home Entertainment, Movies, Politics I believe in the Joker (while “The Dark Knight” rakes in the profit)

I believe in the Joker (while “The Dark Knight” rakes in the profit)

Unless you are just now joining civilization, you may have heard of a little film called “Batman: The Dark Knight.” It is not the first Batman film, of course; the popular character from the comic books has been in several before now.

What we are asked to believe, however, about director Christopher Nolan’s new Bat-films – this one and “Batman Begins” – is that they have a special quality of serious crime films containing Political and Philosophical Themes (while the 60s film is knockabout farce, the 80s film an extended Depeche Mode video, and the 90s films simply too 90s to be tolerated).

Mountains of cultural studies essays have been written about this topic already, so I won’t bore you with too much that you can read elsewhere. You probably know the basic argument as to what makes the film ‘right-wing’: the focus is entirely on getting revenge on the criminals of the community, rather than on looking at the community and asking why it produces criminals (an obvious truism – but why obvious?).

What I find interesting – quite apart from the exciting and noisy car-chases, beatings and gun-fights, which always seem such fun when they happen on film – is the extent to which this film has been complacently allowed into the wrong genre and the claims of its advertisers believed.

Although the tone at times affects a “Goodfellas” or “Sopranos”-like severity, and the film, of course, has a certain Noir setting, what we have is not really a crime film at all, but a monster movie. Just like Godzilla, the Joker is both inhumanly powerful (he can commit massive crimes and blow things up as if by magic) and lacking in the causes or motivations that a human will have for their behaviour. An anti-Freudian, he spins a series of different origin-stories for himself, the point being that it simply doesn’t matter whether it was really his father, mother, or wife, death, abuse or other trauma that were to blame for his present state (in the Bat-world, that possibility that he may have been brought up poor and had to turn to crime to feed himself or his family is a non-issue).

Apart from the big mouth, he also shares another quality with Godzilla and several other famous monsters, notably Frankenstein: such beasts are often supposed to be the result of a scientific experiment that was ‘never meant to be’, that is, the populace who they terrorise is really to blame for their own misfortune because they or one of them tried to ‘know too much’ (in “Jaws,” even enjoying your bikini body on the beach in too light-hearted a fashion is a sure-fire way to bring down Dagon’s judgement, and we all know what happens to the couples in slasher flicks).

Similarly, Gotham’s population is at fault in Nolan’s vision: superstitious, querulous, and prone to greed, the ordinary people of Gotham are represented by some ridiculous vigilantes who try to be Batman and get themselves killed, and by two ferries, one full of criminals and the other full of the bourgeoisie, who, given the chance to vote, must necessarily commit evil (after whinging about ‘their rights’); they aren’t serious people (Bruce Wayne is serious), and the good is achieved always against the popular vote.

At this point in a monster movie the people are running around the streets of Tokyo like headless chickens while military force rumbles into town to save them. Wayne plays that role here: a lone millionaire and his weapons technology is the only answer to Gotham’s problems.

Wayne also has a nice line in tortured dialogue (and torture), and manages to have several husky arguments with and about the Joker. It is these sections which are usually held up as evidence of those Serious Political and Philosophical Themes, and several authors of various political leanings have already taken Batman for a glorious mascot. This strikes me as a grave mistake: the joke this film plays on us is that the Politics and Philosophy are of no more seriousness or merit than the explosions and motor-bikes-which-pop-out-of-cars; it is all a cartoon, ethically as well as aesthetically. No ‘position’ or ‘value’ which the film asks us to take up is any more useful in the real world than a can of shark-repellent or an Acme anvil.

What this film can show those who are interested in serious business is the way in which the ridiculous can be made to look sensible by ladling on enough of the right signifiers. Grim, gritty and bloody presentation is used in all sorts of dubious Political and Philosophical discourse to disguise the insipid, the paper-thin and the downright ‘pissy’.

The one reading we ought to take is the one expressly disapproved of by the film. The Joker is presented as a dangerously seductive villain (his seductiveness is supposed to bring complexity to the whole thing), but one who must of course be ultimately refused; his slogan ‘Why so serious?’ is meant to be acknowledged as a sly tactic to pull Batman off-track (recall the Mossad agents in Munich: they questioned themselves and had moral dilemmas, and thus were unquestionably the good guys).

Yet the truth is that Ledger’s Joker is really as close to a hero as one can find in the film: why is Batman so serious about cure and not prevention, about preserving a system so obviously productive of violence and pain – the very violence and pain that killed his parents – as the Capitalist metropolis Gotham? As a millionaire, can he not find even five minutes in which to flick through Das Kapital.

Crucially, why does he spend so much money on cars and guns when, were the Wayne millions spent on hospitals and schools, social security and job-creation, the effect on crime rates would vastly better what even a super-hero can do? The answer is, of course, that in Bat-world such things are a non-issue, and what the Joker does is to have the courage to peer beyond the limits of the fantasy film in which he finds himself.

We must applaud him for making some headway in this project of enlightenment: despite blowing things up, killing people and otherwise breaking the law, the Joker, being subsumed by the mask, has something radical: a total regard for the social. He really is just what he looks like on the outside, a monster; he ceases to be an individual and becomes a force in a certain direction, turning all about him into a flow of particles in intercourse – a bloody, explosive intercourse to be sure, but one which violates the cherished idea of ‘the individual’ which Batman (and the fantasy world of the film) is based on and works so hard to preserve.

In so much as the Joker works against the principle of individuality, of privacy, of ‘me against them’, he is a more serious threat to the logic of the anti-social tendency than Batman can ever be; for while the cartoon Russian, Chinese, Afro-American and Italian mobsters want to have the monopoly on things and power, and Batman feels it should instead be the very rich WASPs who should have this monopoly, the Joker wants to flip over the very board on which the game of I-have-and-you-don’t-have is played.

Indeed, it would not be too outrageous to acclaim the Joker’s noble sacrifice to the Mask – his courageous abandonment of individuality and the ego, to better break through the world of sophistry and lies which surrounds him – to be one of the great dramatic performances of the young century.

Of course, we will all have been taken for a ride if we do not see beyond even this sort of thing and understand the film’s true intentions: to produce just such a sensation of importance and seriousness, that I, you, and millions of other people will consider it worthy of our time, attention and money, thus producing profit for the mega-corporations which put it out.

This gimmick is increasingly how films make money in a world of cultural studies – the critic is, all of a sudden, a target audience, much to his chagrin (if he notices). In the same way, record companies know just how to make a band or musician appear independent, twee and quirky, to cater for a hip metropolitan audience.

We might well ask, of those whose impeccable taste means they always buy ‘Indie’ and never ‘Britney’: why so serious? Might we also ask this of those who take part in the current wave of flawed, individualistic rather than structural environmental schemes? It is on this primitive level that we need to be politically aware, quite apart from the raptures we might fly into about or against the content of the products.

One thought on “I believe in the Joker (while “The Dark Knight” rakes in the profit)

  1. “the joke this film plays on us is that the Politics and Philosophy are of no more seriousness or merit than the explosions and motor-bikes-which-pop-out-of-cars; it is all a cartoon, ethically as well as aesthetically. No ‘position’ or ‘value’ which the film asks us to take up is any more useful in the real world than a can of shark-repellent or an Acme anvil.”

    “..the truth is that Ledger’s Joker is really as close to a hero as one can find in the film: why is Batman so serious about cure and not prevention,”

    A Reply:
    A triumph of style over substance, with the Joker recast as subversive saviour encouraging social synergy and Batman an empty platitude isolated and irrelevant..hmmm..I humbly beg to differ.

    The Dark Knight is not only a true classics of the comic book and any other film genere and despite its big budget stunts this is not just one for the fanboy sect, but neither is it your standard comic book tale of heroism and absolutes. The story focuses on the question of what justice is while also (perhaps more importantly) criticizing the destructive materialism, untempered indulgence and superficiality, of Gothams criminals and citizens alike issues which are very much still afflicting our society today as we deal with the wake of renewed imperialism and corruption.

    Ultimately The Dark Knight is about the proper conduct of a human being: explored through the dichotomy between Bale’s Batman and Ledger’s Joker.

    There is Bale’s Batman, uncorruptable and implaccable in his pursuit of justice even though the people around him may be corrupt and morally bankrupt, and even though they may have surrendered their faith in community and one another to denial and apathy – he does not. While Bale in his role as Bruce Wayne at times in his conversations with Alfred expresses that he feels his efforts to bring order to the lawless and miserable Gotham City are at best misguided and at worst futile – still he presses on and continues to do what is just and good, in the face of all possible rejection and criticism.

    Then there is Heath Ledger’s brilliantly portrayed Joker; Batman is stretched to the point of surrender by the Joker’s all-too-knowing manipulation of the media’s pathology and American theme-park culture. the Joker may be a de-centered whirlwind of morbid indulgence who essentially chooses his own past and therefore has no normative restraints on his future behaviour, but this is also apart of his attration as he pointedly tells Batman “..the only sensible way to live is without rules.” This unpredictable ‘devil may care’ attitude makes Heath Ledger’s Joker far more chilling, far more suggestive, and thus dangerously appealing since without the social conscience that informs our actions, who are we really? In the ferry scene, the Joker is seeking to prove the answer is that there’s no difference between him and everyone else! Since as he tells Batman ” ..madness is like gravity all it takes is a little push” All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where he is!

    The duality between this harlequin in toxic greasepaint and the billionaire-playboy who dresses up like a flying bat reminds me of a certain line from Cervante’s Don Quixote:- “Don Quixote is a madman and we are sane, yet he goes away sound and laughing while your Grace is left here, battered and sorrowful. I wish you would tell me now who is the crazier: the one who is so because he cannot help it, or he who turns crazy of his own free will?” – Batman risks the very core of his being to put himself on the wavelength of the Joker as he tracks and combats him, and the consequences for him (and those he loves) are real and immediate.

    Here is the main point I differ with the writer about; The Dark Knight succeeds because Nolan’s Batman heroically serves an ideal of justice in hope of restoring reason and truth to a diseased, collapsing society, all while expecting no reward and never abusing his power, no matter the personal sacrifice. Thus making him not just a superhero and a good man – but whats more an idea – an idea of JUSTICE – Batman portrays this paradigm unswervingly throughout the film ensuring that the people that are left in his wake have been treated fairly, so maybe, just maybe, they would so be inspired to treat others with respect,thus breeding a juster culture.

    So unlike your article I believe the true success of The Dark Knight is to be able to cloak this message of social justice among other ideological themes in a commercial format, allowing us to put our guards down just long enough for Nolan to hit us in between our eyes and wake up our minds. Nolan has produced a work that truly prods the mind and astounds the senses at the same time. What more can one ask for from Hollywood in these days of compromise and duplicity?

Comments are closed.