I’ve been holding off on writing about The Dark Knight for some time. It’s impact on American culture can hardly be overstated but for a long time it just felt too close to home to tackle head on. It wasn’t until I rewatched the old Tim Burton Batman of 1989 that it started to click. Heath Ledger’s Joker, while original and alluring (most of all for succeeding in capturing that ever sought after and highly profitable “zeitgeist”) is not that difficult to understand. When compared to Jack Nickolson’s Joker of 89, our new and more nerve-touching Joker is another beast entirely – even if many of his defining scenes are ripped right out of the old. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer attempt to put their version of Batman and the Joker in a real city and act out real contemporary political issues but, in spite of its resounding success, The Dark Knight is mired in War on Terror ideology and will remain frozen in that time. Their placement of Batman in a real world Gotham only diminishes his fantastic potential of visualizing and story-fying our unconscious desires.
The joker is supposed to be a sort of reflection of Batman’s psyche. Where Batman is serious, the Joker is playful; where Batman an agent of order, the Joker chaos. Batman is not supposed to laugh, he is supposed to keep his city safe from crime and the forces of evil with a single-minded devotion. The Joker takes that attitude and flips it around to show the opposite side of human nature: the urge to indulge in our secret, immoral desires. The Joker commits murderous violence with glee where Batman pursues his capture with monk-like devotion. He takes them to the extreme just as Batman does only he relishes in the pure joy of stirring up trouble, like the young boy rebelling against his parents. The Nolan and Goyer movies do a good job of setting up this binary only to tear it down and show that the Joker has ulterior motives besides holding up a stained mirror to Batman. The only problem is that it has been done before. It’s the same the classic tale where the good guy’s motives are more pure, despite being roughed up a bit along the way. Burton’s Batman is, by contrast, basically two ego trips in a sandbox-city.
Tim Burton’s Batman is set in a Gotham that bristles with over-developed industrial capacity. Its grimy streets always appear in a never-ending forest of drab buildings that belong in a child’s imagination. The wide shots of Gotham’s streets are enhanced by a painted backdrop that suggests more buildings, more factories, more city. The set for this consciously over-stylized Batman evokes Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the fantasy of an American city whose corruption grows apace with its heavy industry. The grand finale of this comic-opera (sorry I couldn’t help myself, it is very operatic) culminates in a battle between the Joker and Batman atop a cathedral so high that one wonders if they have actually reached the heavens to deliver their dialogue. They jostle over who created who and, in a more hyperbolic/conceptual way, who is responsible for the plague of crime afflicting their great city. The whole movie seems so fantastically over-stylized, with Danny Elfman’s score soaring high for the more poignant moments and the set design reminiscent of other cartoon-cum-reality movies of the period like Dick Tracy, that the viewer forgets what time period this is supposed to take place in. Whats more, the Joker is actually kind of funny – he makes jokes. And if you’re not laughing, Jack Nicholson is doing plenty of laughing for you (seriously, he’s like a one-man laugh-track for a sit-com).
In contrast, our new Joker is out to make a serious point about human nature. Heath Ledger doesn’t really play his Joker as a reveler in the deed. His actions are all built up through an elaborate plan that snowballs fast forward – as if there was kernel of truth in the middle and all he had to do was kick it down the hill and it would roll up bigger and faster. The kernel is supposed to be an essential quality of humanity; he didn’t cause any of the chaos, he wants you to believe, he just gave Gotham citizens a little push to realize their true nature. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a philosopher out to make a point. He’s basically Thomas Hobbes mixed with a little pop-Nietzsche (meaning a misinterpreted Nietzsche). This is what captivated so many viewers back in 2008 – the same year there was a giant financial crash and the bewildered populace was wondering, without resolution, how, why, and what just happened. Granted this coincidence was just that: a coincidence that could not have been foreseen to line up so perfectly with a superhero film. That such an admittedly good movie came out at the same time as one of the greatest American crises was unfolding is one of those once-in-a-lifetime, reality-meets-fiction, chance occurrences. And Nolan and Goyer didn’t pass up on the opportunity that had befallen them either: their next movie to come after The Dark Knight in The Dark Knight Rises seized on the previous movie’s resonance and rounded out a trilogy that was all-but a foregone conclusion. It came out just in time for the popular response to the great 2008 financial crisis to finally see its day. It was about revolution, demagoguery, and dynastic revival. And it was terrible.
This caused such a stir that some of the big guns of the left weighed in on it. Zizek [Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City] seemed to offer an apology for Bane’s revolutionary love with Graeber [Batman and the problem of constituent power] remarking on the film’s jumbled incoherence. I won’t go into The Dark Knight Rises but this trilogy deserves a full treatment in its political ideology, so these essays are a good start. I’ll just say for now that the first Nolan and Goyer film in Batman Begins is one of my favorite superhero movies and things only go downhill from there.
But before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to point out how impossible these movies would have been without the resounding success of Tim Burton’s Batman. It dazzled. It’s pacing was perfect. It’s dark-gothic tone was well maintained from start to finish. It felt so removed from reality. The entire movie boils down to a battle of egos at the sky-scrapping-cathedral heights of city-power. The Joker is primarily motivated by resentment at Batman stealing his press attention. Having already consolidated power in the crime world (a feat that could have easily happened without him becoming a cartoon-character) the Joker invades Gotham’s television programs to announce that he is even more flamboyant than Batman (who only wants to remain in the shadows and scare criminals). By the end of the movie, they are left alone atop that impossibly high cathedral with the police sealed off from the entrance. In the end, it was only a duel between the lord-protector of the great city on the verge of collapse and the parading lunatic who would rule it without concern for the people’s moral constitution. The battle took place in the mind of a child but it could resonate within the mind of an aspiring civil servant grown up into a position in government bureaucracy. It’s tone and demeanor would be repeated for years to come in Batman: The Animated Series (which was excellent for X years mind you, an era-defining cartoon).
As nearly 20 years went by and a new iteration of Batman and the Joker was ripe for the telling, here comes this portrayal of the Joker that didn’t just shock his audience – he made us think. He seems to so effortlessly drag Gotham down into a spiral of violence that we forget that all of his actions are very well executed hits that progressively take him up the crime latter into boss-of-the-city status. Oh wait, Jack Nicholson’s Joker did that too… before the mid-way point of the movie. But Heath Ledger’s Joker appears on tv to issue his demands directly to Gotham’s population and spread a general affect of fear all throughout… and so did the old Joker. The only difference is that Ledger’s Joker uses his image to create a sense of panic, setting up the conditions for him to prove his point about human nature. Nicholson’s Joker only wants to be more famous than Batman, steal his love interest (though he doesn’t know it), and become new kind of deranged avant-garde artist: “I’m the world’s first fully homicidal artist.” His relationship with Batman comes closest to Lex Luthor’s with Superman: atop the city as its primary power-broker he finds this mythical challenger to his reign and subsequently makes it his personal obsession to defeat it. This is the true battle for the soul of the American city contra Ledger’s Joker’s quote in his last scene: how will the titans of this metropolis manage their city? This is one of those perennial questions that permits superheros to replay their struggles over and over again in a fantasy city, locked in a never-ending battle for good civic governance.
With Nolan and Goyer we get national and even international politics on display in this less-than fantastic Gotham City. The Joker is a terrorist blowing up hospitals and burning up giant stacks of American dollars. Batman flies to China to abduct a shady CEO setting up the movie’s global aspirations. He uses the vast technological laboratories at his disposal to create a surveillance network that can spy on every person in Gotham. He does this all under the pretense of stopping the terrorist-Joker. It seems that this version of the Joker is so dastardly that we need hand over our constitutional rights to stop him. The allusion is so obvious that we don’t need to wonder how Heath Ledger’s Joker touched that wider social nerve; the issue of terrorism and how the US military would fight it, and how many liberties we would sacrifice to fight it, was the hot button issue of the day. This Joker is supposed to justify our continued involvement military escalation, though Bruce Wayne was already demonstrating privacy-invasion behavior very early on in the movie. In an unbelievable scene at the end of the movie, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises (where all the high-tech military equipment is manufactured) Lucius Fox consents to using a near-total spying weapon to find the Joker – but only this one time (*wink). The machine is shown short-circuiting or being destroyed, as if now that the terrorist threat has been eliminated the powers granted both by and for this corporation in the military-industrial complex would disappear when the threat was apprehended. You could forgive me for noting that similar powers actually exist in the real world by a government agency at the time of this writing, as revealed by Edward Snowden, because this Batman story is supposed to exist in a mirror image to our world and not some fairy tale.
All of this lends a greater weight to the question of who or what Nolan and Goyer or Heath Ledger’s Joker is. On the IMDB websites list of top-rated movies of all time, The Dark Knight sits at an absurdly high rating of 4th. Nobody would agree that this list is definitive of any universal standard, but a widely viewed statistical agglomeration of critics and user reviews has decided that this is the 4th best movie of all-time. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that a great deal of people learned how to conceptualize these problems revolving around liberty, violence, and power from movies these days. This is only to remark on how fascinated a large segment of the population of America became with this character. The Joker purposefully layers his motivations throughout the movie with misdirections and visible lies that string along the viewer into anticipating the moment when his true intentions are revealed. The greatest trick that Nolan and Goyer pulled on their audience is convincing them that their Joker is some spirit of chaos and destruction. This is only the public image that he cultivates in his quest for the ultimate power of the city (both of our Jokers do this and that is fine, from this polemical character study standpoint, but it’s only a stepping-stone to a very different end). In fact, he is out to prove his theoretical point about human nature. Nicholson’s Joker only wants to replace Batman’s star. Ledger’s Joker is not the fictional embodiment of chaos that we want him to be, he doesn’t even look like he’s having fun with his rise to power. If you’re not inclined to agree with me on this point just rewatch The Dark Knight and then Burton’s Batman and answer me which Joker is basking in the pure joy of his actions and which one is methodically acting out a preconceived plan with a fair amount of scholarly detachment.
The point is that Nolan and Goyer fairly explicitly give their Joker an ultimate purpose by the films end and audiences still perceive him as a kind of mythical symbol of chaos. When the Joker predicts the boats will explode by the decisions of the citizens stuck on them and nothing happens, he looks defeated. Batman doesn’t beat him up on this rooftop of an undeveloped building (presumably, by me, having its construction halted in the wake of the financial collapse), it is the innate goodness of the citizens that demonstrate their selflessness and prove his “social experiment” (direct quote) wrong that win the day. The Joker reveals his intentions to Batman in what closely resembles a torture scene: “Their morals their “code,” it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. I’ll show ya, when the chips are down, these “civilized people” they’ll eat each other. You see I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” In another scene, someone accuses him of being crazy and he flatly says right back to him, “No, I’m not.” It’s all right there in the film’s script and he is telling us that he is not some wild child of chaos but a man out to prove something.
This Joker wants demonstrate the virility or corruption buried within humanity if you take away all of the securities afforded by civilized city life. His stripping away of those support beams of laws and institutions is supposed prove that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” like Thomas Hobbes. The strange thing about this movie is that this logic was used to justify absolute monarchy, that people couldn’t manage their own affairs or take part in governing themselves and so needed a strong leader to unify them. The Joker uses it in the opposite direction, not to change the structure of governance or become an authority figure himself but prove a point to Batman. Presumably, and now I’m just riffing, Batman is supposed to realize that he is the right man to follow through the Joker’s revelation and seize power himself; after all, he is the most capable man in the city with his the wealth, resources, and family name to run it and as a vigilante he already answers to nobody. Does the Joker simply want Batman to be the King of Gotham?
Hold on, wait a minute, why would the Joker want Batman to be the king when he himself has been called “the crown prince of crime?” Isn’t he seeking that kind of power himself? But then, why burn up all the money? Does the Joker think that he can rule the city by blowing things up in spectacles of fear? Or maybe he only wants to rule the criminal underworld? What makes this hard to maintain is the “torture scene.” When pushed by Batman into telling him his motives, the Joker says “I don’t want to kill you! [this being one his more genuine moments of laughter in the whole film] What would I do without you!… You complete me.” So besting Batman in a fight and gaining power is not the Joker’s motivation in The Dark Knight. He only wants to make a point and to Batman primarily.
So, is this whole movie a kind of bromance between Batman and the Joker? Their scenes together are oddly intimate. Torture is very hands on and has been widely noted to end in a kind of sexual relationship as noted in the very first James Bond novel. Batman raced towards the Joker in his motorcycle with the Joker’s encouragement only to veer off at the last second, and in their last scene together the Joker is on top of Batman getting ready for the big show, only later to suggest that they share a cell together. The Joker’s end game is still just to make a theoretical point but his plan is so carefully laid out that there must be something else that begs on after he has seized power in the criminal underworld. That he would work his way so methodically into the position of power that he has only to exist as a foil just doesn’t make sense. The Joker is urging Batman to throw off the pretenses, stop worrying about killing people, and make the most of his vast powers: the Joker wants Batman to be a king.
A king’s court is where a jester can find employment. His function is to tell jokes but also veiled truths covered by fancy word games. As a jester, one can slip in advice or council that serious advisers couldn’t otherwise say but as entertainment. Comedians operate in this way in our contemporary society as truth-tellers who can get away with scandalous statements under the pretense that they are telling a joke. As an aside, the actor who played Batman throughout Nolan and Goyer’s trilogy was Christian Bale, the same actor who ten years later played Dick Cheney in the 2018 Vice detailing the Vice President’s rise to un-presidented (sorry, again I couldn’t help myself) power right about the same time this movie was being made. No man has ever had as much power as Dick Cheney during his time in the presidential cabinet from roughly 2002-2008. Not any previous president, not any king, not any emperor in the history of mankind. That is a true statement; watch the movie or read a history book. America is by far the most powerful nation the earth has ever seen and Cheney could operate more effectively than single person before him. He is not a funny man.
You can see how far we have come, within one very famous fictional character, from a battle of egos in civic management to the ultimate justification for the reigns of power in a state. To add absurdity upon absurdity, I could evoke the camp Adam West Batman as a further contrast. What happened to Batman? Or is the better question, what happened to us that we would take this character for our era-defining morality plays?
At this point I want to again highlight the contrast between the two Jokers. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is fully willing and capable of running the city on his own with his gang of henchman. What’s more he invades news broadcasts at his pleasure and parades through main street at the top of a float. He tosses out money into an exuberant crowd who seem to have forgotten that he bragged about poisoning hundreds of people with his synthetic daily products. Gotham’s citizens are hopelessly corrupt already, they clamor for his money and no crowds come to oppose him. The entire movie itself demonstrates how every layer of Gotham is corrupt from the top down, with the new district attorney and police commissioner fighting a losing battle against the alliance of industrial might and organized crime. This is the proper way to conceptualize Gotham and justify the need for a civic-savior in Batman.
The Dark Knight portrays its citizens of Gotham as scared and timid. They panic at a moments’ notice and flee danger in a swarm of fear. Though totally unable to make a decision on their own or behave orderly in a crisis, at heart they are good people who don’t wish to harm each other. This is supposed to be shown in the climax of the movie when the boats don’t blow up. Easily frightened yet good-natured, not greedy and corrupt, is how Nolan and Goyer want us to see the citizens of their metropolis.
This is why I remarked above just how well depicted Tim Burton’s Gotham was back in 1989. The organization of a city, its distribution of power, the level of poverty, the amount of violence does effect the virtue of its citizens. Gotham’s landscape is so overbearing that it envelopes its people as they move about. Whether the ultimate authority of a city resides in the hands of the many, the wealthy few, or a king does effect the constitution of its people. This is what early republican radicals understood when they discovered classical literature from Rome: one cannot be free without free constitution, a citizen cannot truly have liberty if they don’t live in a free society. Batman’s gothic look, his creepy design and his use of fear are a constant reminder that the people of Gotham have been woefully corrupted by their city.
Our new Batman merely stops the Joker’s plan by letting the goodness of the people show itself to the Joker in the absence of the conditions of panic. Batman only has to stop the Joker individually and eliminate the fear that he has brought on to let the people be themselves. In contrast, when Tim Burton’s Batman kills the Joker he destroys the power structure that he has created along with him. No longer will the city be run by a hierarchical gang who rules through organized violence, or a quasi-fascist mob-rule with its irreverent art. Nolan and Goyer have Batman escalate his use of power (surveillance, over-stepping his jurisdiction, etc.) to stop the singular threat of the terrorist. This is why he becomes the Dark Knight (“the hero Gotham deserves”) but must go into hiding as a hunted outcast. He is both at the top of the city (“…a silent guardian, a watchful protector…”) and not of the city or outside of the city (“Is Wayne manor within the city-limits?” asks Harvey Dent). This is the same logic applied to a king.
The Dark Knight doesn’t rule Gotham as a king of course. This is merely what the Joker is pushing him towards. He has enough to power to watch over it from the shadows and absorb its citizen’s ire for the state of their corrupt city. That this new Batman is rightfully vilified but remains hovering over the city nonetheless indicates that we, the audience of the movie, should learn to appreciate our billionaire handlers and loosen up on all of the criticism. After all, they are keeping us safe from the terrorists and allow us to show off our good hearts on occasion. Nolan and Goyer are telling us that the citizens of Gotham (a much more realistic version of the city than any before it) should leave the question of who holds the power of the city to rich people in the shadows; they may have wealth and power far beyond yours and you can hate them all you want, they may not be telling us the truth or appear in public to state their positions or give voice to their ambitions, but they watch over your city and keep you from behaving like an unruly mob.
This last part about truth-telling is perhaps the most egregious feature of The Dark Knight. In Batman’s final lines of the film, he says “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more, sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Then he runs away. The people of Gotham will now go on believing a lie and pinning all of the blame for their city’s corruption on him in order to keep moving along with their lives. This will grant the justification for Harvey Dent’s crusade against crime while nothing fundamentally changes. The police, and maybe Batman if he’s needed in covert situations, will continue rooting out crime in Gotham while the people will go on believing that Batman is one of those criminals. He is in reality immune from criticism or a challenge to his power and the masses are deceived to complete this immunity.
All of these recent quotes are pulled out of the final scene where all of the various threads of the movie are tied together and Hans Zimmer’s music thunders behind Commissioner Gordon and Batman’s speech. He rides off on his high-tech motorcycle chased by the police dogs and the curtain falls as we see the title of the movie: The Dark Knight. This scene has no doubt touched the hearts of a great many viewers and it was pulled off effectively. It can be compared with Tim Burton’s final scene of Batman as he stands on top of a building looking out at the city with his bat-signal blazing in the sky. There too a majestic score thunders behind but there is no speech from Batman. Both are excellent movie endings but when Batman killed the Joker by strapping a gargoyle to his leg he rid the city of much more than pesky terrorist with a penchant for explosives. He brought down the entire edifice of the Joker’s criminal industry, an industry that actually controls a great deal of the city’s functions. Both movies are about a battle for the soul of the great American city but it is in Tim Burton’s Batman that the soul of the city is confined to that city in all of its character defining power. Both Batman and the Joker are products of the fantasy city of Gotham, as are its citizens. When their battle for how Gotham will be governed goes national and even international, it becomes an apology for unfettered authoritarian rule based on lies.
One could reply that all of this rests within Batman as a character from the get-go. He is rich, shadowy, and mostly beats up criminals drawn to the life possibly out of necessity in a perpetually rotten city. But he is also the world’s greatest detective who moves about the criminal underworld to reach its mover’s and shakers. Every Batman is trying to clean up his city but Nolan and Goyer’s Batman and Joker seem to transcend it and follow the red herring of the innately goodness or badness of human nature. When superheros are let loose from their environment, the abstractions they deal with can become a startling rationalization for the worst kind of rule: totalitarian. This is precisely the kind of rule that the 1989 Batman was fighting in his city. We can forgive him for channeling his inner Machiavelli, breaking his code, and choosing to kill in the final act to prevent this from happening. It is in decontextualizing people’s motives and removing them from their locations that we run into shocking justifications for abuses of power.
[As an afterward, to further dispel the mystique of The Dark Knight, I highly recommend reading Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween. It contains many of the same themes as the first two Nolan and Goyer movies and ranks among the greatest of Batman stories.]