The Dark Knight and Stark Right

July 26, 2008 at 7:34 pm (1)

Hi. I’m XyphaP and I know my Batman. Let us begin.

Looking at fictional characters this closely may be a fool’s errand for fawning fans, but anyone who doesn’t recognize the importance of fantasy during daily life has a very poor grip on reality. Myths (and here my hand is shown) have always let societies work out their ideals, frustrations, and conflicts. Batman overcoming the Joker while saving the lives of hostages from trigger happy SWAT members isn’t just a criminal put behind bars: Order triumphs anarchy and eight year olds stand up from their chairs to cheer the victorious champion!

Our champion in the arena this time is Batman. Especially here, he’s a very modern hero, one who succeeds in being a hero not by his sheer strength or combative ability (that’s Superman! Green Lantern is their happy medium, with the Flash cracking wise alongside), but by expertly deploying his resources. If Batman is the most popular, most well liked superhero (and I’d wager he’s close. Definitely the top DC hero), it’s because he’s the perfect post-industrial hero instead of that stodgy old Kryptonian, only important in times of lack; Batman has absolutely no physical (or economic) wants, so he’s a champion of expert service and information (the two commodities that matter post-industrially). Superman completely fulfills these wants, but he can’t always use himself to the best of his ability: he knows damn well how to chop down a tree but isn’t necessarily in the right forest. Totally an industrial hero.

I am conflating industry and superpowers very intentionally here: The Dark Knight does the same. The films make very clear that he does have a corporate position (Bruce may fall asleep in a board meeting, but he researches a company wanting to do business with him and doesn’t let the dirty scoundrels sign any contracts), and he even uses that corporate position to help his vigilantism (capturing the executive helping criminals): the new hero that we need to believe in not only stops burglars in back alleys from killing people, he also stops insidious corporations from using a populace for sinister ends.

(The thread of a corporate superhero has been woven many times: Casey’s Wildcats 3.0, the new Iron Fist. Batman even helped rebuild Gotham after a massive earthquake, and many issues were spent with boardroom budgeting and embezzling).
And this corporate muscle man is who we see battling…


The Joker is the best part of the movie, and (annoyingly!) everyone knows it. Let’s move away from Ledger’s astounding performance and more onto his ideology, which is so critical to how he comes into conflict with the Batman.

The Joker isn’t a force of anarchy unto Gotham: He fights for it, but he is not total anarchy. Many brilliant schemes that he can, and has, executed terrified Gotham and its peacekeepers. No, Joker is its champion instead of embodiment. He has found where the modern society in Gotham has failed, and exploits those failures to anarchy’s advantage. His army consists of institutionalized schizophrenics able to appear normal, and his munitions are incredibly cheap explosives. Even though Batman can keep his costumed capers occurring almost indefinitely from profits and trust funds, the Joker will never be depleted until there is no madness, or cheap incendiaries. Which business model will last longer?

Also, there’s the underlying efficacy to the Joker’s behavior. He succeeds in his horrors by frightening his opponents much more often than actual combat, but he breaks out the crow bar all too often. He certainly knows how to succeed in getting people to bleed, but he always strives to let people to lose their own blood. If there is anything the Joker has found himself able to do, it is operate within the rules of society. He just has no interest in coming out on top with a big bucket of money.

He poses his questions well, too. Is a human life worth the trouble and rubble of a hospital set to explode? Is a ferry full of convicts as valuable as a ferry full of individuals? These both ask the value of a human life and what degrades or upgrades it. If order is a set of rules that must always be followed, the Joker demands that the hierarchy of these rules make themselves known.

All of this talk about the ultimate value of a human life leads to the biggie: “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” Christopher Nolan poses to an unresponsive Batman, to the audience. The Joker (in both cases) offers self definition as the culprit: Batman and the Joker have both come to conclusions about what is right in society, and operate outside the law for their own ends. The Joker, though, he’s got it entirely wrong! He kills people for giggles, but Batman? He may hurt and injure people without due process, but if that process came to pass, surely he would not find himself trucked off to jail. That’s why we let a masked, anonymous figure prowl the streets at night dispensing fisticuffs and handcuffs, right? Because we trust that he’ll do the right thing?

That’s the heartbreaker, though. Batman won’t actually kill the Joker, despite the lives he would save and the horrors never unleashed, he lets the Joker live. Plenty of other Batman writers of all stripes have asked that ethical question and come up short with a satisfying answer. The Batman just doesn’t kill cold bloodedly. I wouldn’t feel right if the ultimate justice was dispensed to Joker by Batman. Maybe the Punisher, but Batman? Would you?

That’s the real axis of madness here. Joker, by being thwarted continually, lives to subvert and show the faults in a decreed societal rule: Thou Shalt Not Kill. But by not killing, one kills so many other people unintentionally.

Which is what really makes the Batman different from the Joker, despite their similar illegal status and fringe mentality (and aversion to guns): Batman does believe in something he doesn’t fully understand, in some cases God or society, but in this case the rule forbidding murder. It’s just one thing that he isn’t prepared to examine fully, or even if he has examined it (which other Batman stories have), he will never act on the prognosis. The Joker wins by continually living, every murder of his beyond the first a flagrant statement: “Society doesn’t make sense.”

There’s also another character in the movie in whom belief is placed, who is…


Harvey Dent operates completely within a societal framework, except when he fails. He takes down the entire mob not by wrapping them in cords and plopping them in front of a police station (what charges could they be accused of!?!) but by actually finding substantive charges and securing a testimony.

He may do this by extra-legal activity (and he even rejects the CEO at first, if I’m not mistaken), but he begins the film with an eagerness to serve under the letter of the law instead of through vigilantism, and he expects the same of his colleagues (asking Gordon to integrate the Batman Police Unit with the entire force, not seeing more listening ears as a problem).

Naturally, Dent’s enemies in the movie don’t involve clown faces but mob bosses instead, those who don’t test the rules of society but use them to their advantage. They evade incarceration through money laundering into legal business activities, but he is able to lock them up and put them behind bars on substantial charges, even remarking that he could keep the streets clean for eighteen months. And Batman is so ready to believe in him.

He did what Batman couldn’t do (from film dialogue), which was legitimately prove that his internal feeling of what is ethically right and wrong. He may have as intense a burning fire as Batman for what is right, but he was able to wield that power in the right direction, and have the law book unequivocally agree. Dent is Batman, but without moral ambiguity.

Of course, the Joker has a say in this. When laws are working out too well for the lawful, he is there to remind us we have made our own cage with laws in books. You see, for there to be sentences made, there has to be a judge to do the sentencing, and the Joker, already waging his private war against Batman, collides with Harvey Dent’s formerly lawful plan and kills three judges.

Here is where the two arcs intertwine, where the downfall of Dent becomes the goal of the Joker. Batman (and society) have made a tremendous leap over logic: Harvey Dent is able to put criminals behind bars legally, instead of having been able to, once. The Joker is there to prove this (any) dangerous faith as wrong.

Mostly, he does so by proving that same belief that Dent has in himself wrong by killing his lover when he and the law can do nothing about it. The law isn’t a force of good, it’s a force of incompetence unable to get something done. So, without the esteem given to societal laws, all of them are reduced to the exact same importance: he flips a coin, because both (any) choices he makes are of no consequence. There are no longer any rules governing if a person should be shot for their crime or go free. There is none of the due process in which he placed so much belief before.

Here, Batman must define his self in fire again. Dent was what Batman wanted to be (compare to the Joker, what he never wanted to be), but two cops and three civilians are dead from his hands, a gun was pointed at a crying child. All this, when the law fails.

This, besides narrative concerns, is why Batman takes the rep for killing the cops. It proves that charges of the law are not the ultimate determinant of right and wrong. Batman may be charged with murder and hunted by the cops, but he is still a hero as he runs off into the night, flashlight and dogs on the chase.

Order hasn’t exactly triumphed over chaos here: Order has discovered the limits that any set of rules can give to anything, because two opposing forces, law enforcement and Dent’s faith in law enforcement, for example, wanting their own brand of Order will look a lot like chaos, which is what we have, which is what the Joker sees and tries to tell the Batman at so many different times.

It’s a very timely ideological clash after most people have lost faith in our government, in their ability to maintain stability and safety of their populace, when perhaps they overstep their boundaries or sometimes don’t step far enough. I’m a little wary of the movie’s ending with Batman running into hiding with narration calling him a hero (only trust yourself? Only trust yourself if you’ve lived through hell? Only Trust BATMAN/God!?!).

I don’t know. And I haven’t even talked about how Jim Gordon figures into this psychological sprawl (After Batman but before Harvey Dent as an archon of order with necessary weeds popping up around the Joker, maybe?). But it’s still surprisingly purposeful for a blockbuster.


Now about the actual quality of the movie, how it conveyed the information on which I’ve spent so many words? Pretty astounding. I normally like my superhero stories to not be burdened by two things, weighty, thematic dialogue, and live action filming. Plus Christian Bale’s hoarse voice is soooooo terrible and Morgan Freeman still plays a magical negro (he even lets Batman SEE), but besides that, the movie is absolute tops. I can’t remember a better superhero flick with more rousting fight scenes, horrific villains, and a brisk pace giving us how many fight scenes and narrative turns and twists? And none of them, okay, one (Batman quit and then resumed his post SO quickly), but that one was important for other reasons?

A, A- if I’m being picky.


1 Comment

  1. xyphap said,

    Now we don’t want to go and start calling the joker imprecise, that he pardons “unrestricted evil for fun!” His movements are SO precise! The school bus, the proliferation of goons that kill each other, the ferry “social experiment!?!” I agree that he wants to bring his own vision of order (anti-order) to the world (HE AND BATMAN ARE BOTH THE SAME!!!), but he is quite good a good schemer; he jsut hates other schemers, which is an important point. His success depends on the order of others, and society is as integral to he as chaos is to Batman. Opposites define and yadda yadda.

    And please, don’t spam in your comments. The hyperlink from your name should be just as much advertisement as you need.

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