1. i watched The Dark Knight again last night, my third viewing. It improves with rewatching. An excellent fan-made trailer:
The film is, i think, about 20 minutes too long, and has some plot incongruities – so after a frantic road chase, the Joker is apprehended, only to bust himself out, and Gordon says, as if this is obvious or makes any sense, “the Joker planned to be caught”. Given how nearly he wasn’t captured, this is nuts. The film would have been vastly improved by some trimming and streamlining.
On my third viewing, i found myself as it were editing the film in my head, maintaining thematic continuities when they are submerged under unnecessary subplots. The Joker is the star, of course, Batman being a largely silent and masked presence, reacting to the Joker’s machinations. The Joker is the chaos at the heart of things, in pointless opposition to the manmade order, an order which is both imperfect and necessary. He is the absolute revolutionary, akin to the bandit in Alfred’s tale, the man who robs and kills but discards his loot as irrelevant. If Dent is a kind of fascist authority, the Joker is the opposite, willing a permanent revolution until all civilised order disintegrates. For all his destructive actions, he does not wish to destroy it from the outside, like the Muslims; he is a figure like the cultural Marxist, who wants to persuade all others to his nihilism (a trend which now dominates). He will triumph when those who live and are sheltered within the imperfect civilised order destroy it themselves. In his unvarnished chaos, he is also, finally, opposed to the criminal mob (who have their own kind of order). If chaos is seemingly inevitable, so is order. There will be the Joker, as there is the Batman.
2. The superheroes and supervillains are human – this is not a supernatural tale – but they have powers which set them above those they protect or destroy, the merely human. When Harvey Dent, a fairly ordinary DA, becomes Two Face, he suddenly has the power to slip through plot holes like the Joker or Batman, to survive what looks like a fatal car crash. Masks, grotesque make-up, facial disfiguring, accompany this transfiguration. Even if one supposes the Joker or Batman to have some kind of armour or exceptionally high pain tolerance, they both swiftly recover from beatings which would leave a human being crippled or dead. This kind of power goes with an abstention from normal human life; it requires a concealed identity (Batman); an unknown real identity (the Joker, with his multiple “how I got my scars” origin myths, “Nothing. No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias”); or a new identity which maintains only the most vestigial and unreasoning attachment to the old human life (Two Face). A good account here:
The Joker’s complete detachment from the material world, from life itself, renders him beyond simple good and evil and into another category altogether, the complete and impersonal danger of anarchy.
i think the Joker is evil but more in his actions and effects than in his essential character – that being anarchy, to destroy order, all human bonds and faith, all continuity and meaning:
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. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Not that this is likely to be manifest except as what i would call evil, and perhaps all evil characters necessarily have some other, if malign, essence (evil being somehow too insubstantial to be the groundstone of a sentient life).
3. i see the Marvel and DC characters as akin to the gods of yore. Just as Batman has his many different versions – Keaton, Clooney, Kilmer, Bale, different origin stories, so we find multiple, often contradicting accounts in ancient mythology. It is a sign of an inherent imaginative power, when a figure like Batman, or Odin, is subject to interpretation, cast in different guises, contradicting tales (as one might say a good song can be covered and transformed by others).
Monotheism is a different understanding, but even here there is a natural fragmentation and coherence, as we see in the many different Christs – starting in the four gospels. Monotheism is a product of scripture – something lacking in polytheism – with organised schools of theology, and, in Catholicism, a central authority. One need only regard Protestantism, with its thousands of vociferous, embattled and battling sects, to see how naturally symbols are refracted through human interests and passions. Even what i would see as the most monolithic monotheism, Islam, has its sects and divisions.
Perhaps, lacking a concrete idea of god – no imagery, no human incarnation – Islam is something of a special case. It also seems to have passed untouched by Greek philosophy (unlike Christianity), and never to have experienced Jewish nitpicking and theorising, not that i know much of Judaism (or Islam). i note that people who never pray, have never read the Koran, and more or less ignore the tenets of Islam will still call themselves “Muslim”, just because they were born in a Muslim country. But then, 20 years ago it was more normal for people to call themselves Christian on similar grounds. i don’t think many now, in Europe anyway, will call themselves Christian unless they actually do something about it – go to Church, read the Bible, etc.
4. Taking the long view of things, it seems dangerously naive to suppose one can just destroy a culture, or a belief, and expect everyone to get along to the strains of John Lennon’s grotesque ‘Imagine’. Beliefs, gods, are often enough malign but that’s because they are part of human life and we are often enough malign – we contain something of everything that impinges upon us, everything we perceive and can think about. So, The Dark Knight is – for all its flaws & bloated length – also an account of our own late disorder and ambivalence to the civilisation we have inherited and partly destroyed. Perhaps, in this fictive universe, Batman is the closest to a hero because he is neither totalitarian – he himself lives beyond the order he protects, and has a basic reluctance to kill – nor is he the “agent of chaos”, but rather a strange compromise figure, recognising the deceits we live by, because he himself operates so; as Bane will remark in the sequel:
Theatricality and deception, powerful agents against the uninitiated… But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?
There is a certain kinship between the superheroes and supervillains, for they are initiated into the power of secrecy; they have more in common with each other than with those they either protect or destroy. It would be inconceivable for Batman to be an unmasked, public hero. In this universe, those who operate without a mask or persona, within the matrix of society, accepted, legitimate, human, are unable to effect much. To change the world, you must be unworldly. As Gordon says in the closing scene:
he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.
and so it is, that those who stand on the very margins are the real centre. They determine the world, because they stand outside of it.