The Dark Knight returns us happily to the dark and brooding bachelor life of Bruce Wayne. It also envelopes us in Batman’s battle for the soul of Gotham. It is this battle, and not the villains’ schemes, that nearly defeats the Dark Knight. Bruce’s most trusted confidante, Alfred, calls him to endure. It is not about defeating the villains but enduring the battle. Gotham is skittish with fear and on the brink of self-destruction. The people of Gotham need only a gentle push into chaos and they will destroy each other.
This is the story behind both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. Gotham isn’t just a setting for a story but a central character with a soul in the Batman epic. It’s a city on the verge of collapse because it is so corrupt. Batman’s battle is to shore up the corruption before it bursts upon the city unobstructed.
In Batman Begins, the Scarecrow is scheming to contaminate the already-corrupt minds of the people of Gotham. By polluting the water supply, he intends to draw out each person’s darkest fears and allow them in their hallucinations to kill each other and themselves to relieve those fears.
Batman not only has to stave off the Scarecrow’s schemes but Raj al-Ghoul appears on the scene with his own. To him, Gotham has become corrupt beyond rescue and so powerful that it will ruin the world, which follows after it. Raj al-Ghoul concludes that the only way to renew humanity is to remove its heart, Gotham. Batman still believes in Gotham though, and by his endurance, Gotham lives to see a new day.
In The Dark Knight, we descend again into this Gotham, corrupted inside and out and living in fear. The Joker is a sort of social scientist, recognizing these traits of fear and corruption in the people of Gotham and seeking to aggravate them so that they can run their full course and destroy each other. This is most evident with the ferry boat scenario. Yet, as Batman believes, so the criminal and the civilian aboard their boats prove: The people of Gotham, the heart of humanity, the hearts of people are not corrupt but, finally, good.
Still, against this we have Gotham’s amazingly good-looking District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent is the first ray of real hope “in decades” Batman says. The city calls him “the white knight.” He is “the dawn”—just before which the night is darkest. But just as Alfred had urged Bruce to endure the heart-aching battle, Dent needed someone to encourage him to persevere. But Dent’s hospital visitor was The Joker—who filled Dent’s mind with twisted logic, appealing to Dent’s vengeance-filled heart. Without Alfred’s words, Batman could have been ruined just as quickly (didn’t he too lose his Rachel Dawes?). Tough words from a trusted friend are worth more than a thousand praises.
Dent’s quest for justice isn’t eliminated but corrupted. He twists justice by taking it into his own hands—not so unlike our hero—tracking down mob bosses and Commissioner Gordon’s own family to avenge the death of the one he loved. He’s convinced by The Joker that it wasn’t The Joker who killed her, even though he set the house of cards to fall that way.
And that is The Joker’s scheme throughout the movie: to create impossible scenarios and allow the corruption of the city—that is, the hearts of people—implode on itself. I wonder if The Joker looking for more people like himself—ugly and corrupt, destructive and heartless. And yet, the city is still standing by the end of the movie. Is this a testament to the good people of Gotham? Does it champion the virtue of endurance? Why does fear and corruption persist in Gotham? The Dark Knight offers its own conclusions, but don't let it decide for you.