The Dark Knight is a big old huge bombastic success. There is no denying that. People are flocking to it in record breaking numbers. Critics are raving about it. Everyone is praising it as the greatest, darkest and most genius movie ever made. Given its high profile, I figured I better see it right away so I can digest the cultural phenomenon in its peak moment. The movie exploded onto the screen in a grandiose flourish of grandiosity, yet the explosion seemed to fizzle on impact. What should have been cinematically exciting bordered on being boring. I left the movie with an overwhelming ambivalence and annoyance at a movie that seemed simultaneously overblown and complacent. Despite all its pyrotechnic brouhaha, the movie seemed hollow and lacking in spark. It was like a shoddy structure that left me feeling like I was half full and wanted the rest of the meal. My initial critique was that Batman figure is a conservative abomination – a fascist vigilante philanthropist industrialist ass who promotes the conservative agenda by feigning heroism. In addition, I felt that the most interesting character in the film — the Joker — was not fleshed out enough, that the film turned his character into as much of a gimmick as the Batmobile. It is not until 2/3 of the way through the movie that the Joker finally is allowed an opportunity to explore the depths (or as it turns out the lack thereof) of his character. Finally, I felt that the majority of the film consisted of action sequences and set pieces with no cohesion and nothing to give the film depth or substance.
After spending a few days thinking about the movie, mostly by diving into the Joker character and how he plays against Batman, I have flipped the coin (to use a trope in the movie) regarding my ambivalence toward the film. While I still feel the film is ideologically questionable, I found that the more I think about the characters, the more interesting the movie’s complex web of meanings become. Unfortunately, however, the characters are somewhat buried under the layers of complacent and poorly edited action scenes. It’s hard to think about the meaning of Batman’s character when the Batmobile is bursting through the streets of Gotham like some kind of Vigilante Weapon of Mass Destruction. The movie wants to awe us with the Batmobile and the Bat motorcycle and all the pyrotechnics associated with Batman’s gizmos and gadgets (all of which were derived from Wayne Enterprises’ ventures in weapons manufacturing). But the action scenes with Batman are integrated without rhyme or reason other than to wow the audience. The movie comes off like a rich kid on the playground showing off his big fancy toy guns. We’re supposed to be floored by their high end price tag even though he’s just shooting them randomly at ants. Sure there are some fancy effects in the movie, but they seem to exists only to toot their own horn for being so amazing. Likewise, the editing is shoddy and the lighting is crap. It’s not that the movie is “dark” as a result of its foreboding nihilistic outlook. I love a dark nihilistic movie. It’s that the dark is not done well. For example, the scenes when Batman flies in his bat cape have amazing potential for being mind-staggeringly ominous and powerful, yet the poor lighting and editing swallows those scenes, and we’re left scrunching our eyes and our minds to see. I realize now that the bad lighting and crappy editing tainted my perception of the movie as I went into it and distracted me from digging deeper below the surface of the crap action scenes. In writing about the movie, I have pushed myself beyond the cloak of the movie’s grand scale (yet not so grandly executed) special effects and realize that what really makes The Dark Knight compelling and interesting to think about is not the pyrotechnics (though admittedly some are stunning, like the exploding hospital). The interesting components of the movie aren’t contained in the Batmobile and Batman’s fancy weapons but in the subtext of the film. The complexity lies in the characters and their sum total in relation to each other, particularly Wayne/Batman, Joker, and Dent, and not in the things they drive and explode.
In preparation for watching The Dark Knight, I watched Batman Begins which I hadn’t seen before. While the movie had its moments, I felt an overall ambivalence toward it that bordered on hostility towards Batman. I remembered that the reason I didn’t see the movie when it played in theaters was because I was reluctant to participate in the whole notion of the traumatized extremely wealthy rich boy turned superhero narrative. Do I really need to see a movie where an industrialist billionaire is a hero because he can use his wealth to execute his personal vendettas against the world of criminals? Watching Batman Begins certainly had this effect on me. Ultimately, I found Batman’s aristocratic reign on power disturbing and conservative. In watching both Nolan Batman films together, my immediate response was an unease with their politics. I didn’t trust them. Batman’s main heroic function seems less about helping those in need and saving them from destructive and corrupt forces and more about maintaining centralized power and the veneer of safety within a flawed system of law and order. The source of Batman’s power mirrors that which he protects – centralized assets and the established systems (e.g. the judicial system) designed to protect those assets. His superhero strength is a direct result of his extreme wealth and position of privileged power in the city of Gotham.
It’s amazing how few bad guys Batman actually takes down, but then again Batman’s heroics are not so much about killing the bad guys as reinforcing the establishment. The Joker says as much in his speech to the mob leaders when he accuses them of letting the cops and lawyers take away their power. If you think about Batman’s major acts of heroism in both movies, what are they? In Batman Begins, Batman/Wayne uses his wealth to buy back all the stocks for Wayne Enterprises and make the company private again. In other words, he reconsolidates the wealth into his own hands. In The Dark Knight, Batman/Wayne uses his power and economic clout to promote District Attorney Harvey Dent’s political campaign and to procure the resources Dent needs to maintain his position of leadership within the legal system and to keep the masses convinced that law is on their side. In fact, many of Batman’s deeds seem to be acts of elitist philanthropy, conservative acts of heroism that are intended to strengthen the hold of centralized power while convincing the masses that the consolidation of power and enforcement of The System is in their best interest. Indeed, Batman’s final “heroic act” in The Dark Knight is to take the fall for Harvey Dent, who reveals his corrupt inner core and goes on a murder spree. Batman heroically lies to the public and says that he, not the noble District Attorney, was responsible for the murders that Dent committed. The richest and most powerful man in Gotham lies to the public to maintain the illusion of the goodness and viability of the legal system.
Much is made about Bruce Wayne’s extreme wealth and its reigning position over Gotham. Wayne Tower literally dominates the landscape and looks down upon the city with its all encompassing power. In Batman Begins, Nolan shows the extremely impoverished conditions of The Narrows neighborhood, yet what does Batman actually do to improve the lives of the poor and desperate people of Gotham? Does he distribute his wealth? No. He dumps his resources into strengthening the legal systems that enforce a veneer of safety and stability in an urban landscape filthy with economic disparity. Batman would rather strengthen the police than empower the people. That he is called a “knight” harkens to the notion of an empire/monarchy (not too far removed from Wayne Enterprises’ stranglehold on economic and legal power within Gotham) in which “knights” were created to protect the sovereignty of the king yet delivered the illusion of protecting the people. Batman will win the War on Terror! Vote for Bruce Wayne and Gotham will be safe! Except that in Gotham no one votes for Batman/Bruce Wayne. He inherits his position of power.
I initially read Batman and his relation to economic power, law, and the system as an endorsement of the conservative agenda. That was a shallow reading because when writing about the movie, I excavated complex layers of interpretation, particularly in how Batman/Bruce Wayne relates to the Joker and Harvey Dent. I realized that all three of these characters present different sides of nothingness, Batman included. What seemed like an endorsement of the conservative agenda via Batman’s character actually can be perceived as a bleak (and ultimately nihilistic) critique of the lie and fallacy of the system that historically has been ruled by those who possess the most assets to control those with the least. What initially seems to be ideologically conservative could also be interpreted as exposing the underlying fascism of American Corporatized Government and the systems of Law and Order that protect it. The image of Batman locked inside his rigid black suit and overlooking his empire is certainly more fascist than friendly.
This is where the Joker steps in. Unequivocally, Heath Ledger gives a brilliant performance as the Joker. He thrives with life, energy, and turbulence. In a way, the Joker is the most human and alive of all characters in the movie. He seethes, breathes, drools, and pulses. Unlike Batman’s order-obsessed rigidity, Joker explodes with chaos. He is the perfect Anti-Batman. Where Batman is the pillar of Law and Order, Joker is the arbiter of Anarchy. The key scene (and my personal favorite) which reveals the Joker as the anarchist is when he stands in front of a giant mountain of cash (the combined assets of all the crime leaders which represents the centralized economic power of a corrupt system), and he burns it. When the Joker is begged not to burn the mountain of cash, he replies that he doesn’t need money. He says something to the effect of: “Money? I don’t need money. What do I want? Gunpowder and dynamite. These things are cheap.” He then tosses a cigar into the pile of money, and it bursts into a tower of flames. Joker’s speech could be read as a direct quote from The Anarchist Cookbook and as an appeal to use cheap explosives to undo centralized economic power. Whereas Batman is the conservative archetype of law and order, Joker is a conservative stereotype of anarchy. As the Joker himself admits, “I’m like the dog chasing the car. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I caught it.” Certainly Nolan was conscious of the portrayal of the Joker as the destructive anarchist. The very fact that the movie was filmed in Chicago, home of the 1886 Haymarket Riot which initially inspired the negative caricature of the “bomb throwing anarchist,” is indication that the integration of the Joker as the anarchistic foil to Batman was Nolan’s conscious choice.
The Joker doesn’t just undo centralized economic power. He also resists psychologizing and as such undoes the System’s marriage to history and an almost feudal system of the succession of power as represented by Bruce Wayne and his economic and psychological marriage to his father and his paternal relation to “the peasants” of Gotham. Where Batman’s entire persona is wedded to history – genetically, economically, and psychologically –, Joker is the Void of Nothingness embodied in chaos. The Joker dismantles history by dismantling his own identity and therefore mocking Batman’s commitment to his own identity. Early in the film, Joker explains how he got the scars on his face – from an abusive father who cut his face into a smile. Our pop psychology training tells us to nod in understanding and sympathize with the Joker. Oh, that’s why the Joker is all fucked up. His daddy abused him. Just like we nod in understanding that Batman is all fucked up because he watched his daddy get killed. But then a little later in the film, the Joker tells yet another story of how he got the scars. In this version, he inflicted them on himself to win the love of his wife. With every new story, Joker unveils the empty void that is the psychologized mind and the artifice that is identity, and therefore he also reveals the void that is Batman. Oddly, by embracing the void, somehow Joker is more human and compelling than the rigid artifice that is Batman. Somehow, in all his frightening chaos, Joker is also rather sympathetic because he is a free agent. He lives without bonds or ties to history, psychology, economics or politically imposed order. But of course we certainly are not allowed to sympathize with the Joker entirely because the creation of his character as villain really is an exaggerated and damning caricature that is coming from the same politically suspect place that created caricatures such as Osama Bin Laden. The Joker is the Mad Terrorist out to destroy the Order of Things.
The most revealing speech that Joker delivers is to DA Harvey Dent on his hospital bed. In this scene, Joker outs himself for the nothing that resides inside him. He says that he thrives on chaos and anarchy and that he has no desire other than to undo a system of rules and order for no end other than to watch the chaos. When the police arrest the Joker, they discover that he has no identification, no fingerprints, no labels in his clothes, and nothing that determines who he is or where he came from. That is because he came from nowhere. The Joker is the perfect embodiment of the void and chaos that exists under the artifice of social identity. Rather than just revealing himself as the bad guy, Joker’s absence of identity also unmasks the fallacy of identity in Bruce Wayne/Batman and Harvey Dent. It is telling that Joker reveals his true nature to the “good guy” District Attorney Harvey Dent, and in so doing reveals the “bad” underneath Harvey’s veneer of good. From the minute we meet Harvey Dent, he is like a billboard advertisement for the Good of the Law. His smiling face gleams with morality and the inherent good of the System. Yet there is something disturbing and inauthentic about his too big smile and his soothing veneer of law and order. He does not inspire trust but unease. That unease is revealed when he shows his hideous burned face to Joker and becomes “Two Face.” Dent’s veneer of good gives way to the corruption and ugliness below the surface of the legal reform he represents. In the end, Dent is no less evil than the Joker, yet he is allowed to maintain his position because he represents Order and not Chaos.
The movie proposes a number of choices that are designed to reveal a moral ambiguity in all the characters. Most critical is when Batman is forced to choose between saving the girl/love (Rachel) and the law (Dent). Although Batman chooses to save Rachel (love), Joker orchestrates the choice so Batman chooses the side of the law. The girl Batman loves dies while the corrupt system of law lives, thanks to Batman’s heroics. In a way, Joker’s manipulation of Batman to choose law over love outs Batman for the tragic figure he is. Girl or no girl, love or no love, Batman/Bruce Wayne’s identity is pre-ordained to protect archaic systems of power and control. Batman is locked inside his thick, black, impenetrable superhero suit like some kind of identity prison. There is no room for love in the Batsuit and all that it protects and serves. As the girl he loves vanishes from the movie and his life, Batman is trapped in his inheritance and legacy of obligation to perpetuate the system. All Joker is doing is exposing Batman for what he really is – LAW not love. Yet, it is hard to really see Batman as tragic since he ultimately is as empty as the Joker (a point the film is attempting to make). Batman’s critical choice is mirrored throughout the movie. For example, it plays against the choice the boats full of people are given. While the ordinary citizens and the criminals decide not to make a choice and therefore not to kill each other (or themselves if the Joker is playing them like he does Batman), Batman makes a choice and consequently lets someone die. Batman has no freedom to not make choices. He is forced to take sides because of his position.
This is where the movie and my theories of it and its conservative ideology take a turn. Rather than being a great source of power, Batman’s identity is a trap. His suit – the physical embodiment of the legacy of his wealth, power, and ancestry – keeps him locked inside. He has no freedom, only ordained power and social/political responsibility to a system that is ultimately corrupt. District Attorney Harvey Dent is the fallacy of Law and Order that Batman is ordained to protect. Dent too operates in a world of choices; however, he feigns to leave choice to chance. Representative of Legal Reform, Dent simulates creating order out of chaos by flipping his favorite coin and determining actions by the outcome of a coin toss – heads or tails. Likewise, the coin he uses is supposedly a very special “heirloom” that has been passed down through his family, carrying tradition in the execution of choices. Later in the film, we learn that Dent’s coin is a gimmick, a cheap two-headed coin which will always choose in Dent’s favor. In other words, you can “vote” in Dent’s game, but ultimately your vote doesn’t count. The decision is already made by the system. Dent is a lie whose emptiness and corruptness inside materializes literally in the destruction of his face (think Dorian Gray).
Let’s go back to that ending scene when Batman performs his final “good deed” and lies to maintain the illusion of the Good of the System of Law and Order. Certainly this scene can be read as an outright condemnation of the centralized power that governs the United States today and the lies that are created to protect that power. But it also can be read as a bleak resignation that, in the end, the Old Order reigns as Batman exits the screen swallowed by shadows and buried under the weight of his suit, his ancestry, and the long history of power, wealth, and control that he must bear and perpetuate. It’s fairly obvious in this scene and throughout the movie that Nolan’s sympathies do not lie with Batman but are more aligned with the Joker. Think of Nolan’s early film Memento in relation to the vacuum of identity and the erasure of history and the idea that the depth of an individual is that lack of depth. The whole concept of the Joker is that his substance is his lack of substance. His depth is the lack of depth. The void is the substance, and the substance is the void. But Nolan also extends this read to Batman who is nothing more than an artificial shell of identity. Likewise, Harvey Dent is a total artificial construction as flat and two dimensional as his face on the poster. Ultimately, Bruce/Batman, Harvey, and the Joker are all the same person, and that person is a void.
The final scene with Batman and Dent could be read as a critique of a fascist tendency in the traditional structure of American power and economics, but the problem is that any kind of “ideological stance” that Nolan is trying to make is hobbled by the movie’s Mega Blockbuster status and PG-13 rating. The movie’s primary function isn’t to deliver political messages but to reach the widest audience possible and generate massive revenue. There’s no room to overtly side with anarchy in a movie that was the highest grossing opening weekend of all time in the U.S., pulling in approximately $158.4 million and officially making Batman the most successful superhero movie franchise ever. This movie is a profit generating enterprise not unlike Wayne Enterprises. Because of its external obligations (to the investors and those who will profit from its production), The Dark Knight must play neutral, so it doesn’t alienate any “faction” of its audience and is able to generate the most revenue. It is not allowed the kind of ideological freedom that you see in something like Francis Ford Copolla’s Godfather which also equates organized crime to the corruption of centralized government. The Dark Knight has to soft-shoe its politics, and as such that which could serve as a critique could also become an endorsement of the conservative agenda. Maybe Nolan’s intention is to critique the centralized power of our corporatized government via Batman’s character, but we have to remember that the very large majority of people who will see this movie are not going to analyze the political meaning of the film. They are going to take it at face value and see Batman as a hero who upholds Law and Order regardless of the implications of his actions.
Speaking of making choices, maybe Nolan is asking us to choose from different sides of nothingness. If so, I know what side I’m choosing. I’ll take the Joker’s anarchistic chaos over Batman’s archaic commitment to corrupt systems of law and order any day. Not only that, Joker’s exploding hospitals and burning towers of cash (executed with economic explosive devices) are infinitely more entertaining than Batman’s Multi-million Dollar Extreme Warfare Batmobile. And speaking of the Joker burning things, when he gave his speech about not needing money and held a match to the giant mountain of cash, I didn’t hesitate for a second. “BURN IT!” I screamed inside my head. And I let out a little gasp of victory when the whole stack of bills burst into flame. But I also know that I was surrounded by people who gasped in horror at the sight of burning money, and those people were, unequivocally, the majority.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.