American Culture

Beneath the comic-book mask: The Dark Knight

by JS O’Brien

For better or worse, cultures tend to rank genres of fiction.  So-called serious works, written by the likes of William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, rate well above mysteries, westerns, romances, science fiction, and (certainly) comic books on the literary org chart.  There’s justification for this.  We rank the stunning complexity of Mozart’s music ahead of chopsticks for a reason:  Mozart exhibits genius of the highest order, taking our most talented musicians years of study and practice to understand and master, and the first rendition of chopsticks was composed and taught to a wildebeest in under 19 seconds.

Or, to put it another way, Hamlet is clearly a more complex and wonderful work than Everyone Poops.

On rare occasions, though, a writer takes the unique features of a lowly literary genre and uses it to illuminate life in a manner that, perhaps, could be accomplished in no other way.  In 1895, HG Wells published The Time Machine, transforming science fiction from a mere, gee-whiz exploration of technical wonders to a spelunking crawl through the human psyche, illuminating the toothy growths of social terror clinging to the walls and ceilings along the way.  Only science fiction gave him the freedom to vastly alter the world and explore the unchanging human condition as it adapts to that world.  Only science fiction could give anthropologist Ursula Le Guin the platform she needed to explore humanity in the absence of fixed gender, as she did in The Left Hand of Darkness, or Isaac Asimov the frame of reference he needed to study the very meaning of what it means to be human in I, Robot. 

In The Dark Knight, the newest film in the Batman saga, writer and co-author Christopher Nolan does for comic book superheroes what Elizabethan playwrights did for theater:  lifting a medium into relevance in spite of itself.  He didn’t do it alone, of course.  Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is a ground-breaking graphic novel that plumbs the relationships among vigilantes, sex, violence, mental instability, morality, and mob rule, and Nolan stands upon their shoulders.  Moore and Gibbon, in turn, stand on the shoulders of Marvel writers and artists who made their superheroes human, with human problems and foibles.  Nevertheless, Nolan transcends them all, producing a work of extraordinary texture and complexity that can be enjoyed on many levels, but understood only by considering them as a whole.  He uses the comic book medium, and its mythological embodiment of outsized heroes and villains, to drive his themes home in a way only that genre could do.

I won’t go into the performances (including Heath Ledger’s extraordinary effort) the cinematography, special effects, car chases, etc.  You can read all about those elsewhere, since those are the things most critics have been touting.  Let’s just say that the film’s technical and performance elements are brilliant at best, and very good at worst.  Instead, I’m going to focus on what the critics have neglected – what the movie is about; what it means – because it is meaning that sets this film apart from others in its genre, and it is meaning that will earn it a featured role in film history.

The plot is simple enough  – a crime-ridden city (Chicago masquerading as Gotham) greets a new super-villain, the Joker (Heath Ledger), who wears runny clown makeup, kills his own henchmen in an opening bank heist, and manages to convince the city’s crime bosses that they need to pay him a huge sum of money to kill the Batman.  In the meantime, incorruptible DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and crusading cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) bend the rules just a little to nab the city’s crime bosses.  The Batman (Christian Bale) gets involved.  Along the way, there are chases, kidnappings, bombings, murders, and maniacal laughter; in other words, standard comic book fare.  Unlike most comic book movies, however, The Dark Knight’s script elements are more than devices to move us along to the next action scene.Â

Every competent actor and writer knows that specificity is what separates great art from the merely good.  For a great actor, a stage direction “he dies” is not about collapsing on the set, closing the eyes (or opening them wide), and suppressing breathing.  The specific issue is how he dies.  What are the symptoms?  What are their physical and psychological manifestations?  What does death feel like?  What are the final thoughts?  Are there symptoms that would show up earlier?  If it’s an illness, how would the symptoms affect the character throughout the film or play?  A competent writer understands these issues, as well, and writes them in to the plot and the dialogue.  When the writer and the actor both understand and have the skills to wed their talents, something special happens; in this case, Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The Joker is mad, and madness, like death, is not random but specific.  As Shakespeare taught us, madness has its own internal logic.  It is not the logic of the sane, else it wouldn’t be madness, but it is logic, nevertheless.  The Dark Knight’s Joker is written and performed with that logic in mind.

The Joker is an abused child.  No, the Joker is a tortured, maimed, and flayed child, grown into an adult body.  He sports scars on his cheeks for which he gives two explanations, but the first one, and the one that rings true, was that his father carved a smile onto his face because he looked too serious.  Like most abused children, the Joker is convinced that the world is not what it appears to be, and that people are not what they say they are.  Abused children have experienced extraordinary violence at the hands of those who love them, and mistrust all other human beings because, after all, if those that love them can do such terrible things, what even more terrible things will those who don’t love them do?  He even understands and articulates the drivers of his rage, altering a Nietzsche quote to say, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stranger.”

Many abused children exact revenge on us by becoming criminals, and the Joker is no exception.  What’s different about the Joker is his means.  The Joker doesn’t merely want to kill the poseurs, which, to him, is all of us who wear masks disguising our true, evil selves.  No, the Joker wants to expose us as poseurs and, in the process, kill both our bodies and our identities — our senses of self.  He wants us to die knowing that, by our own standards, we are immoral people.  In fact, killing our bodies may not be all that important to him if he can kill our selves and, especially, kill Batman’s sense of self; because Batman is both the Joker’s brother and his antithesis.

Bruce Wayne, the Batman, also suffered childhood trauma when his parents were gunned down in his sight by a criminal, but he learned a different lesson.  Like the Joker, Batman wants revenge, but his world is peopled by those who are good and those who are evil.  Batman’s entire self worth, his internal justification for the way he violently beats his adversaries, rests on his belief that the beatings are deserved; that he is a hero for administering vigilante justice to the evil.  Take that self image away from him, and the Batman dies.  Only a shattered Bruce Wayne would be left.

The conflict in the film centers on the Joker’s attempts to hold a mirror to society and reveal us, to others and to ourselves, for what he thinks we really are.  He threatens to blow up a hospital if an individual isn’t killed within an hour and, true to his expectations, a mob shows up and tries to kill the man.  He forces Batman to beat information out of him that is virtually useless in the end.  He places bystanders in clown masks and tapes weapons to their hands, tempting police snipers to shoot them, making them judge, jury, and executioner of the innocent.  Even a scheme to force the occupants of one ferry to blow up the occupants of another before they are, themselves, blown up, which seems to backfire on him, serves only to illustrate that all we sometimes seek is a strong leader to do our dirty work while we applaud from the sidelines.Â

He taunts us, telling us that we have rules of civilized behavior we break at the slightest hint of danger to ourselves (but not necessarily to others), then proves to us that we are who he says we are.  The cops are for sale.  The incorruptible Harvey Dent is corrupted (What doesn’t kill us makes us stranger).  The mob hits the streets.Â

Through it all, though, it is the conflict between the Joker and Batman that governs, because it is an Olympian microcosm of the larger conflict.  When the Joker tells Batman, “You complete me,” he means it.  The Joker exists only to prove Batman’s world view of good and evil is a lie, a façade, a mask.  When Batman has a chance to kill him, the Joker urges him on, offering no resistance, because he knows that Batman has only one rule:  Do not kill.  If the Joker can make Batman kill him, he wins, and in winning, both the Joker and the Batman cease to exist.  Near the end of the film, when the Joker thinks Batman has caused his imminent death, he laughs maniacally.  He is insane, but there is method in his madness.Â

He thinks he has won.

There is a larger theme for us Americans, here, as well.  The script makes direct reference to terrorism, painting the Joker as a terrorist (which he is).  Nolan has said that there is no direct analogy to the current “War on Terror,” but the denial strains credulity.  In fact, the film is all about abandoning principles embodied in rules that we Americans say we hold dear, yet seem to discard with little regret when it is convenient to do so.  To its credit, The Dark Knight isn’t preachy.  There are no simple answers.  It raises the question of when it is appropriate to abandon rules without answering it.

In fact, if there is an answer, it is that the struggle must go on.  The Batman can never kill the Joker, and the Joker can never kill the Batman, if both are to survive.  The questions will never be answered, but the struggle itself is important because it raises the important questions.

This is another rule of great writing:  the best works are ambiguous.  They force us to think for ourselves, to ponder, and maybe to change.  Great writing is why The Dark Knight is one of the great American films.

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15 replies »

  1. An exceptional review, JS. Thanks for taking the time and care to lay it out so thoughtfully.

  2. Damn. Now I REALLY have to go see the flick.

    One of our greatest failings as a culture is our insistence on black/white simplicity – easy answers to complex questions, etc. We abhor depth and texture and hate those who would make us think about context.

    Black or white. Gray is for pussies.

    So I wonder about audience reception here. Since I keep hearing how much people love the film, I can’t help wondering – are they GETTING it? Or is the nuance you’re describing simply passing them by?

    In any case, fantastic review.

  3. Sam:

    I suspect many, and maybe most, are getting it on some level. Good art is good art. It tends to work on many levels.

    The few negative reviews appear to be from grade-challenged young men who get bored if there are more than two syllables before the next action sequence. I’m hearing from middle aged women who like this film, and that’s not an audience segment known for wild enthusiasm over comic-book movies.

    Something tells me that this flick will have legs. We’ll see.

  4. Great review. It really sums up a lot of my feelings about the film. Although the Joker held up more a mirror to society than I think Mr. O’Brien realizes. I saw the film on opening night here in Phoenix and I left the film most disturbed by what the audience’s reaction to the Joker told me about society than I was about what the film had to say.

    The audience could not help but laugh at every cruel thing the Joker did or said almost throughout the movie. Scenes which should have induced revulsion, horror, sympathy or antipathy only seemed to induce humor and even enthusiasm. At first, I was willing to assume that folks were a little perturbed by the sadism of the Joker and unwilling to truly acknowledge the thoroughgoing nihilism of the character – that their laughter was born at least partly out of anxiety. But, soon I realized that the folks around me were literally getting off on the violence. It was hilarious – and sad.

    It was not only sad, because few in the audience seemed to engage the film at any level deeper than an action flick – it was also tragic that an audience found senseless violence not enthralling, but funny too. People literally guffawed. Maybe this is what we descend to, when torture becomes a key element of our foreign policy and when we stand idly by while jackbooted thugs round up immigrants in brutal and inhuman raids. Maybe this has become normal. I felt as if the audience was composed of those good people on the boat who would not have hesitated in blowing up the other boat, not just for survival but just for kicks. It was like looking at those old photographic postcards of lynchings, which portrayed not only a horrific act of brutality, but even more terrifying, the faces of the decent people of the South, who were having a good old time, women in their fur coats, little Johnny on dad’s shoulders with an ice cream cone. It made me feel for a moment how fragile democracy really is, or even to go so far to think that it has been an utter failure.

    To respond to Dr. Slammy above, I think the audience is getting it, but perhaps not in the way that JS thinks.

    Did anyone else have this experience?

  5. Jay D:

    I live in a bit of a bubble. Something over 70% of people over 25 in my community have at least one college degree, so the reaction of the crowd around me is certainly not going to be typical. In addition, I saw it in a morning matinee to avoid most of the stoners and over-testosteroned young men. I think it’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that your experience was much like many around the country (although Phoenix is a place unto itself in many ways).

    As I said, many are getting it at some level. But part of the movie’s appeal is its subtlety. So I’m sure that many are not.

    Thanks for the insights.

  6. Terrific review. I definately will see this movie. And to the point above….there are difinately different audiences depending on the time and place you see a movie. I suspect opening night brought out a certain segment of the population.

  7. Indeed, excellent review…enough to actual make me willing to shell out theater prices to see it. But there was no need to slam Everyone Poops. It’s a classic with a pure, egalitarian moral.

  8. thank you for such a thought ful review which put into words many of the thoughts i had (and am still having) after having seen this phenomenal film.
    the comparisons to our current society is very apt and one which we spent hours talking about after the film. this Joker has haunted my nightmares since. ledger’s portrayal and nolan’s crafting of the character pull him above mere psychopath to, as was said, an “agent of chaos”, and he is a modern-day Loki or any of the trickster gods for our modern society.
    or so we discussed.
    anyway, it was and is a great flick.
    and great post.

  9. Thanks Kelly. The fact that you spent hours afterwards talking about it speaks volumes. Personally, I’m going to see it again.

  10. I’ve always thought the ongoing struggle between Batman and the Joker in the comics has been one of the best struggles in literature. Sometimes their confrontations have been nothing more than basic comic book fare, but sometimes, it’s been deeply intense and complex. I’m sure Nolan has tapped into what the comic book writers have, at their best, tried to do. I’ve not seen the movie yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

    Great review!

  11. Watchmen is better than The Dark Knight.
    The Joker wasn’t a tortured child. He tells more than one story about how he got his scars. This demonstrates his insanity: does he even remember how he really got them (and in context, who he was before he became The Joker).
    Wars between America and middle eastern countries aren’t good b/c they make us think about whether they are good. Something’s good b/c it’s good. A=A. It is wicked that America’s taking over the middle east for Israel. Beseitegen Rothschilds.

  12. Fianna:

    If you’ll note from my review, I said that there were two explanations, but only one rang true. Insanity comes in many flavors. Only a very few of them result in memory loss. I tried to make a point about specificity and the fact that Joker’s insanity is perfectly consistent with the way an abused child sees the world. I think it was lost on you.

    As for the last part of what you wrote, I have no idea what you’re trying to say.

  13. I have to say, that after seeing the Dark Knight, VIA- IMAX 6 times. yes 6 times. I would have to say that this movie hit on soooo many points, that correspond with many topics.
    Sheep, Sheep dogs, and wolves. The Jokers level of crime, is reminiscent of a highly disturbed person. Child abuse, sounds clear for this. His comments on referring to himself and badman, as freaks.. That comment alone, says alot. That madness is in everyone, and that all it takes is a little push, to carry it over the edge. within the last 2 months, we have the child rapist, who killed the kids mom, dad, sister, aunt, took the 2 children with him. Raped the boy, while video taping, and forces the young girl to watch…

    Now if you imagine someone with means ($$$), who is tramatized by an event, disfigured, terrorized.. and of all things, exceptionally smart.. well, looking at the joker, that is what i see… I actually see him as a very intelligent person, who had something happen to him, which pushed him over the edge. When you have lost everything, what else can you take??