The joke is on me, I think…

I guess I’ll start things off.

I feel that the fundamental theme of The Dark Knight is escalation. With Batman Begins and it’s aftermath, Batman has done real good for Gotham; he stopped the Bond villain’s plan and is cleaning up the streets. But Batman’s methods are obviously extreme – he dresses up as a creature of the night and beats the shit out of people – and he’s new; an innovation. He is the “atomic bomb” of crime fighting. Essentially, Batman hopes to “jump start” the system by using his extreme measures – sheer force of will and skill -which are outside of the law and traditional justice. Once “jump started”,  the system – hopefully – can then start taking care of itself.

It is important to note that all of the male “good guys” in this film share Batman’s basic attitude – that by sheer force of will they can jump start the system and get things working as they should. Harvey “makes his own luck” to enforce his own will and Gordon is willing to fake his own death – and hurt his family – to trap the Joker. All of these men have good intentions – their ends justify their means.

But by going outside the rules to save the rules, Batman et al. changed the rules. They escalated the stakes involved in justice in Gotham – once you use the atom bomb, there is no going back, you’re living in the atomic age. The Joker is the blow-back to the actions of Batman. The unintended consequences of Batman’s good intentions.

Once the Joker hits the scene there is nothing Batman, Gordon, and Harvey can do but further escalate things. In the end, the Joker is defeated but everything they fought for is compromised and destroyed; innocents were murdered, Rachel is dead, Harvey’s a madman, and Batman a villain.

There is a quote from the movie A Man For All Seasons that ties in well with the political themes of Dark Knight. Thomas More puts it to his inquisitors:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Christopher Nolan’s point is similar. By circumventing the law to save it, Batman, Harvey, and Gordon doomed themselves and Gotham to the terrors of the Joker. This is what makes Dark Knight a “liberal” movie. It’s argument is that liberal – neutral – justice, for all it’s flaws and possibilities for rank corruption, is better than the sort of justice “by force of will” that Batman represents. When justice is enforced by men alone there is nothing but constant escalation of violence and chaos. By using chaos to preserve order, Batman created the space for the Joker to turn Batman’s means against his ends.

The Killing Joke is different. It’s arguments – I feel – are more about human nature. Moore to saying that you can’t tell the real character of a man until he’s had one bad day. Each of the main male characters in The Killing Joke – Batman, the Joker, Gordon – each have a terrible day inflicted upon them and it shows their true character.

In this reading, – I’m sure Doctor Brown isn’t going to like this – Batman is not the hero of The Killing Joke. Gordon is. Both Batman and The Joker are insane. The Joker looks out at the world as sees nothing but chaos – the world is a joke to him. As the Joke puts it himself, “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous demented gag!” Batman too sees the world as chaos but instead of embracing it – like his archenemy – he wants to bring order to it. Through any means necessary. Both of these men were driven insane by their loses – of a wife and parents – and their physical traumas – in the Joker’s case being dumped in acid.

Gordon too has undergone their trauma in The Killing Joke – the Joker tortured him and inflicted untold horrors on his daughter. But unlike Batman or the Joker, Gordon doesn’t snap. He stays true to himself and to law and justice. He doesn’t embrace either the Joker’s chaotic joke of existence or Batman’s violent quest for order. As he tells Batman, the Joker must be “brought in by the book!”

What Moore is saying is that we don’t need more men like Batman but more men like Gordon.

Putting The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight in the context of the other brings out their most interesting quality: their supposed “hero” – the Batman – isn’t really a hero at all. Fundamentally Batman has good intentions but his means are fundamentally counter productive – and perhaps more than a little insane. What both Moore and Nolan seem to be arguing is that we don’t need Batman’s superhuman justice but human justice. Batman’s quest to bring order through chaos is – to Moore – insane and – to Nolan – destructive to its own ends. The joke both of these works share – I think – is that as much as we all yearn for superhuman solutions to our problems, what really need is to look to ourselves and not to the gods for answers. Human justice and institutions are – as deeply flawed as they are – preferable to the constant escalation of violence and insanity of superhuman justice.

There is another similarity of equal importance between the Killing Joke and The Dark Knight; both are tinged with more than a little sexism and – perhaps? – misogyny. The female main characters – Rachel and Barbara – of both works are victims of plot, happenstance, and violence. They show little to no agency. They are simply objects to be thrown under the bus at the right moment to affect the main characters. This misogyny damages the value of both works and its a subject worthy of discussion in and of itself.

I think this is a good starting point for our discussion. I look forward to seeing what everybody else has to say.

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2 Comments on “The joke is on me, I think…”

  1. Doctor Brown says:

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with the bulk of your reading, I’d have to say you are missing — and perhaps oversimplifying — what both of these works have to say about Batman. Without going into too much detail, as I’d like to expand upon this in my piece — I think that both works, but especially The Dark Knight, say a lot about the nature of the hero/social reformer’s good qualities. I mean, you completely disregarded Gordon’s oh-so-theatrical monologue at the end of the film, in which he talks about Batman as the hero Gotham does not deserve, but needs. Batman’s influence does “jump start” the good and the courage in the people of Gotham — they won’t play Joker’s game at the end of the film. While the very fact that there was a Batman made the Joker possible, and no stress introduced into a system is without reaction, it would have been much worse had Batman done nothing.

  2. i look forward to your comments.

    a couple of things:
    1.) i certainly agreed that if batman had “done nothing” once the joker showed up things would have been much worse. the question is: would there be a joker without a batman? i would argue that no batman = no joker. but it is an open question.

    2.) i do ignore gordon’s monologue (honestly, i think it’s the worst part of the movie). to me the ending represents the final door shutting on batman’s goal: he can never quit being batman because he had escalated things to the point were there MUST be a batman. in the end his success caused him to fail. he can never take off the mask.

    3.) did people of gotham chose correctly because of the batman? it’s an interesting question, one open to a bunch of different interpretations. i would argue that they don’t. what the events on the boats show is that most people – even those backed into an impossible situation – are basically decent (even criminals!?!). people like the joker are the exception not the rule. this – to me – supports my basic reading of the movie as an argument for liberal justice. people are basically decent enough for reform within the system to work, by going outside the system like batman did makes things more difficult for them. again, that’s just my opinion. and i look forward to your thoughts.


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