I haven’t been to a movie in ages, but I went to the latest Batman movie this weekend and enjoyed it. As much as I liked comic books when I was a kid, I haven’t had a lot of enthusiasm for their latest incarnation on film. Batman Begins was a great improvement over all the Batman movies of the last 20 years or so, and The Dark Knight has even more to recommend it. Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne, and Heath Ledger is simply astounding as the Joker. I don’t know if it was Ledger’s intention to imitate Al Franken for the voice of the psychotic killer, but he makes for a disturbingly brilliant villain because of it. For example, imagine this as said by the Voice of Air America and improbable U.S. Senator:
Look what I have done to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple bullets. Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! 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.
Why don’t we cut you up into little pieces and feed you to your pooches? Hmm? Then we’ll see, how loyal, a hungry dog really is. It’s not about the money… it’s about… sending a message. Everything burns.
It certainly isn’t the first time the Villain is more interesting than the Hero. Consider Satan in Paradise Lost and Iago in Othello. What is it about evil that fascinates us so much?
Something to do with acknowledging truths that make us uncomfortable. There’s something uncanny about this version of dramatic irony, in which a villain has the ability to see the truth and express for us what the Hero is unable to recognize – especially about himself. In The Dark Knight there are a number of scenes that reveal the Joker as a sicko that can’t be intimidated because of his masochistic desire to be hurt, or even killed. Plotwise, this means that forces for good are destined to fail when confronted with an evil that uses a kind of amoral jujutsu on these forces to achieve its own ends. Batman beats the hell out of the Joker to find out where the good people Rachel and Harvey are hidden. The Joker says, laughing even as Batman slams his head against the wall:
You have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.
If Batman were paying attention to the clever insanity of the Joker, he’d understand that the Joker will give Batman what Batman wants only when Batman becomes complicit in giving the Joker what the Joker wants. And not quite unwittingly. Batman loses it, literally, and makes a pact with the Devil every time he does.
I’m sure the movie was made with a huge budget, and there’s a lot for the eyes to feast on: beautiful women, cool gadgets, exotic locales, big explosions. There are also big, unsubtle ideas: Hell abounds, both in the images onscreen and the script. The first part of this conversation is a version of one of Kierkegaard’s parables:
Alfred Pennyworth: When I was in Burma, a long time ago, my friends and I were working for the local Government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders, bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. We were asked to take care of the problem, so we started looking for the stones. But after six months, we couldn’t find anyone who had traded with him. One day I found a child playing with a ruby as big as a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing the stones away.
Bruce Wayne: Then why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
This doesn’t actually make as much sense as it should until later in the movie, when we hear the rest of what turns out to be a parable for Hell.
Bruce Wayne: That man in Burma, did you ever catch him?
Alfred Pennyworth: Oh yes.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Alfred Pennyworth: We burned the forest.
That man in Burma may have wanted to watch the world burn, but he wasn’t the one who actually torched it. It’s significant that Bruceman is being instructed by Alfred, since we’re stuck with that old problem of confronting Evil with measures that might themselves be evil. Gotham stands in for civilization itself, so corrupt that the good are forced to act more and more secretly – “close to the chest”, as they say a number of times in the movie. Help itself might be a form of complicity; complicity leads to Hell. It’s a hell of Manichean dualism, where Good is left in isolation with its opposite. As the Joker says:
This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you, because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
Yep. But how should we react when the truth is articulated by a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos”? It should give us pause. It should disturb us. Goodness goes on forever, intermittently overcome by evil, which intrigues us endlessly. Even in a rubber suit and a clown’s make-up.