The rest of it may be a novelization in action, but The Dark Knight has at least one image, one shot for the ages. Heck, it's so good it is even in the trailer, but here's a description anyway: Heath Ledger as the Joker, recently escaped from jail, riding in the back of a criminally commandeered cop car, head of frizzled, nappy green hair sticking out the window enjoying the sense of the wind like a dog, elaborate Joker-dandy get-up functionally rolled up at the sleeves, the camera bolted to the car's hood so that as it swerves around the road it is the car and the Joker that remain stable as the city of Gotham twists unwieldy in the background. The power on display, the criminal subversion, his successful glee, all are simple, direct, and disturbing.
For a movie that wants to explain every damned thing on its mind, from the vigilante morality of Batman to the urban terror "anarchy" of the Joker, here thank God, is an honest-to-goodness snippet of cinema: brutal, moving, feeling, expressing images. But it's not just that, not just a moment of expression in a movie up to its gills in Things To Say About the World We Live In; no. Here is the film's greatest inspiration boiled down to a single shot: the mad villain "scheme," if you will, of the Joker is the spread of irrational, low-budget, do-it-yourself urban terrorism. Of a small, barely organized and only tangentially connected group of insurgents terrorizing a population through elaborate, small scale plans carried out seemingly irrationally in a manner to undermine public security, increase distrust and paranoia, and inspire in the government severe, reactionary military responses.
Such a evocation of ultra-modern tactics of terror is alarming, most especially in the relative realism which is conjured up inside the film's comicbook frame. But this power to disturb is severely tempered with The Dark Knight's frustration with and contempt for the audience; the Nolan brothers' screenplay goes to great lengths to explain all this to us in words. Yet, if we give the The Dark Knight one thing, let's at least admit that within its abysmally directed, horrendously edited, grossly over-written bulk there is a great deal of meat on the bone, even if that meat has the repeated propensity to turn around, look at its gluttonous consumer, and describe to them the very flavors they are tasting in their mouth at that moment.
But getting back to our image, it is one of relief for our nouvelle terrorist, an impression of the glee and pleasure of terrorism, a momentary glimpse of joy and triumph for some criminal to have not just craftily escaped prison and absconded with the police vehicle, but in the implications of all the above. The Joker is breathing in the smell of victory of having co-opted government and social institutions for his own means, using media, the police, and Batman to create a spiraling vortex of instability and uncertainty, and he has done all through conventional violence, not fantastical machines and outlandish absurdities. This is a villain who works with dynamite, small machine pistols, 1970s-era RPGs, and creepy anonymous masks—no super villainy here, just a violent man in the back seat of a police car he has commandeered to take him to freedom, to plan another random act of violence, to inspire the city on a scale Batman never can, pushing them towards distrust and immorality, panic and fear.
So if one thing survives this hulking wreckage of a movie, aside from, and let's give it points here even within its directorial ineptitude, that great tone of grim despair reminiscent, as in Nolan's also mediocre Batman Begins, of 1970s American cinema, it is indeed Heath Ledger's tremendous portrait of exaggerated but by no means implausible terrorism, the idiosyncratic, ingeniously opaque, entirely effective insurgent. That his charismatic, lascivious performance makes him appealing, that the brute simplicity of his actions seem delivered with a clear stroke in a film (and film world) as cloudy as a rainy day, makes for another interesting discussion. But for now let's say that a single idea, expressed cinematically, can stand so strongly on its own, that no matter what film surrounds it, it will have the power to live on long after everyone forgets the movie itself.