May 25 2011 4:02pm

The Idea of Crime: An Appreciation of The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is not science fiction in the usual way the superhero films are. There is no godlike alien wandering around Earth, nor a man in a robot suit.* The Dark Knight is, instead, a psychological science fiction movie about an extreme, impossible mentality, obsessively driven to tear down civilization, and how the guardians of society try and fail to deal with him.

*Batman’s wonderful toys notwithstanding.

To be blunt, people like the Joker, brilliantly portrayed by Heath Ledger, simply do not exist in the real world. Yes, there are those who “just want to watch the world burn,” but the Joker is perfectly evil. There is no part of him the audience can identify with. He has no origin, no motive, and no objective other than the destruction of the very idea of society.

And he’s not crazy, in the usual sense. He understands what’s going on in the world, knows what he wants to happen, and exactly what to do in order to achieve it. It’s just that his goals are monstrous to most people, and he’s inhumanly good at his job. The Joker plans his crimes meticulously, from the order his goons kill each other to the size of each explosion, and every action he takes, including being arrested, furthers his goal of destroying Gotham. The combination of unfathomable motives and impossible competence make him basically an alien.

Compare Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman (1989) to Ledger’s. In Tim Burton’s film, the fantastic nature of the Joker was expressed in his weapons; deadly joy buzzers, comically large guns, giant floating babies that spewed toxic laughing gas. However, he was still understandably motivated by lust and revenge. In contrast, Ledger’s Joker uses bullets, knives, gasoline, and, memorably, a pencil, which he makes a point of saying are cheap and common. It’s his mind that makes Ledger’s Joker a super-villain. He’s not just a criminal, he’s the embodiment of crime.

And thus The Dark Knight is science fiction about how people deal with crime, with existential threats to society itself, and the answer seems to be, “not well.” For most of the movie, the options presented to Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent are either acquiesce to the Joker’s demands or, as Michael Caine puts it, “burn the forest down,” spy on all of Gotham, torture potential witnesses left and right, and ignore the collateral damage, whether that’s blowed-up girlfriends, physically and mentally scarred DAs, possible war with China, or a shit-ton of murdered cops. And since destroying Gotham is the Joker’s goal, either way, he wins.

The punchline of the film is that the Joker’s game is a false dilemma. No one has to play. The only truly heroic moment in the film comes from an unnamed Tattooed Criminal (the scene stealing Tommy Tiny Lister), who, presented with the chance to save his own life by killing hundreds of people, throws the detonator out the window, with a disgusted look for anyone who would consider doing differently. Notably, the criminal’s noble act seems in NO WAY inspired by Batman.

In fact, the whole film acts as a condemnation of vigilante justice. Batman is particularly bad at fighting the idea of crime. Sure, a transforming car and mad ninja skills are useful in a fight, but using these powers in the dark, without the rule of law or open conduct as a masked dictator (Batman is explicitly compared to Caesar) does nothing to support society and only feeds into the Joker’s plans. The Joker has an unlimited number of minions (including within the police department), Batman limits himself to a handful of allies. Batman inspires no one but idiots in hockey pads and the Joker himself, while the Joker brings out the worst in criminals, the general populace, and most obviously, in Gotham’s best defender, Harvey Dent. That Batman can’t save Harvey, in the end, is his ultimate failure: he can’t inspire good in even the best man he knows.

Batman’s decision to take the fall for Harvey’s crimes, to be hunted and hated in Gotham, serves two purposes: first, it elevates Harvey’s tactics of open government over Batman’s own more direct methods as the right way to fight crime, even when it fails, AND it serves as a punishment for Batman for letting the Joker do as much damage as he did. The Dark Knight is one of the most interesting and fascinating science fiction movies of the last ten years specifically because it takes two hours to prove, beyond a doubt, that the hero is wrong, that Batman is the wrong way to fight crime. I honestly can’t wait for next year’s The Dark Knight Rises. After such a thorough deconstruction of the idea of Batman in the face of the idea of crime, I wonder how Nolan will put him back together again.

Steven Padnick is a comic book editor. By day.

This article is part of Decade's Best SFF Movies Viewer's Poll: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Improbable Joe
3. Improbable Joe
Wow, awfully deep thinking about Batman movies! I think I'll join in! :)

My impression of the story though both of Nolan's movies is that Batman was trying to create a space in which someone like Harvey Dent could take over and maintain order, by tilting the power balance away from the criminals. He did so by making it nearly impossible for organized crime to operate profitably in Gotham. The problem is that his success also created an environment where the only criminals left would be those who were pathologically inclined to commit acts of crime. The Joker is symbolic of that irrational and ultimately unstoppable element of humanity that no amount of fighting can ever possibly eliminate.

I guess the point is that no police efforts including creating a police state, and no efforts of vigilantism and extra-legal attacks on crime, will ever defeat the part of human nature that lashes out and breaks things for no good reason. Batman can't punch out sociopaths or suicide bombers and hope to deter later crimes that way. He definitely can't stop angry husbands from beating their wives, or random acts of violence because people are drunk or high or just pissed off. He can't stop people from shooting other people by accident or while they're committing petty crimes and maybe had no intention of hurting anyone at all.

It means that ultimately Batman can't prevent the exact sort of crime that led to the death of his parents... which makes you wonder what the real point of it all could possbly be once he realizes that fact.
Improbable Joe
4. trench
A very intresting piece, kudos.

I have always took the message from Nolan's Batman films, that evil can never be erradicated, only endured.
Joshua Starr
5. JStarr
This is a really cool take. I actually think it, retroactively, provides me a way to enjoy the movie more: the Joker's omnicompetence annoyed me on first watch, but seeing it as part and parcel with his whole role as cipher/alien makes more sense.

Okay, now I'm interested in the next one, too.
Improbable Joe
6. steak578
Great piece here. I thought that the most chilling line in the film came when the ctizens were trapped on the ferry trying to decide whether or not to murder the convicts on the adjacent boat, when someone yells, "Let's put it to a vote."

The heroic moment that the author pointed out is underscored by the obvious failure of democracy to solvethe most fundamentally moral questions.
Improbable Joe
7. beerofthedark
I really like this view of the film. My own thoughts ran on slightly different but parallel lines. I remember coming out of TDK and saying that the film wasn't about Batman at all. it's all about other people reacting to the existence of Batman in Gotham's firmament. The actions of the Joker, the vigilantes, Harvey Dent, etc, are all reactions to, and different ways of responding to, Batman's actions from the first film. Which is a neat way of making a film - the central title character, the hero protagonist, is illuminated only by the light of other people's responses to his presence. It also serves to highlight, as you say, the inherent problems and consequences of his vigilantism.
Plausibility issues around certain character's omnicompetence aside, this was probably the most intelligent super-hero film yet made.
Improbable Joe
8. Laughingrat
"He has no origin, no motive, and no objective other than the destruction of the very idea of society."

Eh, Norbert Jacques, Thea von Harbou, and Fritz Lang did that earlier (and better) in "Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler" (1922) and "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" (1933). As a pal of mine said, "I never have nightmares about the Joker, but Dr. Mabuse is scary."
Chris Hawks
9. SaltManZ
I'd probably argue that TDK is fantasy rather than sci-fi, as one of fantasy's major strengths is the ability to manifest abstractions as an external threat, with the Joker representing "evil".
Emmet O'Brien
10. EmmetAOBrien
I would note that I have had the misfortune to meet in my life two people who were as far gone into absolute evil without visible motive as Ledger's Joker; neither of them were smart or organised on anything like that scale, and hence they tormented individuals rather than acting destructively on a larger canvas, but the Joker's psychology is not at all outside the bounds of realism to me.
11. Madeline
Oh, interesting. I found this movie irritating because after a few infrastructure fails here in Oakland (the Bay Bridge closed for repairs, a flaming gas truck burning through a major highway connection) I've started to think of the tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters who get screwed when Batman or the Transformers have their ridiculous fights and tear up the roads... It starts to require a very good justication. And in this one, Batman clearly hadn't thought it through.

It would be neat if Nolan really was walking the path you've laid out above.
Improbable Joe
12. Deepinder
An extremely riveting read.

Kudos !
Improbable Joe
13. hamstercheeks
Agree with SaltManZ -- TDK seems closer to fantasy than science fiction, unless by "science" you meant Batman's gadgets.

Minor quibble aside, an excellent article! Your conclusion that "Batman is the wrong way to fight crime" is particularly insightful.

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