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)

Tagged with: , , ,