Some Reflections on The Dark Knight

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 21, 2009

Its been a year since The Dark Knight hit the screens. I am not much of a movies person but I should say that this flick had an impact on me. I am not attempting to write a movie review but rather analyzing the characters of the protagonist and the antagonist, their world views.

I used to like Batman as a kid. The concept of a “good guy” standing up for what is “right” and beating up the baddies all by himself is definitely appealing. That too, for Indian kids, who are conditioned by their socialization with family and education to believe that order is the ideal, a defender of social stability would appear a hero. And the caped crusader’s portrayal as a “dark character” also added to his charm. But that was childhood. Intellectual maturity unfortunately does not allow the bliss of naïve romanticism.

The first four Batman movies had a lot of gadgets, goofy villains, hot women, fight scenes – but little stuff to ponder about. Batman Begins was a break from those kid-flicks and had a sober theme. But The Dark Knight, with its striking closeness to reality, took super-hero movies to a different level. Though movies like Underworld, X-men, Spiderman too have some underlying social themes, none have been as provocative or as hard hitting as the Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan has made a daring attempt to cast light on the dark side of society and the human psyche. But perennial skeptic that I am, I had to find flaws in his judgement.

If you belong to that school of thought that believes that there is no art that is aloof from class and politics, then you will agree that a provoking film like The Dark Knight is based in particular kind of socio-political world view. I call it bourgeois morality – and this has been primarily responsible for the way the characters in the movie were projected. The “good side” represents the ideal values of bourgeois society while the “bad side” is its bane, its anti-thesis. Questions of morality are evoked, only to conclude that people are intrinsically “moral” while the “immoral” ones are the exceptions.

If you’re familiar with the ‘patriotic movies’ of Hollywood, you will notice that a streak of anti-communism is evident is most of them. Now, The Dark Knight has been released at a time when the US is receiving criticism worldwide for its “war on terror.” The main theme of the movie is the conflict between the system and what it perceives as the anti-system and the extent to which the system can go to defeat its enemies. The system, represented by Batman, Dent, Rachel, Gordon et al is presented as being fundamentally good, though there a few black sheep. The challenge to the system, represented by the Joker and the mob is presented as being fundamentally bad, though they might have a few strong arguments in their favour. And the good guys within the system make sure that the system does not cross its limits even under extreme pressure from the bad guys.

It is to Nolan’s credit that he has allowed the “bad side,” the Joker, to make strong arguments in his favour instead of simply portraying him as a sadistic demon. But the limits of his objectivity ends there. Nolan covers up the fact that the bad guys are products of the system, of the economic order that creates striking inequalities among people. The mob is not a flaw existing outside the system, nay, it is a progeny of the very system that Batman & Co defend. If Carmine Falcone is morally wrong, then so is the society that fosters conditions that makes some people so desperate that they have to take recourse in crime. So in my opinion, which somewhat corresponds to that of the Joker, the system is the criminal and destroying the established order is part of the solution. But yeah, Batman would have none of it.

So what is Batman’s weltanschauung anyway? Look at Bruce Wayne, he’s the ideal American. White, rich, handsome and very.. ahem.. social. He’s the capitalist with a conscience, if there be such a creature. He is the corporate czar with a misplaced sense of social responsibility. He was witness to the murder of his parents by a vagrant in search of easy cash and thus, he feels that he was wronged by the scum of society. He decides to take it upon himself to defend society from its unwanted lot. And how does he do it? By becoming a hooded vigilante. But then, he is not a vengeful, violent character like, say, Wolverine. He has rules that he would never break. So I feel that the title of ‘Dark Knight’ is rather unsuitable for the Batman considering that he is desperately trying to play “fair” all the time. But for all his fairness, the Batman’s methods are doomed to fail because he’s barking up the wrong tree. Targeting individual criminals can never be the solution when society and its rules, morals, codes and values created by the ruling class to serve their own interests are the disease. And I believe that a wrong diagnosis can complicate the disease, make it worse. Then again, this is what bourgeois morality is all about.

Now to the Joker. He isn’t what his name suggests. The Joker in the Dark Knight is not the buffoon-villain played by Jack Nicholson in the first Batman. No, no. This is a very serious philosophical character, with a touch of dark humour, played to perfection by Heath Ledger. It is a tragedy that Ledger’s best performance had to be his last (I doubt whether anyone else can recreate the Joker the way Ledger did) – and he rightfully received the Academy Award for best supporting actor posthumously. I felt that that he was the real lead character in the movie considering that the Joker was the driver of all the main events – right from pushing Batman and the establishment to their wits end to “converting” Harvey Dent. I am not sure if he “put a smile on that face” when he kills Gambol, but he did put one on mine when he makes the following argument to Batman

“You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Ah! A man after my own heart. Ledger’s Joker is closer to reality than many would like to accept. Morals and codes of bourgeois society are constructs of the ruling classes with the primary purpose of maintaining their hegemony over society. A Nietzschean would say that that every system of morals is opposed to nature and reason. The hypocrisy of morality in bourgeois-feudal societies is all too obvious for those who observe it closely – it is bent, twisted or even temporarily done away with as and when required by the ruling classes. In societies like India, where structured inequalities ensure that a minority remains rich and a majority remains poor, a system of morality and rules created by a nexus of religion, society and politics serves as the perfect opiate of the masses, thereby ensuring “order.” The Joker attacks the hypocrisy of the bourgeois when he says that “they’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” He makes an effective argument that people show their true colours when their interests are affected – when that happens, “the civilization and justice of bourgeois order stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge” (thank you Marx).

Consider this conversation with Harvey Dent

“Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying!”

Now ain’t that true? The massacre of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji didn’t provoke any reaction from the Indian bourgeois and its agents. But when that Aarushi Talwar case came on television everyone lost their minds! How could it happen to her? Murder or rape of Dalits is a daily affair but a good looking, fair-skinned, urban, upper caste, upper-class girl is not meant to die – its not “according to plan.” And so, you had television anchors screaming on top of their lungs, spoilt-brat organizations like YFE staging candlelight protests (they didn’t light a matchstick for the Dalits) and politicians trying to assure that ‘everything is under control.’ Tragedy is tragic only when it strikes close home.

The Joker has a solution to these structural inequalities

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos…Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”

I guess that’s what necessary in India. Upsetting the established order of society – politics, economics, family, education, everything. Order in a semi-feudal country like ours, where discrimination is sanctioned by religion and enforced by society, has done more damage than good.

So let there be chaos!

“You poor take courage, you rich take care,
this earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share.
All things in common, all people one
they came in peace, next time we’ll bring a gun”

(The World Turned Upside Down)

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11 Responses

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  1. Aashique said, on September 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    A very amusing view of things. I would like to add two points which I felt were salient.

    1) The movie was over hyped. Smart but then I have seen much smarter.

    2) The movie attempts to contextualise long existent hero myths in order to emphasise in words that may seem civilised the absolute intolerance of a certain nation to any form of resistance.In addition it glorifies the sheer lack of understanding of this particular nation for the ‘other’.

    • Karthik RM said, on September 7, 2009 at 11:58 pm

      1. Please dont compare this movie with those of a different league – like say Schindler’s List. For a ‘super-hero’ movie, this was awfully close to reality.

      2. Rather, ideologies that have been associated with ‘other nations.’ A general failure of American bourgeois psyche – just like the bourgeoisie of any other nation – to analyse contradictions within its own society.

  2. Aashique said, on September 8, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    well there was “V for vendetta” a superhero movie that was about Fascism and the peoples response. then there was “watchmen” that was so deep it takes two watchings (sic) and has provoked Phds while being totally acessible and fun to watch. Then there has been “Equilibrium” which was very definitely a GREAT movie.

    on the second point perhaps not without a view to maintain their own interests..

    • Karthik RM said, on October 21, 2009 at 6:32 pm

      I havent seen any of the movies that you’ve mentioned and so, I cant comment on them. And I didnt mention “I am not much of a movies person ” without a reason.

  3. Talha said, on January 9, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    umar khalid told me to go through your article. Very nice i have to say.
    that was a very provoking analysis.
    i fantasize about this the Joker all the time. they has never been a more intelligent portrayal of a villain in any Hollywood movie (the majority would agree).

    but dont you think you are limiting his role and characteristics. you see the joker is nit just a product of the bourgeoisie society that you talk about. he is in essence an anarchists. he would have been the same even if he had no terrifying childhood or whatever the factors be. he is a born maverick. and anarchists are stupid people.

    and i very much differ with the “He’s the capitalist with a conscience, if there be such creature.” thats a rhetoric.

    • Karthik RM said, on January 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

      Thank you.

      No is born with a particular worldview. Social conditions make people what they are – this is a basic sociological/psychological understanding. Quoting Marx, it is not man’s consciousness that determines his existence, but rather his social existence that determines his consciousness.

      If a capitalist claims to be conscientious, it isnt without some self-interest. If not, he is not a capitalist.

      • Sir Francis Dashwood said, on January 13, 2010 at 6:30 pm

        The best thing about being an atheist is that there is no pretense I need to give a damn about somebody else’s fucking “feelings.”

        Nature is pure war, with every man against another. Fear of death is the only way to keep peace; so man is civilized by the restraint of violence against him for transgressions upon his neighbor.

        The ability for the weakest to kill the strongest is the only thing that makes man civilized. Marx was a lying turd and no different than the Pope…

        “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villian.” (Harvey Two Face)

  4. Sir Francis Dashwood said, on January 13, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Morality and all of its associated ideals are rooted entirely in the presupposition some higher power defines what is correct for human behavior.

    The best thing about being an atheist is that there is no pretense I need to give a damn about somebody else’s fucking “feelings.”

    Nature is pure war, with every man against another. Fear of death is the only way to keep peace; so man is civilized by the restraint of violence against him for transgressions upon his neighbor.

    The argument of some higher purpose is religious fallacy and those who preach it are no different even if they CLAIM atheism. They just want to set themselves up in a temple for others to genuflect before their assumed divinity.

    The notion that children need to be indoctrinated and badgered into thinking a certain way is the insecurity of adults, a universal dissatisfaction with mortality reaching out for an eternal ideal. Whether this is done by atheists or by godists, it is exactly the same.

    Myself, I don’t care why the Islamics hate me, I just want them dead, I’m not interested in saving anybody…

    Most men believe the same thing: They all believe their weenies come from heaven and that this (in their minds) gives them some sanctified right to play “god.”

    Introduce a little chaos into the situation, it is only fair…

  5. Nima said, on September 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Thank you for sharing it Karthik, it was nice reading it. There are a couple of things that struck me in the movie and I also find it interesting to mull over not only why certain things are striking but also why we find it striking. I may not be able to put it in words as clearly as I would like, so I am hoping that it will be better when we meet and discuss.
    True, I liked the Dark Night because of the character of Joker in it that was unlike those that preceeded it. My liking for batman and also phantom (numerous problems notwithstanding) when I was younger was also to some extent because I felt that he was more real, like not really someone with supernatural powers but someone who was making himself, needless to say this liking was not informed by the analysis of the kind of investment-capital and otherwise, that goes into making him.
    In the movie however, the way I read the title was that-It wasn’t really as dark knight-as someone who has dark shades to his character but that the good ones will have to take the mantle of being identified as dark-for the sake of doing good.
    I think I agree that that character of joker cannot be captured by summoning the limitations of bourgeois morality/order alone. I think what makes it fascinating is that it goes beyond being explained away so simply.
    But what struck me in the movie and what seems to escape most discussions on the movie is the particular scene where there are the two ships that the Joker intends to get blown up by each other. It is an interesting aspect in my understanding-those who take the decision of not blowing up the others is notably the convicts, this setting is quite intriguing. On the surface of it, it may seem like the usual cliche-appealing/belief of the inate human goodness or for that matter vulgar hollywood optimisim, but then it is in it that I see the true supplement to the Joker. That is anarchy in the scheme of the Joker when people refuse to blow each other up. So the movie as I see it is not really about the contrast between the Joker and Batman as even Joker appears to think but in the nature of overall anarchy itself that refuses to get pinned down.
    I don’t know if I have been able to express that clearly, but then it is getting too long 🙂
    The other thing I saw mentioned above was-V-for Vendetta, I definitely think that it is worth the watch even for those who are not too much into movies 🙂
    I think that it is a wonderful exposition of a symptom of our time and it is a joy not only because of wonderful dialogues and settings but the entire way in which it deals with the question of violence. Lets all watch it together, someday?
    Apologies for the typos, I am not doing a second reading.

    • omalone1 said, on September 15, 2012 at 5:23 am

      Thank you actually. That is the most appealing boat commentary I have read as of yet. I saw it and entertained the idea if a btaintrashed criminal failing to take vengeance against the people who had failed him and his fellow inmates, and then went forward to again condemn these incarcerated people by claiming they “had their chance” . Notice how on the criminal boat there were no ratiotalisations and yet, isn’t that what criminals
      are accused of doing.??? Either way, as joker revealed, the ship was mere fireworks, the real ceremony was the Dent finale

  6. Nima said, on September 10, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    So in a crude sense, America will have to risk being called bad but beneath it all it is just another soul functioning through the preserves of innate-do good, it has its failings, love and emotions like all the rest of us, but it sacrifices it all for the sake of its adherence to ‘right’ 🙂 and that we are to feel awe, tragedy, and admiration towards its sacrificism and heroism- Thats how I read the title to a larger extent.

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