The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012): The Dark Knight

The major shift in the The Dark Knight from its predecessor is that it’s very much not concerned with portraying Batman as a monstrous, supernatural presence. Comparisons include the opening of Batman, the scene in Batman Begins at Arkham with the henchman asking, “Is it true what they say, that he can fly?” and in Batman v Superman when the cop shoots at him and Batman seems to glide out of the room.

Batman in The Dark Knight is essentially a special forces operative with a pointy helmet. The idea of Batman is still important, and there’s the fear element with the signal at the beginning and the drug dealer not being able to get business, but Batman’s actual presence is downplayed. Instead, he has to be a man to undergo the complex journey of this movie and the next. That journey shows him to be a Byronic hero, as I said in my Begins post, with the two Just Write videos arguing the Byronic hero is “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” But what sets Nolan’s Batman apart from the classical Byronic hero is he is decidedly idealistic.

He is, however, hampered by his moral code, as the videos argue Batman refusing to kill is actually a tragic flaw in Nolan’s trilogy. Usually Batman refusing to kill is positioned as a noble, unwavering aspect of his ethos. But in The Dark Knight, he struggles with the idea, and the movie seems to come down on killing being a necessity and Batman’s refusal as something that holds him back and damns him.

If Batman must be a man in The Dark Knight, his mythic role is transferred over to the Joker. As this article, with a few video examples, argues, Nolan’s use of the low-angle shot, usually known as the “hero shot,” establishes the Joker as a dominating figure. This certainly plays into a larger-than-life feel. Even when not framed as heroic, a character in low angle is still towering over the audience. Maximus from Gladiator is presented as a traditional example, and in his case it’s to heighten his mythic qualities. With the Joker it’s to make him an overwhelming presence, but both are for the sake of intimidation.

Some people, however, can’t help but try to demystify the character. A few months ago Patton Oswalt posted a theory on Facebook about the possible background of the Joker in The Dark Knight. While I appreciate the thought he put into this, I much prefer the idea Jonathan Nolan once said in an interview, that the Joker just manifested out of thin air on that street corner at the beginning of the movie. No backstory!

Compare the Joker to, say, the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In Oswalt’s defense, the former asks you to hypothesize, as the first half of the movie is Batman trying to figure out who he is and Joker himself presents multiple choices. The Emperor, however, for all the backstory that’s been provided in the last 30 years, in his initial first appearance he’s just an evil wizard. That’s it. We know absolutely nothing about him except he’s the personification of the power that tempted Vader. And the movie itself isn’t asking any questions, it’s just presenting him at face value.

Darth Vader, however, isn’t really comparable to the Joker. We’re actually told a lot about him in the original trilogy, so filling in backstory is unnecessary for different reasons. With Joker he’s more compelling as an enigma; with Vader it’s just gilding the lilly.

So what do we know about the Joker? Mostly he’s the walking embodiment of chaos. As Elizabeth Sanders argues, however, the movie doesn’t much know what to do with the Joker’s philosophy. I agree that, although I like the ferry sequence on its own, it doesn’t really work within the movie or the series. The scene seems to be a microcosm of Nolan’s take on Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. There the Joker’s argument is one bad day can turn anyone into him, and subjects Commissioner Gordon to that bad day. Gordon comes through it okay, but the ambiguity about the ending is where Moore and Nolan differ. Moore leaves it so opaque that some interpret the ending as Batman and Joker laughing together, while others believe Batman actually kills Joker.

Which means Batman fails and is beaten by the Joker, showing Moore’s nihilistic perspective that’s in line with Watchmen. But The Dark Knight recontextualizes the scenario to be more hopeful, but I don’t know if it works with Nolan’s overall argument about human nature. Because Nolan, for the most part, doesn’t seem to think much of the masses. He thinks that, if given the chance, society would embrace the idea that the Moon Landing was faked as propaganda against the Soviet Union, as seen in Interstellar.

Batman’s ultimate mission isn’t just to inspire the entirety of Gotham, after all, as we see him dismissing the copycat Batmen who takes up arms against criminals. It’s to specifically clean up the government and justice system because the masses can’t save themselves. They have to be saved by, as Sandifer says, benevolent overlords. I imagine a very different, and perhaps thematically coherent, movie if someone actually pushed the button but it turned out the Joker rigged it as a dud.

Imagining Nolan’s Batman as a benevolent overlord isn’t that hard, as I’ve already argued that Tim Burton’s Batman fights to maintain the status quo. What that does do, however, is position the Joker as a breaker of taboos. Much has been said about the theme of escalation in the movie, and Joker embodies that with his shattering of social norms. He’s not just destruction but also weirdness, and it’s a weirdness that results from Batman’s arrival. Unlike most versions, Scarecrow already exists before Batman shows up, so super villains were actually first. And Bane is an offshoot of the League of Shadows, exiled by Ra’s al Ghul. So although Bane wants revenge on Batman, he already existed in his present-day form before Batman showed up.

Yes, the idea of escalation with the Joker only works in as much as he’s either something new or something worse than the League and Scarecrow. In terms of destruction, I’m not sure because the Narrows is basically destroyed in Begins and hundreds of mental patients are unleashed on Gotham. In terms of weirdness, well, Scarecrow is a pretty weird super villain, although the opening of The Dark Knight reacts to this by playing him down and grounding him a bit so the Joker will stand out more.

The most provocative taboos Ledger’s Joker violates is preying upon gay panic, although Sandifer argues he’s actually sanded down to be more palatable to young male geeks. It’s clear, however, that Nolan’s rendering of the Joker is calculated to comment on gender: take one of the most attractive young men of the early 21st century, ugly him up in ways that subvert bourgeois fashion (while also making the pant legs and shirtsleeves one size too small), then dress him as a woman in a scene that is preying upon the idea of femininity, as his name badge says “Rachel,” and the idea of seduction. Sandifer does leave out the “You complete me” line, but that’s just one line in a movie in which Joker also “performs” a seduction of Rachel in a scene that’s tinged with the underlying threat of rape.

This article, however, reacts to what I mentioned in an earlier post, Grant Morrison’s theory that Batman kills the Joker at the end of The Killing Joke, by confronting this gay panic head-on. The author, Osvaldo Oyola, disagrees that Batman is a murderer and instead argues that he and Joker “kiss.” This is, however, provided with a caveat at the end of the article:

I don’t see the kiss as the definitive action of those panels—I can’t say what really happens in because there is no “really happened”—but find it much more profound than killing. The kiss is a more delightfully radical possibility than the usual violence of the genre. It upends their entire history, but somehow still fits within its skein. The off-panel action remains unseen because that’d be a real end. Violence doesn’t change anything in superhero comics, it is a normalizing force that builds routine, and killing is just the beginning of a comeback story. It is love that transforms people. Sure, it would be best if superheroes could move beyond the pathologizing of queerness, but to even have a chance to imagine a world where Batman and the Joker could both be saved from their violent self-destructive spiral through loving each other is too wonderful to dismiss.

Basically Oyola is making an argument about the nature of the comic book medium and “closure.” For those unfamiliar, and who haven’t read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, closure is the conceit that action takes place between the comic book panels, in the “gutters,” and that the reader has to fill in that action. It’s a uniquely comic book concept, and a big part of what I love about the medium.

Oyola also makes fascinating observations about scenes like Gordon looking at old newspaper clippings and wondering what year Batman and Joker met, and the picture of the Bat-Family from the ’50s. The queer argument is lent some validity, Oyola argues, by the inclusion of that picture since Batwoman and Batgirl were created in response to Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the book that claimed Batman and Robin were in a homosexual relationship.

Nolan doesn’t play up the queer aspect as much as Moore might, but even more profound than the “You complete me” scene is the aforementioned moment of Joker dressing as a nurse. This scene has him seducing Harvey over to the worldview of chaos, and it’s very appropriate that he’s queering gender in that moment. By contrast, I’ve always found it odd how the kiss between Bruce and Rachel is so chaste. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Rachel is a “beard” for Bruce, but Batman can really only function in The Dark Knight as a metaphor for homosexuality because Bale is definitely not playing Bruce as anything but straight.

Not only is Alan Moore an influence on Nolan, and his brother Jonathan (now a name because of Westworld) who contributed to the screenplay this time, but so is Frank Miller. And Miller in the ‘80s, commenting on the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns, says he wrote the chaarcter as a “homophobic nightmare.” Footnotes from the 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum, as well, have Grant Morrison saying he wanted Joker to have a beard so his grin would look like a vagina dentata, the primordial idea of a vagina with sharp teeth. So there’s definitely a history of sexual or gay panic aspects of the Joker.

Regardless of if the Joker is supposed to be living, breathing gay panic, he is designed and calculated to intimidate. And part of that is something I’ve been wondering for a decade: Is he dirty? When you’re standing next to Nolan’s Joker, does he stink? Has he not showered in a while? Because yes, his hair is a greasy mess and his makeup is all smeared, but that all feels performative. The tailored suit and everything, though frayed a bit, “wasn’t cheap.” The whole outfit feels like a commentary, purposefully designed to convey a frazzled message, but beneath that is actually a guy very concerned with his appearance. So hobo-chic, basically, as a consistent trait in all versions of the Joker is his vanity.

Because, let’s face it, the Joker is rich. He’s new money, but he’s rich, because we see his pile of cash (before he burns it) that is presumably funding his operation. He’s the equivalent of a punk rocker whose first album hit it big, and now he doesn’t quite know how to fit in at the top (Suicide Squad does something similar with Jared Leto’s Joker equated with a hip-hop mogul, but that’s a discussion for a later post). Along with him as a trickster who transcends sexual and gender norms, he also transgresses in the world of the elite. We see this not just when he crashes Bruce’s party for Harvey Dent, but earlier when he shows up at the meeting of the three mobster families.

There’s also a subtle hint that he may overstep racial lines as well. Like an edgy stand-up comic, he quips the room full of criminals, “You don’t deal with this now, soon Gambol won’t even be able to get a nickel for his grandma.” It’s not necessarily racially charged, but aimed at the head of the black family it feels like a specific choice on Nolan’s part. This is compounded by the fact that the only people Joker personally kills onscreen are black men: one of Gambol’s men, Gambol himself, a black police officer before the car chase scene and a black police officer at the hospital. It may be coincidental, but it feels like Nolan puts it there with purpose. And it’s not that the Joker is only killing black people, because he is killing people of all races throughout the movie, it’s that Nolan only shows the deaths of black men (as the clown bus driver in the opening is wearing a mask), planting a subliminal seed.

Tangentially related, it’s fascinating how Nolan portrays villains and their followers as cults of personality. There’s always a charismatic leader who is willing to cross societal boundaries, and then a voiceless horde of followers. Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, Bane, and in Inception the mind’s defenses just being random guys with guns. Yes, there’s also Scarecrow but he never actually interacts with Ra’s (or Bane) and is more in parallel rather than beneath. Joker has his mental patients, and Bane also has his radicalized League members. Perhaps that’s where the cognitive dissonance comes from with Bane turning out to be Talia’s lieutenant: Nolan only ever portrays leaders and anonymous followers, so it’s strange to suddenly see a collaboration between villains.

The filmmaker, however, refrains from framing these leaders as insane, which is a fascinating approach to the Joker. As I discussed last week, in Begins Nolan goes out of his way to avoid showing the mentally ill within Arkham Asylum, seemingly to avoid the problematic optics. In The Dark Knight he does portray escaped patients, who are now the Joker’s henchmen, as unstable but sympathetic victims. There’s Thomas Schiff, who has “the kind of mind the Joker attracts,” whom Batman saves from Harvey Dent’s faux torture. Then there’s the man who claims “The boss said he would make the voices go away. He said he would go inside and replace them with bright lights. Like Christmas.” He, too, is just another one of Joker’s pawns.   

The Joker, however, explicitly states that he’s not crazy when the Chechen accuses him. Of course, not only is he a liar but certainly not one to judge his own mental state. But it’s telling that Nolan takes the question off the table by removing any shred of humanity from Joker. He has no record, no fingerprints and a multiple-choice past. He can’t be crazy if he’s being graded on a different curve than human beings. In writing the Joker, Nolan appeared to be anticipating any possible criticisms, much like with Batman and his wealth, and reacted accordingly.

This is further enforced by Nolan’s handling of Harvey Dent. Some complained that Two-Face’s storyline feels truncated because it’s relegated to the third act and doesn’t involve any of the gimmicks from the comic. Those aspects, however, are tied up with Two-Face having a split personality. Batman: The Animated Series‘ version of Harvey Dent already struggled with repressing a more aggressive personality, dubbed “Big Bad Harv,” even before the explosion that externalized his darker self. Batman Forever doubled down on the doubling, with Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face referring to himself as “us” and “we.” But it’s important that Harvey’s character arc is based around free will: Harvey chooses to take all the responsibility on himself before the accident, and afterwords seeks to find a way to relieve himself of responsibility. But he’s still aware of his actions and isn’t robbed of control by pleading temporary insanity. He even games the system a bit, cheating when he chooses to flip his coin about whether or not to shoot Maroni’s driver.

This is not unlike Leonard in Memento, who has undergone a physical and emotional trauma that affected his mind and behavior. It’s implied that while his short-term memory loss is real, or at least it was, by the end (or beginning) of the movie he’s deluding himself about its severity. Regardless of his condition’s authenticity, Leonard chooses to continue his vendetta, using his memory loss as a crutch to deny responsibility for his actions.

This question of free will and choice is important the The Dark Knight‘s framework. Returning to The Killing Joke, much like Sandifer argues Begins repudiates Year One, The Dark Knight repudiates Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel. In the climactic moments of that story, Batman appeals to Joker by saying, “I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help.” Joker, eyes hidden in shadow, contemplates the offer for a moment, then replies, “No, I’m sorry, but…no, it’s too late for that. Far too late.” His trauma, hinted at also being multiple choice, robs him of the ability to control his destiny. He and Batman, against their will, are cursed to fight forever. 

The Dark Knight, however, provides a definitive ending between hero and villain. The Killing Joke is so ambiguous, in that Batman could be laughing with, killing or kissing the Joker. The Dark Knight, by contrast, puts their relationship to bed forever, a metaphorical version of Oyola’s “kiss.” The final moments of the movie are indeed open-ended for Batman, implying he will continue his role forever even after all he wanted was to quit. But it’s important that he chooses this role. I think most people misinterpret the inclusion of Joker’s line about the two characters being “destined to do this forever.” When Joker says that it’s because he believes Harvey Dent’s corruption will leave Gotham City’s spirit broken. But Batman taking the blame for the murders at the end means the Joker has, in fact, been metaphorically defeated. Who knows what a third movie would have been like if Ledger had lived, but as a standalone text this is the message of The Dark Knight.

Of course, The Dark Knight Rises goes and walks all of this back. But we’ll talk about that next week.

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