In most ways, The Dark Knight is a truly spectacular film. It is certainly the best Batman film ever made (better even than the animated Mask of the Phantasm), and one of the best superhero movies ever made. Almost every character in the film has great characterization and development.
But on the female characters, it gets a big fat zero.
In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) serves as the love interest, yes, but was still an active character. She dedicated her life to fighting crime as much as Bruce did, out of her own committment to justice. Her actions as an assistant D.A. were crucial to exposing Crane’s criminal connections, and she takes Crane out by herself. At the end, she refuses to become romantically involved with Bruce on her own initiative. While she suffers from many of the problems common to female characters in film, she still emerged as a strong character.
Sadly, despite being recast with the more capable Maggie Gyllenhaal, the Rachel Dawes of The Dark Knight is unrecognizable as a character. She exists solely to motivate Batman and Harvey Dent. Here role as an assistant D.A.? Completely ignored, as she mostly stands around looking worried while Harvey does heroic D.A. stuff. Anyone who hadn’t seen Batman Begins would have no idea that she had a job at all, much less that she was the one person in the D.A.’s office that Batman and Jim Gordon know they can trust.
There’s some discussion early on between Batman and Jim Gordon about whether they can trust Harvey Dent. Neither brings up the obvious point: “Well, we trust Rachel Dawes, who works with him and is dating him, and so presumably would be very well positioned to make such a judgment.” Nope. I guess this is something that men have to decide.
So for the first act or so, Rachel functions solely as Love Triangle Girl. Then, of course, she becomes a Distressed Damsel and has to be rescued by Batman. Now, I can deal with the hero having to rescue the love interest once per movie, preferably under different circumstances, so at this point The Dark Knight is well ahead of the “save Hostage Girl Mary Jane from falling”-fest that was the Spider-Man film series.
Then, yes, Rachel is kidnapped and tied up next to a time bomb. As is Harvey, with Batman given only enough time to save one. At this point I’m still willing to give the film a pass, because of the equal-opportunity hostage crisis. But while Batman saves Harvey (mostly), Gordon fails to get to Rachel on time, and…
Refrigerators: 1, Women: 0.
Actually, I suppose that should count as two points for the refrigators, since thanks to the love triangle Rachel’s death serves to motivate both Batman and Harvey. In fact, Rachel’s death, rather than his disfigurement, is made the primary factor behind Harvey’s transformation into Two-Face. In short, she has a bigger effect on the plot dead than alive.
After the awesomeness of Pepper Potts in Iron Man, I was irritated greatly by the cliche and underused female characters of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but The Dark Knight makes that film look progressive. It’s a huge stain on an otherwise phenomenal movie.