Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why So Serious: A Thematic Analysis of The Dark Knight

It's a bold question, but someones got to ask it. In fact, I would continue with the current theme of boldness and assert that, in the past few years, "Why so serious?" has been the topic of debate among many pop culture enthusiasts. Virtually, in all sectors of entertainment, we see an overwhelming shadow of ambivalence seeping over in the past few years. In film, 2006's coveted Best Picture Oscar went to Martin "I'll Put Your Fucking Head in a Vice" Scorsese for his take on the modern cop drama, The Departed; in 2007, the same prestige went to the only men sick enough to make putting a dead body into a tree cutter funny (the Coen Brothers) for their neo-western-noir, No Country For Old Men. In literature, any best seller list will surely express dour trends; the most telling of all is in what we read in the nonfiction sections; for example, in the New York Times Best Seller List, What Happened, a tell-all by a former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, consistently takes the top spot. In music, while many examples would be pertinent, Coldplay's most recent work, Viva La Vida is, arguably, the most interesting. A band who has made a living based off loving ballads and sonnets about unrequited love in the late 90s-early 00s, suddenly writes a record that is, as lead singer Chris Martin has openly cited, heavily influenced by the baroque, industrial, and post-punk sounds of Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, and Arcade Fire, all bands known for their intense vibrato and sullenly unhappy themes. If you want to look at any one epoch's characterization of their times, look at what the makers of popular culture had to say during its time; in other words, popular discourse reflects the current social anxieties of its respective context. In the 20s, we had our Great Gatsby, in the 50s we had our Bridge on the River Kwai, in the 70s we had our Saturday Night Fevers, in the 90s we had our Shakespeare in Love. In the latter half of the first decade of 2000, we have a trend of "seriousness", a hoarse, chilling and inconvenient voice that acts as nothing but a whisper in the face of our petro-capitalistic, war-hungry, terror-inducting times. Suffice it to say, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a product of its environment; a welcomed addition to our most recent cultural works, such as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, that act as a cathartic armistice against our indelibly bleak and unsettling times.

The Godfather, The Untouchables, Good Fellas, Heat, The Departed...The Dark Knight?
Almost every rousing review from the cesspool of the bloodthirsty 'intellectuals' we know as critics, mention two things: that Heath Ledger is a shoe in for a posthumous Academy Award nomination, and that The Dark Knight is a worthy addition to the myriad of American crime dramas. Stemming back all the way to the 1930s with Howard Hawks' Scarface, Americans have always had a penchant for the mafia, corrupted cops and anti-heroes. But as much as the Mafia has been part of the American mythos, comic books have had just as much of an impact on the shaping of American myths. While the public's fascination with the mob are slowly starting to wain (i.e. The Sopranos), viewers are looking elsewhere for their grand narratives. The "comic book movie" is now THE largest staple in Hollywood, with options being made on what studios think might be the next big thing, fanboys have been salavating from their mouths ever since X-Men hit big in 2000. However, it's not until eight years later, with Christopher Nolan at the helm of one of the most epic productions ever attempted, that someone finally nailed why comics, much like its mob-affiliated predecessor, have been so pervasive in American society.

The following is an analysis of the three main character in The Dark Knight. This isn't a traditional review, but more a of a delving into the narrative, with the goal to assess the themes that prove to be true to the millions of people who still continue to see it. I love the flick, obviously; I would never dedicate a page to the tropes and themes of something I did not find pop culturally and socially important. I would give a spoiler warning, but let's be honest, my parents have seen this, and they don't even know what spoiler means.

The Triptych: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Bad: "Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair."

Like Javier Bardem's stoic portrayal of Anton Chigurh, Heath Ledger's penultimate performance as the iconic Joker marks its presence in the list of greatest and most menacing villains in film history. While the Joker acts accordingly, like how a murdering bastard is supposed to (with a penchant for knives and slow deaths), the Joker's iconic legacy is catalyzed not by his actions, but by his socially prevalent ideology, which, ironically in this day and age, is consistently marked by a lack of morality, or just a dedication to one overarching, all-encompassing ideal. The Joker, in other words, is the manifestation of the zeitgeist of our times, an atmosphere that is often grim, feral and morose. Solipsistic, sociopathic, and, most of all, an absolutist, there is no ambiguous complexity or postmodern characteristic within the Joker's persona, no shades of grey, just a tunneled perspective (probably colored purple) of what he believes is a ideologically justified feast of frenzy and chaos. Like the notable villains of historic past, such as Richard III, Hans Beckert, Alex DeLarge, Hannibal Lectur, and most recently, Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview, The Joker has no reason to his madness, no method to his maniac, and no end goal in plain sight. The Joker, essentially, just wants to break the rules. Not really an anarchist, nor is he really a nihilist, but like all men who portray characteristics bold enough to be labeled 'evil incarnate', the psycho harlequin wants the power to move his pieces on the board, not necessarily with the goal to take down the King, but to create enough confusion and chaos for his opponent to struggle. A man that, as Alfred so poetically put it, "just wants to watch the world burn". In one scene, The Joker explains his somewhat Marxian view to Harvey Dent, the Joker sees that there is no point for rational in a world filled with so much irrationality, that the rules that Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Batman, and Harvey Dent adhere to are just in place to create standardized and pre-digested expectations, easy to swallow by the general public, and subsequently leading to a world of alienation. This is Joker's main thesis,the only thing that he truly believes in. But, like all who oppose the dominant hegemonic social structure, he even admits that he lacks a constructive answer, his solution is just to set things on fire and watch it crumble. Like he says, "I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one of them if I caught it."

The Ugly: "You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance."

The antithesis of the Joker's ideology is personified through Harvey Dent. Portrayed by Aaron Eckhart, who gives a dazzling performance that marks a character downfall that rivals Michael Corleone in
The Godfather, Dent is the shining example of the dehumanization of the modern man; a person who easily manipulated and susceptible to despair. Dent, who inevitably transforms into Two Face, is a representation of the constant struggle between rationality and irrationality, order and disorder. The Joker character brings this dichotomy into light: Why be decent in an indecent world? What's the point of being civil when all of the world is inherently chaotic? This is why the Joker is so willing to die by the flip of a coin-- decisions and directives are not determined by rules, but by the fickle hand of fate. Despite all of Dent's noble intentions, he ultimately becomes a more dangerous version of the Joker, a person who commits criminal actions justified by the ambiguity and complexity of morality. Dent, in order to combat what he views as injustice, stoops to the level of his enemies. The ends justify the means for Dent, but like many good people with similar intentions, to reach the end is to compromise integrity. The Joker ultimately wins, while the public may not know it, he ultimately shows that the strongest of good people is as feral and uncivilized as the psycho who wears make up, that if, someone as strong as Gotham's "White Knight" can lose his humanity, what's the point in hope? In a world where noble heroes are hard to find, it's a sad thing to wonder if the Joker is right.

The Good: "Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector...a dark knight."

As much as I hate having to drag Joseph Campbell into this again, his seminal work, Hero of a Thousand Faces, is so pertinent that to not discuss him would be downright negligent. Undoubtedly, the comic book medium has become so prevalent within American pop culture that it has morphed into our postmodern day version of mythology and Campbell is the foremost authority. Campbell believes that each culture's first interaction with concepts such as good and evil are defined by a self-chosen "archetypal hero", an idealized personification of what a culture/society holds to be true, virtuous and selfless, characteristics that create a vision of a "super man", an unattainable model that good men should aspire to inhabit. Campbell goes onto suggest, however, that this "archetypal hero" is only truly defined when juxtaposed with his polar opposite, a mirrored-twin that reflects the antithesis of our hero's ideology, convictions, behavior, and ultimately, his identity. In this abhorrent reflection of what the hero can possibly digress into, we have the construction of the "super villian", the ostentatious echelon of hostile temerity, a soldier of fiendish consternation, and the counterbalance to the hero's benevolence. It can go without saying, Batman and The Joker are on opposite ends of the spectrum, mirrored twins, diametrically antithetical to each other; yet, both men cannot reach the full potential of who they both are (one, an agent of order; the other, of chaos) without each other.

Batman: Why do you want to kill me?
The Joker: Kill you? I don't want to kill complete me.

The Batman and The Joker, albeit having polar opposite ideologies, are essentially the same person. Both outlaws, outcasts, and, most importantly, symbols to their respective causes. As much as The Joker is 'evil incarnate', Batman is 'morality incarnate'. Ostensibly, however, Harvey Dent is known as the hero in the eyes of Gotham City; the people's new hope, their white knight, and, consequently, the most vulnerable. Dent represents the downfall of the common man, what Bruce Wayne foresaw in the first act of Batman Begins:

"People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I'm flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting."

This symbol devolves Bruce Wayne into half a monster, descending himself in the criminal underworld, a kind of downward mobility one does not expect from an aristocratic upbringing. This symbol, since it is incorruptible and everlasting, is allowed to be said monster, it can use terror as a tactic against those who breed it; since there is no accountability, Batman is eternal. The same, conversely, can be said for the Joker, who lacks an identity, ignores accountability and uses terror against those, from his point of view, who breed it. In the end, both Batman and Jim Gordon come to the conclusion that, while Gotham City needs to be restored to a peaceful, civil order, what is most direly needed first is the concept of hope. As a symbol, Batman represents all that is orderly and good, but hope is more important than order. Bruce Wayne, at one point, was even driven to relinquish the cape and the cowl, giving into the demands of the Joker. At that point, Wayne saw that he could never inspire the hope that he set out to accomplish, that the lack of a face, persona, and voice will forever label him as a vigilante, and never a legitimate cause of progress.

Nolan is the first director to tap into what has made Batman such a ubiquitous icon since his conception in 1953. Bruce Wayne has always been a purveyor of the road less traveled--believing that to stoop to the levels of implementation that his enemies use would only serve as a detriment. Realistically, though, Batman's difficulty with handling the myriad of fiendish criminals would cease to exist if Bruce Wayne let go of what Joker believes is a smug, self-righteous, sense of entitlement. As Wayne is burning the evidence that traces his Bat to Lucius and Rachel, he tells Alfred, "I see now what I have to become to stop men like him", he realizes that what he must do is the same as what Alfred did in Burma: "burn the forest down". Batman, in the end, finally succumbs. He uses Lucius Fox's sonar creation to create a virtual projection of every living person with a cell phone in Gotham City, the manifestation of an Orwellian society. Like Dent, the Bat is compromising his integrity, but not to measures extreme enough for him to lose himself; he sees what he can inevitably become, and subscribes Lucius Fox, one of his most trusted companions, to be the reason to his temporary madness. Batman is eventually ostracized from the city he has sworn to protect. He sees now that he will always be a symbol of fear, and while his own philosophical and moral beliefs stay firmly grounded, the public will never see him in any other way. Batman, in order to stay pure, must remain in the shadows.

Blasted Comic-Con! In preparation for that damned mecca for the girlfriend-less, I had to publish this a week after TDK came out. While I was there, I was listening to a man dressed up as Heath Ledger's Joker talk to a production crew covering the convention, he was talking about why people are drawn to the character of Batman, and why they continue to do so today. To sum it up, The Joker talked about moral complexity, how ambiguity, or the grey areas in life, are the ones that define us the most. Batman, he said, is essentially about men who has lost something, and how they cope with it. Ultimately, Batman is just like any other hero's journey, it's main purpose is to maintain that good, no matter how dark the night is, will still be the victor. There was a slight pause between the Joker and the the production crew, it was kind of awkward, then the Joker finally broke the tension, "or people just might like shit blowing up?" That's probably the case.

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