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.