Monday, August 15, 2011

The Last Laugh: the Joker's Triumph in The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is an epic film, a film about an unrestrained, Homeric clash between two adversaries who loom large in 20th and 21st-century America's mythical landscape-- Batman and the Joker.  

Nolan's Christian Bale-portrayed Batman is-- at least at the beginning of the film-- very much in line with most of the non-campy portrayals of the character.  He's an incredibly capable man, armed with a mind-boggling array of gadgetry and a talent for punching that Bruce Lee would be proud of.  He's driven by a desire for justice instilled in him by the murder of his parents during childhood, but not consumed by vengeful rage.  He embraces fear as a weapon, as "criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot," but ultimately rejects the more extreme means that R'as al-Ghul and the League of Shadows want to employ in pursuit of a juster world, preferring to work within limits.

His Joker, on the other hand, strays a bit more from the character's classical mythbase.  Traditionally, in non-campy Batman-related works, the Joker stands as a representative of absurd violence, committing arbitrary acts of cruelty as it pleases him, repeatedly bombing, poisioning, and shooting Gotham citizens without any motivation other than wanton amusement.  This is the mode of the gas-wielding Nicholson Joker of Tim Burton's Batman, the Barbara Gordon-shooting Joker of The Killing Joke, and the cackling Mark Hamill Joker of the Batman animated series of the 1990s.  Nolan's Joker shares the propensity for violence and cruelty, but, despite his sometime-claims, he uses them for a purpose.  His initial brutal acts-- the murderous bank robbery and the pencil trick-- are committed with the intention of gaining the attention--and then the leadership-- of Gotham's criminal underworld.  Once he has that leadership, he moves towards implementing his broader program, where we see his truly novel goals.  This Joker wants to turn Gotham's throngs of humanity against one another, by setting up sets of horrible choices which leave people with no choice but to harm one another and abandon moral clarity.

We see this first in his simple terroristic campaign to expose Batman (promising to kill people every day until he was revealed).  His subsequent major acts of villainy follow this same pattern-- telling people that unless they kill a particular man, he'll destroy a hospital, and, at the end of the film, handing the passengers of two ferries bomb detonators, telling them that destroying the other ferry is their only hope of survival.

In the end, each of these three plans is foiled.  The first is foiled by the courage of Batman's friends, who refuse to betray him to satiate public fear.  The second is foiled by the courage of Batman himself, who saves the man that the Joker intends to have murdered.  And the third is foiled by the human decency of civilians and convicts alike, who refuse to destroy one another to save themselves.  By the end of the film, the Joker seems to have been defeated in his quest, thwarted by inherent human courage and virtue.  It looks like what tvTropes would call a Rousseau Was Right sort of conclusion.

But, although the Joker fails to corrupt the citizenry of Gotham, he strikes a loftier target: its Dark Knight.  Throughout the film, Batman gets further and further from the morally unambiguous, selfless hero that he was at the start of the film.  He chooses his own desire for love over the future of Gotham when the Joker makes him choose between saving Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes.  He turns to torture, using it on both the Joker himself (who seems to be immune), and on a mob boss who he drops from the second story, who tells him that because everybody knows that Batman won't kill (in keeping with his important choices at the start of Batman Begins), he can't terrify them as much as the Joker.  He soon implements a citywide sonar system (which he acknowledges the amorality of, handing over control to Lucius Fox, who he knows disapproves of it).  And, in the end, he crosses the ultimate line-- Batman is forced to kill Harvey Dent.

To understand the gravity of this act, we need to look back on the heritage of the character.  The earliest incarnation of Batman was a gun-wielding vigilante who did, in fact, kill people.  But soon after that, Batman stopped deliberately using lethal force.  And most of his incarnations have continued to uphold this prohibition.  It's as important to Batman's character as it is to Superman's, despite the fact that Batman has always been a much darker character.  Even in his darker incarnations-- the Tim Burton films, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (featuring a savage, angry, semi-retired Batman-- the work lends both part of its title and some of its tone to the second Nolanverse film), Batman upholds this prohibition.  All-Star Batman and Robin received a hostile reception in the comics community in part because it discards this aspect of his character.  And Batman's refusal to kill-- his refusal to pursue justice by the same means as the League of Shadows-- was central to the theme of The Dark Knight's immediate predecessor.  By killing Dent, Batman doesn't just fall in the eyes of the public.  He violates a key personal moral code.  He breaks the one rule that he admits that he has earlier in the film.

And so, the Nolanverse Batman is, in fact, a fallen hero of sorts.  It will be interesting to see how Christopher Nolan handles his further fall or his final redemption in the next film.