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.