Plot Gotham City. The Joker – a demented, violent anarchist – offers his services to Sal Maroni, whose criminal empire is suffering thanks to the crime fighting efforts of Batman (secretly billionaire Bruce Wayne), and District Attorney Harvey Dent. Honest cop Jim Gordon brokers an alliance between Batman and Dent. Batman visits Hong Kong and effects the daring kidnap of Lau, a corrupt businessman who is Maroni’s banker. Dent convinces Lau to testify with a promise that he can be protected in the city jail, which Gordon controls. The Joker murders the judge assigned to Maroni’s case and the police commissioner, and threatens mass murder unless Batman unmasks and turns himself in as an illegal vigilante, whereupon Dent claims to be Batman and is arrested. The Joker mounts an assault on the convoy carrying Dent to jail, but Batman and Gordon save Dent and catch the Joker. However, this was always the Joker’s plan: once in the city jail he snatches Lau, whom he burns to death along with a pile of mob money; meanwhile, he kidnaps both Dent and Batman’s love interest Rachel Dawes, and although Batman chooses to save Rachel he is tricked into saving Dent. Explosions mutilate Dent and kill Rachel. Now calling himself by his old nickname Two-Face, Dent tracks down Gotham’s corrupt cops, while the Joker holds two ferries hostage, giving each detonators which can blow up the other and insisting he’ll destroy both unless one is sunk by midnight. The passengers – a group of convicts and a collection of innocent civilians – defy the Joker’s expectations and show self-sacrificing heroism, whereupon Batman beats him. Two-Face kidnaps Gordon’s family, and is apparently killed in a fall after Batman intervenes. To save Dent’s reputation, Batman insists Gordon, now police commissioner, ascribe Two-Face’s murders to him, and takes on the mantle of ‘the Dark Knight’, operating outside the law (adapted from Newman 2008).
Film note Since the turn of the century, superhero films have become increasingly pervasive in the global market, both in terms of absolute numbers, and in their box office earnings. The Dark Knight is a symptom of a much larger surge in superhero films within Hollywood that is the result of various industrial factors; a trend which does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon (Fussell). As far as superhero films go, however, The Dark Knight is exceptionally dark and bleak. The film is often read as a post-9/11 allegory, and critics have drawn comparisons between George W. Bush’s War on Terror and Batman’s (Christian Bale) battle for Gotham’s soul, and the problematic positions they inhabit outside the law. Their exceptional status is thus justified by their enemies and “the exceptional threat to the legal order” they pose (McGowan). Indeed, the Joker (Heath Ledger) is unlike any other criminal in Gotham: he rejects the clear division between good and evil, creates moral dilemmas that make Batman question his own moral code, and overall exposes the “antagonism inherent in society” (Goodrum 233).
The rise of the superhero film in the 21st century Superhero films have been a product of Hollywood since the 1930s, but they have never previously played such a huge role in the film industry. For nearly every year since 2000, at least one title has made it into the list of top twenty worldwide grossers (Bordwell) and they overwhelmingly function as tentpole films for major studios. When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, it became the highest grossing superhero film of all time, with a worldwide box office of $1bn, but since then it has been overtaken by other superheroes in turn. To understand how superhero films have come to dominate Hollywood in this way, it is necessary to identify a number of broader industry trends.
Hollywood cinema is first and foremost a business, and so the driving force behind the continued popularity of the superhero genre can be attributed to the rising profitability of the genre (Gray and Kaklamanidou 3). What big studio executives seek is predictability and profitability, and superhero films tend to provide that. Of all creative types of films released between 1995 and 2016, superhero films had the highest average gross of $150m. To put that into perspective, the creative type with the second highest average was children’s fiction film, with an average of ‘just’ $57.5m. Similarly and relatedly, films based on comics or graphic novels (many of which are superhero-themed) made on average $86m, compared to original screenplays, which made on average $14.5m. Superhero films clearly make more than the average film, so there is an incentive for studios to keep producing them, investing a lot of money into the marketing of those films, which consequently leads to the continued pervasiveness of the genre.
A way of sustaining this business model is through sequels. Shane Snow has analysed over 600 recent sequels, and found that the amount of major movie sequels released in Hollywood has increased significantly over the past 10 years (Snow), with many of these sequels being part of superhero franchises. Thus, the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has become the highest grossing film franchise in the world in just eight years, with a worldwide box office of almost $11bn from just fourteen films (as of 2017). Similarly, the Batman franchise has made $4.5bn from just nine films over the past three decades, with $2.5bn coming from The Dark Knight trilogy alone. Through franchises, studios have aimed to retain audiences, with recognisable characters tying various films together.
Box office earnings account for just a small portion – 15 per cent as calculated by Phil Drake – of total film-related revenues, with 85 per cent coming from ancillary markets (Drake 76). As David Bordwell notes, superhero films “fit neatly into the demand that franchises should spawn books, TV shows, soundtracks, toys, apparel”, but also things like posters and paintings, phone cases and watches, and even roller coasters, as was done for the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight (Bordwell). Superhero films are veritable transmedia franchises that can exist across a range of media, providing revenue from an array of sources. Thus, when a film has stopped its theatrical run, it continues to generate profit, until the next sequel comes along.
The development of digital technologies over the last few decades has also had a significant impact on superhero films. Taking the cinema of attractions to the next level, special effects have become an integral part of Hollywood cinema to the point where the effects are one of the main selling points of films. Superhero films, with their natural tendency towards the spectacular, have thrived with the advent of CGI and special effects, which have allowed filmmakers to display the fantastic powers of the protagonists. Batman’s superpowers are relatively modest in this regard, and in The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan placed a focus on practical effects rather than computer graphics. Nonetheless, The Dark Knight contains a significant amount of visual effects shots that would not have been imaginable before the arrival of special effects as we know them today.
Because of their focus on spectacle, superhero films appeal to a broad audience, including foreign markets. Asian markets, and particularly China, have started playing an increasingly important role in Hollywood box office, to the point where “China could overtake the U.S. in annual ticket sales as early as 2017” (Sakoui). This veritable globalisation in Hollywood cinema means that foreign audiences have begun playing a big role in the films the studios produce, and the increase of Asian markets and the popularity of superhero films within them has contributed to an increase in superhero films. A further way in which studios appeal to foreign markets is through digital technologies particularly popular in Asia, like 3-D and 4K projection, immersive sound systems and – in the case of The Dark Knight – IMAX, the extra price of which consequently generates more profit for the studio (Mead). Furthermore, in an effort to appeal to the emerging East Asian market, a short sequence of The Dark Knight was filmed in Hong Kong, the only real-world city to be explicitly mentioned in the Dark Knight trilogy, pointing to the importance for Warner Bros to appeal to East Asian audiences (Pearson, Uricchio, Brooker 95).
Batman’s war on terror The years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks produced a range of films about the attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. Superhero films emerged at this time as powerful allegories for the fight against evil, and among them, the Dark Knight trilogy stands out for its bleakness. The Dark Knight, the second of the three films, deals with topics such as torture and surveillance, topics which came to the fore after the attacks. Nolan’s film is more political than most superhero films and “engages with the tumultuous decade in a sustained and interrogative fashion” (McSweeney 121). The Dark Knight does away with the Manichean morality of comic books, and instead explores the complexities of the War on Terror through the myth of Batman, calling into question his extra-legal status.
In the wake of the attacks, President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law in an effort to strengthen domestic security. The act aimed at enhancing federal anti-terrorism investigations, and resulted in an increase in surveillance, but was criticised for giving the government too much power, threatening civil liberties and undermining the very democracy it sought to protect. But Bush and then Vice President Dick Cheney argued that exceptional times called for exceptional measures. As Todd McGowan argues, the “logic of the War on Terror […] derives entirely from the idea that [Bush and Cheney] rule in a state of emergency where the normal rule of law will be insufficient for safeguarding the U.S. populace” (McGowan). For Andrew Klavan, this makes The Dark Knight’s Batman and Bush alike: they both do what is necessary fight terror, knowing that they sacrifice their popularity and their reputations. Klavan argues that, like Bush, “Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past” (Klavan). Though many have rightly criticised this conservative and overly simplistic reading, it does provide an interesting comparison between Batman and Bush, and their respective fights against ‘evil’. The Dark Knight’s message is nonetheless an ambiguous one; it can be read as “both an endorsement and a critique of the Bush administration’s policies” (McSweeney 125).
A central theme of the superhero genre is the inadequacy of the law to fight against evil. The law alone is insufficient, and consequently the need arises for a superhero operating outside of the law to secure justice. Unrestricted by rules, the superhero “goes where the law can’t go and accomplishes what it can’t accomplish” (McGowan). What this means however, is that the superhero’s relation to the law is problematic. The superhero is at once an ‘extension’ of the law, and at the same time outside it.
At the start of the film, Gotham, once a city riddled with criminality, has now become a more lawful place under the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is affectionately known as a ‘White Knight’. However, the arrival of the Joker risks Gotham’s return to urban decay. This time, the law will not be enough to stop the evil invading the streets of Gotham. Batman, the ‘Dark Knight’ operating outside of the law, is the only one capable of stopping the Joker. Besides breaking an array of road rules and causing a lot of destruction, Batman frequently uses extra-legal violence to get information out of people, including the Joker. In a key sequence, Batman resorts to beating the Joker repeatedly, effectively torturing him to acquire information. The torture seems effective at first, as the Joker gives up the locations of two hostages quite easily. However, it is later revealed that the Joker’s capture was part of his plan, and he escapes soon after. With this sequence, the film comments on the effectiveness of torture, questioning the morality of Batman’s actions. As he is being assaulted, the Joker declares “You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength”, pointing to the futility of Batman’s torture.
Batman’s extensive power reaches its pinnacle when, near the end of the film, he tracks down the Joker using a sonar surveillance device which maps every area of the city, erasing any notion of privacy. When Batman shows his armourer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) the device, Fox raises objections, saying it’s “unethical, dangerous” and “wrong”, and too much power for one person. Batman is aware he is crossing a line, but in his opinion, exceptional times call for exceptional measures. As Christine Muller points out, Batman “commits to the principle that his actions must speak for themselves, and they must speak for a better alternative than the forces he is battling” (Muller 58). To him, his moral code separates him from criminals, and it is through this rhetoric Bush and Cheney similarly justified their methods in their War on Terror.
When copycat vigilantes get in trouble attempting to prevent a drug deal, they ask Batman “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” Though Batman’s answer is comedic, the question is a serious one; what makes Batman the exception? If Batman’s status above the law is an exceptional one, what makes it exceptional? Batman’s position as extra-legal necessity is “a totalitarian blemish” which “renders the democracy he defends impossible” (Goodrum 231). Batman comes to realise he cannot inhabit this place above the law forever, and in the end of the film he is cast out by the people of Gotham, having taken the blame for Harvey’s murders (see below). The Joker has been captured and the people are Gotham are safe again, and so Batman’s services are no longer needed.
The Joker’s moral dilemma An enigmatic character, the Joker’s personal history is shrouded in mystery, as he gives various differing accounts of the origins of his scars, making us question which one, if any, are even true. The Joker “refuses to be forced into only one position through his creation of numerous origin stories” (Goodrum 231). He does not want to be tied down to one version of himself, and instead constructs his own reality, defying any system of categorization. And herein lies his strength; unbound by laws and a moral code, the “agent of chaos” (as he refers to himself) enjoys a freedom that nobody else can enjoy. Throughout The Dark Knight, he aims to expose the Hobbesian state of nature of humanity, demonstrating the inherent malice of the people of Gotham. He lays bare the fragility of the morals of the citizens of Gotham when exposed to a world without order. The Joker’s “actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies”, and he continuously makes Batman question the integrity of his vigilantism (Ebert).
The mystery surrounding the Joker is further perpetuated by his apparent lack of motive. The Joker never appears to have a clear reason for doing what he does, and that makes him a daunting opponent. He is not motivated by a desire for power or wealth, and his “actions actually serve as their own motivation”, making him unpredictable, but also impossible to defeat (McGowan). He is labelled a terrorist by characters within the film, yet his attacks do not seem to have any political purpose. Johan Nilsson notes that though “there is no true political agenda guiding his actions, there is indeed a moral one” (Nilsson 173). If the Joker could be said to have a motive, it would be the laying bare of the true nature of people through chaos. The Joker says of Gotham’s citizens that “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.” Thus, he aims to demonstrate that, outside the established order, the lack of morality of the citizens of Gotham becomes visible. By orchestrating various social experiments, he forces ‘innocent’ people into making impossible decisions, aiming to prove that “human morality and social stability are not absolute, but contingent on circumstance” (Walters).
The Joker’s final experiment and demonstration of the instability of the “normative social order” occurs when he rigs two ferries with explosives, providing the passengers of each boat with the other boat’s detonator (Manivannan 118). The passengers of the ferries – one filled with convicts, the other with civilians – must act before midnight, or else the Joker will blow both boats up. In the moment of crisis, the civilians cling on to their democratic beliefs and vote in favour of blowing up the other ferry. However, when it comes to actually detonating the bombs the civilians are “frozen by indecision, the lawabiding herd paralysed by ad hoc democratic indecision”, while in the other ferry, one of the convicts defies the Joker’s ultimatum by throwing the detonator overboard (Treat 107). Though the Joker’s plans ultimately fail, he does succeed in proving how “the system is in perilous shape” and that without rules to govern society’s behaviour, people’s true selves appear (Heldenfels 103). In a world without order, a criminal’s morality is equal to a civilian’s.
The Joker’s ultimate demonstration of humanity’s true nature is the orchestration of Harvey Dent’s deterioration from the White Knight of Gotham to the cynical and murderous Two-Face. Early on, Dent is presented as the “figure of pure good”, and as the image of justice (McGowan). However, when his colleague and girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) dies and Dent’s face becomes disfigured in one of the Joker’s ploys, Dent falls from grace and goes on a murderous pursuit for revenge. Dent was Gotham’s ideological representation of morality, but with his moral erosion, the Joker destroys the “belief invested in him and discredit[s] the system through which, and for which, that belief is solicited” (Goodrum 233). Dent’s traumatic experience shows him the world is an unfair place, as he tells Batman: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. But you were wrong. The world is cruel”. The Joker’s “social engineering of Harvey Dent’s downfall” is ultimately his greatest achievement, as he proves that even the most honest among us can be reduced to evil under the right circumstances (Manivannan 118)
When Batman asks the Joker why he wants to kill him, the Joker bursts out in his typically maniacal laughter, answering “I don’t want to kill you… You complete me”, pointing to the “intricate symbiotic relationship” between the two characters (Knight 14). Indeed, what arguably makes the Joker such a compelling villain is the antithetical position he embodies within society in relation to Batman. Thus, the Joker would not exist without Batman and vice versa. Without Batman, the Joker’s actions would lose their meaning, as the Joker represents “a particular kind of commentary on Batman” (Nilsson 165). Batman and the Joker are both products of the society in which they live, but in opposing forms, and their relationship “revolves around moral issues” (Nilsson 172).
While the Joker’s actions are illegal, Batman’s actions are extra-legal. Both the Joker and Batman “share a position that transcends the inadequate and calculated ethics authorised by the law itself”, making their distinction precarious (McGowan). As the Joker escalates his assault on Gotham, so does Batman continue to transgress moral boundaries and “increasingly comes to resemble him, at least in terms of actions” (Goodrum 231). The one thing that separates Batman from the Joker and thus positions Batman as the moral superhero and the Joker as the immoral villain within The Dark Knight is Batman’s one rule; not to kill. Ultimately, the Joker makes Batman to break that one rule as Batman is forced to kill Dent, consequently “distancing Batman from the moral code and stability that establishes his heroic credentials” (Goodrum 236). In Dent’s murder, the Joker succeeds in proving they are not so different from each other. As Batman disappears into the darkness, chased by the police like a criminal, the Joker enjoys his final victory against the Dark Knight.
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Written by Nuri Moseinco (2017); edited by Nick Jones (2017), Queen Mary, University of London
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