bale seems to have run with this line. A year on, Bruce has subsumed every facet of his life into the War on Crime/Corruption: through his company and CEO/gadgeteer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he fakes merger talks with an exec who launders mob money, in order to get a look at their finances; he arranges a fundraiser for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), apparent savior to Gotham, through his high society connections; of course, as Batman, he pummels mobsters and helps the police get around pesky jurisdiction laws. This obsessive-compulsive, dominant behavior plays out in the (mostly) improved fight scenes: fists guarding his head, Bruce directs attackers to his ribs, catching them with elbow counterattacks before using them as human battering rams. Gadgets are always placed in advance of actual need. Bruce, then, is an extension of Bale the actor, compartmentalized in body language and vocalization at all times (going into a Terminator mode when a thug gets in his way en route to a costume change). He’s a performance put on to distract everyone. Bruce will let the mask slip in the presence of his tiny social circle–a chuckle when Alfred gives a well-timed “told you so”, or expressing fears to friend/would-be lover Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). The rest of the time, though? He’s in control.
That is, until a psychotic clown shows up and starts blowing everything up.
Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan defines Bruce by his relationships to the men around him: he looks up to Alfred and Fox, trusts Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), appointed as head of Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, and wishes to be Dent (not least of which because he is the preferred rival for Rachel’s affections). Then there’s the Joker (Heath Ledger): a conniving, nasal-voiced madman who frustrates any attempt to pin ideology onto him, shifting the goal posts (and his origins) depending on who he is having a conversation with–chaos the sole motif. He has no civilian identity, either, nothing human to tether him. The Joker is what awaits Bruce if he loses to the monster.
Tellingly, the Joker is the only person, other than Alfred and Rachel, Batman loses his cool with. In a fluorescent-lit interrogation room, Joker tells him both Harvey and Rachel have been abducted and will be murdered. Rage boils over. The Bat smacks the clown’s head against glass, then starts punching him harder, harder. Hans Zimmer’s electric, buzzing score raises in pitch. Batman’s “one rule”–the oath against killing–might be broken. Earlier, when Gordon is shot, Batman breaks a mobster’s legs before realizing he’s going too far; the only thing stopping him in that interrogation room is a time limit. The result is tragic: Rachel dies; Harvey becomes scarred, vengeful Two-Face.
Outside those moments, Bruce tries to understand, if not empathize, insisting on figuring out Joker’s motives. Given another chance to break the rule, he saves the villain from death, saying he should be “in a padded cell,” preferring laws which grant leniency to the mentally ill over vengeance. This follows on from two previous strands: the affinity Bruce has for the poor and downtrodden in Batman Begins, and the way he steps in to save one of Joker’s henchman (a paranoid schizophrenic) from enhanced interrogation. Mistakes made and lessons learned, he sets about mending the damage–preventing SWAT from killing hostages and buying time for Gotham citizens to choose empathy over the Joker’s dog-eat-dog worldview.
Unfortunately, by this point, Bruce’s compounded anger and fear–of losing himself, his love, his humanity–lead him to cross a number of lines. Aside from the vigilantism and torture, he’s engaged in kidnapping and spied on Gotham citizens. By the time he’s foiled Joker and caught wind of Two-Face’s murder spree, there’s no turning back. Violence and terror have reached a fever pitch. Only one option for de-escalation: let the monster win, then cast him out.