… until now. Having watched the film again, I am now a believer: TDK is an awesome film of pure awesomeness.
Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is stylish, exciting, atmospheric, and loaded with great acting. Ledger has been heralded for the Joker, and rightly so, but Bale and especially Gary Oldman as Gordon are equally excellent.
Beyond its superior blockbuster bona fides, TDK is a deeply philosophical film, and pays proper homage to the complexities of the DC comics.
Some thoughts on the ethics of Batman: The Dark Knight:
There’s an interesting shift in Batman’s ethics from Batman Begins to TDK. In BB, Batman challenges Ra’s al Gul’s rather utilitarian view that the end justifies the means. Ra’s intends to destroy Gotham in order to produce a greater good. Civilisations which have sunk as deep as Gotham must be destroyed, irradiated mercilessly like a cancerous cell. Batman cannot follow Ra’s, preferring a more Kantian view of means as inherent ends. There are rules and moral people do not break them.
Batman’s own view is challenged by Batman himself at the beginning of TDK, if not directly but by his own actions, implicitly. Batman is a vigilante and operates outside of the law in order to do good. This is why the Gotham PD is officially (although not by Gordon) pursuing the Batman. The dangers inherent in operating outside of the law are observed by Batman who has to deal not only with the criminals, but several copy-cat Batmen were are inspired by him and dress up to fight crime. Batman is not following Kant’s Categorical Imperative: if he is not willing for everyone to be a vigilante, he should not be one either.
It is perhaps because of this — the legal and moral chaos his own good actions threaten — that leads Bruce Wayne/Batman to champion Harvey Dent, the white knight DA. Dent offers a morality within the system, providing the hope for Gotham that Batman can never give.
Enter the Joker. The brilliance of Ledger’s character is that “Joker” is intended in a sense beyond the pantomimical. He’s a spoiler, with a goal to wreck not only what is good but also what is thought of as good, hence his cruelty towards Dent, the awful social experiment with the boats, and the relish with which he goads Batman to let people die for utilitarian ends.
The Joker wants to demonstrate that there is no morality. Certainly there are indications that he is right: Dent succumbs to the dark side and Batman is forced to shoulder the blame for Dent’s sins in order to allow the people their (failed) Messiah. (Batman evidently believes in Elder Oaks’s mantra: Some things, though true, are not useful.)
But it’s not all nihilism: people are good (cf. the boats). And Batman eventually returns to the rules which set him apart from Ra’s. He does not kill the Joker, preferring instead to hand him over to the law.