The Joker

The last 15 years has seen a resurgence in the popularity of comic book superhero movies. X-Men, Spiderman, Daredevil, Superman, Elektra, Catwoman, Ironman, Fantastic Four, Blade, Hellboy, The Hulk, and of course: Batman. Batman has always been a somewhat unique superhero: he lacks any sort of superpowers. He isn’t a mutant, a demon, or a vampire. He is, like Ironman, a billionaire–but even Tony Stark’s Ironman getup is essentially a superpower in the form of technology. Now, Batman has sophisticated technology too (like a utility belt!), but this post isn’t about Batman, so we’ll just leave this here.

I bring this up because most of these films rely negligibly, if at all, on the “super” aspects of their heroes, and I contend would have been cop movies or military movies or Bruce Willis movies if they had been made ten years earlier: same stories, same motivations, same basic characters, only instead of “spidey sense” we would have just had Bruce Willis knowing when to turn around and punch a dude.  Uncle Ben is murdered and so Peter Parker starts working out and joins the force–years later, he confronts the mob boss behind the crime syndicate responsible. His Aunt is murdered along the way. J. Jonah Jameson writes about police brutality. Mary Jane can’t know the details about his job. I mean–it’s already a cop movie, just with more upside-down kisses.

More importantly than the superheroes, however, are the supervillains. In these movies, what are they intent on? Military supremacy, world domination, and corporate earnings are traditional goals. Frequently, the quests for military supremacy and corporate earnings tip the villains over the edge to super villains as they lose their minds (eg, Norman Osborn turning into the Green Goblin). Of course, Michael Corleone already trod similar ground: he sought the clean life, entered the marines during WWII, and ended up becoming the new Godfather anyway. So, once again, not much that requires the fantastic elements of the superhero plot–the story would work without them.

Why are these stories told as superheros stories instead of something else? The special effects are more exciting, the brand recognition is already there, etc. The film industry is fairly cyclical; ten years from now the superhero movie may be on the wane as sword-and-sandals flicks catch on again (or whatever).

Which brings me back to Batman. He already belongs, for all practical purposes, in the “real world”: Batman is (and has traditionally been) grounded in some sort of reality. He has his fists, his wits, and his vast wealth. The thing that makes Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight unique, then, is that despite its trappings of realism, it requires the fantastic superhero milieu to accept the Joker as a character. And because the film is about the Joker, the audience must accept him to move forward. In his own words, the Joker is an agent of chaos. This isn’t quite right however; his methods go beyond that. He understands the inherent contradictions in human nature, and has a knack for forcing people to grapple with the gap between the better person they’d like to be and the selfish animal they’re drawn to be.

This, in turn, necessitates the superhero setup as this Joker can’t exist in the “real world”. He doesn’t make sense. He would be a monster of mythic proportions. While terrorists have managed to commit similar acts of murder to those the Joker perpetrates, the real-world versions don’t tend to include the philosophical dilemmas that he poses. In the world of film, the closest we’ve seen to the Joker is in horror movies: he isn’t far removed from Hannibal Lecter.

The Joker, however, fills bigger shoes than a horror villain. Horror villains are pursued, caught, and punished according to the law. In The Dark Knight, the Joker specifically aims to pervert this process of justice. And he succeeds: Gotham’s “White Knight”, DA Harvey Dent, gets off his high horse and pursues vigilante violence. He is so wounded by the Joker’s attacks (both physically and mentally) that he rejects the rule of law and pursues retribution on his own. This rejection of society is captured through Two-Face’s corrupted conception of justice: he flips a coin to decide whether he will kill those he deems responsible for his loss. The justice system has regressed from one which relies on proving guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt to a clearly unfair system based on pure chance. Dent has gone from a paragon of the old system to the filthy exemplar of the new.

Nolan is well aware of the historical context in which his film was made. The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks are still fresh in the minds of Americans–as is America’s governmental reaction to invade Afghanistan (and later Iraq) and torture enemy combatants. The attacks themselves certainly felt like random, chaotic violence–the kind of thing the Joker might aim for. In the years to come, the military reaction devolved from an initial apparent reliance on traditional justice (for instance, demanding the Taliban surrender those responsible) to something all to akin to Harvey Dent’s descent into madness. And this is where The Dark Knight is different than, say, Superman: whereas Supes may stand for truth, justice, and the American way, the Batman film grapples substantially with the pitfalls of pursuing such a path. Our emotions may be overwhelming, but the cost to ourselves of abandoning our values is high.

Of course, The Dark Knight also has Batman, who is quite clearly willing to step off his horse and muck himself up. That he does this to keep society as a whole from doing so–and thereby protect it–doesn’t exonerate him. Nolan has a perfect opportunity to explore these issues in the third film, and indeed it appears that he plans to: Batman takes the blame for Dent’s rampage, meaning Gotham will be out for him. But that’s the subject for another post.

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4 thoughts on “The Joker

  1. Sweet post. I hope mine are as good.

    Of course, Michael Corleone already trod similar ground: he sought the clean life, entered the marines during WWII, and ended up becoming the new Godfather anyway.

    I like this point linked with your traditional motivations for villains. This helps illuminate, for me, the linkages that the movie does not make explicit: the connection between US world imperialism and Corleone’s quest at home. They are not so different.

    The justice system has regressed from one which relies on proving guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt to a clearly unfair system based on pure chance.

    I also tend to agree for pragmatic reasons rather than philosophical ones. What is lawful is not always just however (the difference between what is “right”—lawful, procedural—and what is often deemed “good”—just, moral—in Stanley Fish’s rhetoric), as the US “justice” system illustrates so well to the black community among others. I think a large portion of the world, locked up as they are by the current unjust system, would rather take their chances with chaos. That, of course, is a very sad state of affairs.

    …the military reaction devolved from an initial apparent reliance on traditional justice (for instance, demanding the Taliban surrender those responsible) to something all to akin to Harvey Dent’s descent into madness.

    Nice. That is all.

    A future post(s) of mine will seek to explore some of the inherent contradictions in human nature you mention as presented by Nolan’s two Batman films.

  2. The thing that makes Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight unique, then, is that despite its trappings of realism, it requires the fantastic superhero milieu to accept the Joker as a character. And because the film is about the Joker, the audience must accept him to move forward.

    I like this post, Devin. I regret not having commented earlier as to ride the wave following it. Given that I’m woefully ignorant of comics, the history of comics, and current manifestations of classical models of comics, I should try an interpretation for the legitimization of the Joker as a character that is not based on a superhero milieu.

    For me, Batman is the perfect simulacrum not for American virtue, but for America’s capacity to manage (or not) malignant forces. That is to say, rather than articulating the cumbersome lattice of municipal and military security services that would, in reality, respond to a threat such as Joker, the film condenses such services efficiently into Batman. This interpretation would account for both positive outcomes of engagement (namely, freedom from Joker’s tyranny) as well as unsavory ones (infrastructure damage in Gotham, loss of civil liberties). After all, Batman — like NATO forces and Congressmen — fucks up all the time, though we generally accept his utility.

    On the other hand, the Joker is the perfect simulacrum for malignant forces that America is unable to control or properly understand. Neither Batman nor the local police force are prepared to confront a villain whose objectives stem from some nonnative ideology. If the Joker requires a superhero milieu to perform his deeds, one could more easily forgive his monstrousness. For he is not one of us, he doesn’t play by our rules. But I left the movie, as I think many did, with a particular sense that the Joker is evil — a quality that requires, in the entity accused of evilness, a willingness to run counter to uniquely human principles that life is preferable to death, that peace is preferable to chaos. Only humans are evil, right?

    In short, the Joker’s disposition should not require a fanstatic backdrop. Nor should his methodology. The antagonist targets scenarios not codified in a social contract (such as who should die first, as in the boat scene) and exploits our absolute ill-preparedness to handle a situation for which law, and bodies that administer law, cannot furnish an appropriate answer. Enter the Joker, a lonely and insecure boss. Despite his acumen for disaster, the Joker fails to win the loyalty of his fellow goons. If not for Batman, he might not have an audience at all.

  3. Thanks for the response, James. I appreciate your extension of my view of the Joker, and I wholly agree with your statement that he is representative of the “malignant forces that America is unable to control or properly understand.” And I agree also that he is quite evil. However, I think the loathsome mobsters in the film are also fairly clearly evil. But the mobsters play by the “bad guy” rules: they are motivated by money, the police can chase them, they are people that everyone can relate to. Maybe most people would never follow in their footsteps, but I think the people of Gotham (and the viewers) can at least understand their motivations. And Lau’s. And Two-Face’s. Scarecrow was something of a psychopath, but we can understand that: he’s psychotic and doesn’t really have a firm grasp on reality, but even he was selling drugs for money.

    All of these other characters break the law, but we can understand why, and so in that sense they “play by the rules”. They make sense. The Joker, on the other hand, does not play by these rules: not only does he break the law, but he does so for no apparent reason. We don’t get him, and we don’t understand his “willingness to run counter to uniquely human principles”. Yes, he is human, but I disagree: He is not one of us.

    To your final paragraph, you are right: the Joker does not strictly require fantasy. I should have been more clear but what I meant by “require”. But if he is a stand-in for forces beyond our understanding, then I can’t really imagine a popular American movie supplying quite that same character in a straight, non-fantastic setting–and thus I can’t imagine the issues that the Joker presents being presented to (and hopefully, grappled with) a large American audience. The closest I can think of is United 93, the surprisingly good and remarkably subtle reenactment of the “fourth plane” from the September 11th attacks, in which the terrorists’ actions are simply presented without comment or question, and with no exploration of motive. Their actions therefore appear (and in real life were) ungrounded, insane, and evil. The Joker captures a bit of this feeling, which is deeply unsettling: he is far too intelligent, well-spoken, devious, and perhaps ambitious to be dismissed as a simple psychopath (like Scarecrow). I long for understanding, and the Joker offers none: he is simply evil.

    Your final point is suggestive and insightful. It reminds me of the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which paralleled the rise of Islamism with that of neoconservatism: two forces that required one another while seeking to destroy one another. It is a powerful insight, and hopefully, perhaps, Nolan will address this concept more fully in the third movie.

  4. Thanks OP devin, for getting at one of my favorite past-times: utilizing a seemingly dorky and un-academic comic book such as the Batman to critique society and structural arguments.

    I have a few coins to drop in the well. A lot of my colleagues, friends and family members refuse to like The Dark Knight, much to my chagrin as I am a die-hard fan of it. Many of them can enjoy it on a compelling ‘night at the movies’ level, yet when it comes time for the critique they seem to take a black and white approach as follows (I raise these points because they seem frequent to me yet have not appeared in the discussion thus far): Batman is a vigilante, operating by his own set of rules which utilize violence regularly (as pointed out here and in the film “You have all these Rules!”) and yet he is the only shining light in Gotham City as the police force is corrupt and the bureaucracy hasn’t had any real impact since the Wayne family ran things right. For my naysayers (i’ll call them), the Batman/Bruce Wayne are the same character and he is the ‘good guy.’ Jump forward to the last 20 minutes of film, he utilizes wire tapping, as a weapon against the threats of terrorism. It works, the Joker’s PLAN is thwarted. Many read this as Christopher Nolan’s apologist attempt to support counter-terrorism, i.e. patriot act legislation that protects the democratic structurally thinking citizens piled onto the boat. What the naysayer does not note is that Batman/Bruce Wayne is not the good guy! By making exceptionalist agendas, be it against crime or spay and neutering strays, he is stepping beyond the bounds of functioning societal relations (be it justified or not, this subject position is not to be regarded as white hat hero). His wealth has propelled him into micro/macro policing. He is uber conflicted and follows nothing near a code about good communal living (i.e. the League of Shadows). In my opinion the critical analysis of the director’s device is to point out that the Batman/Bruce Wayne is doing bad things that citizens would not approve of which we of the 21st century can all relate to, be it patriot act or CCTV. Of course I also take note that his 21st century approach saved lives from catch 22 scenarios, and he will continue to do so ( also to my anticipation be hunted but still remain justified in his actions).

    For me, the film is chalk full of conflicted characters possessing a pragmatic stratification of good and evil. If you were to go so far as to say any one character is good or evil, it would be James Gordon…a cop. But for Derrida, as for me, “as soon as there is the one, there is a murder.” This is what makes this film so compelling, the struggle to both empathize and demonize with the same character, in development or finished product. I for one, cannot wait to mundanely critique the next installation!

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