Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Structure of The Dark Knight --- Submitted for Critical Theory and the Academy, Fall 2008

The Structure of The Dark Knight

For decades, Batman and his arch nemesis The Joker have battled in Gotham City, neither within the law and each with their own motivations. The 2008 summer blockbuster The Dark Knight explores this relationship in great depth. In fact, the movie structurally relies upon it, developing a strong binary pitting Batman against the Joker, along with the respective ideas and concepts that they characterize. Roland Barthes’s connotative and symbolic codes developed in his work The Pleasure of the Text speak to the creation of characters as a theme organized around a proper name and contrasting these themes so as to develop an understanding of reality, respectively (Barry 11). Batman and The Joker exemplify this idea as characters, contrasting through their characterizations of the concepts of order and chaos. By exploring The Dark Knight as well as the characters’ legacies as developed over the last half-century (which is essential for placing the film's renditions of the characters in a theoretical context due to a previously established understanding of their violent interaction), we can attempt to understand how chaos and order interact and whether either end of this binary can be classified as what is commonly perceived as good or evil.

Batman, historically and with emphasis in the current movie franchise that began with the 2005 reboot Batman Begins, represents order. Gotham City is a city riddled with crime and corruption to the point that law itself is considered nearly meaningless. It is also a city inherited by Batman under his alias, Bruce Wayne, who witnessed his parents, billionaires who seemed to have cared about the city’s well-being, murder in his early youth. The lack of social order in the city in tandem with Wayne’s developed hatred for crime drove him to become Batman. As a male, white capitalist, Wayne was placed in an ideal position to become the city’s source of order. And as a masked symbol of fear, he bestowed upon himself, as Batman, the duty to do so, as the government and institutions of Gotham City had failed to do so before him (Spanakos 57).

One interesting aspect of Batman’s self-induced role as enforcer of order in Gotham is his single rule when dealing with criminals: Batman will not kill. For all the order that Batman represents in his attempts to clear the streets of crime and reestablish a sense of security in the city, this rule is the only rule that he follows under all circumstances. Because Batman’s acts are a response to acts that attempt to disturb order, this response generally is reactionary and, ironically, without plan. This indicates that the agent of order must be capable of operating in a world of chaos so as to reestablish order. (The agent of chaos, too, must be fairly orderly, as we will explore further.) Nonetheless, even when establishing order requires that Batman cause serious damage to Gotham, such as the destruction of much of the city’s infrastructure in one action scene in the film, he still operates under his one rule, and in doing so he becomes structured himself. In The Dark Knight, referring to this rule the Joker says, “Killing is making a choice. Some can, some can’t.” Because Batman chooses not to kill, he is incapable of doing so. This is a very strong testament to his self-control and capacity for structure. His one rule, along with his refusal to break it, means that he himself is centered, as is the concept of order that he hopes to place upon the city.

Opposite Batman and order stand The Joker and chaos. The idea of the two characters’ polar opposition is referenced frequently in the film. Says crime boss Sal Maroni to Batman: “Nobody’s going to talk to you. They know your act. You’ve got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules” (The Dark Knight). Not only does this indicate how entirely opposite the two ends of this binary stand, it also introduces the role of the character. Chaos, as depicted in The Dark Knight, is the lack of order. The Joker will do anything that overturns a previously established structure or system. In the film, he says, “I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are” (The Dark Knight). Political Science contemporary Tony Spanakos wrote that the historical Joker’s motivation is simply to disrupt boring and restrictive order (Spanakos 64). One of the film’s memorable images presents The Joker speaking to a mob member about his own lack of care for money while standing in front of a massive pile of cash that he had set aflame. This signifies The Joker’s disdain for any kind of system, including that of organized crime and its capitalist ideals. It also recalls a tale that Wayne’s butler Alfred told previously in the film of an outlaw he had worked with years before in Burma who had no true motivation for his acts but to “watch the world burn” (The Dark Knight). It is telling that it is not only the systems recognized by Batman, Harvey Dent, and society, but also those of criminals, that The Joker resents. The Joker’s is, in this way, comparable to the philosophy behind Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, fighting a war against all forms of oppression (Harding 68), as oppression to him is any system or set of rules.

It is interesting that The Joker opposes the schemers, yet spends much of his time on-screen carrying out large, well-planned plots to disturb a system. This is the opposite of Batman’s need and ability to operate in a chaotic system. In order to disrupt a system, The Joker must be able to access the system, which requires a plan. While the term is loaded and strongly connotative, The Joker is referred to several times in the film as a terrorist. Contemporary terrorism operates on plans in its attempt to eliminate order (regardless of whether their purposes are similar to The Joker’s or more along the lines of a reactionary foreign revolutionary, which is more akin to Batman). In order to bring about chaos from order, a means by which to attack order must first be established. In order to counteract each other, chaos and order must act under the mindset of the other. Order needs to be reactionary in the realm of the chaotic, and chaos needs to be able to plot, at least insofar as being aware of structure, so as to access order in the first place.

This duality of chaos and order is essential to the structure of The Dark Knight and the Batman and Joker mythos at large. In the 2008 graphic novel, Joker, The Joker’s previously na├»ve right hand man Jonny Frost says in its final pages, “There will always be a Joker. Because there’s no cure for him. No cure at all. Just a Batman” (Azzarello 124). This indicates that The Joker and Batman are merely capable of neutralizing one another. In the film, as Batman speeds at The Joker down a street consumed in destruction on a street bike referred to as the Batpod, Joker begs for Batman to break his only rule and to hit him. The Joker’s primary goal with all he encounters, including Batman, is to destroy the system within which it exists, and Batman’s duty is to restore his order to this resultant chaos. It is important to understand, then, where each character and concept comes from. Batman’s order was begotten by a world of chaos, and The Joker strives to create chaos from ordered systems. The difference between chaos and order is not positive one way or the other. Ferdinand de Saussure wrote that in language, there are only differences between terms (Saussure 40), and the opposition of chaos and order represented by Batman and The Joker is indicative of this. Chaos begets order and order presents the opportunity for chaos. One way of interpreting this is by examining different definitions of the terms of freedom. Batman’s order is derived from the free will allowed by an anarchical state of chaos. This is similar to the ideas posed by some in the field of political science that institutions such as the United Nations or NAFTA are an extension of the power of the states that became most powerful in an anarchic international system (Bull 127). Batman took on a chaotic city and created order within. The Joker, meanwhile, is searching for a freedom from systems as opposed to the “freedom to” associated with Batman’s development of order. The Joker is seeking liberation, and a constant state of it. While Batman attempts to turn chaos into order, The Joker looks to create chaos with no intention of creating a new order. As he says in The Dark Knight, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules!” Philosopher Mark D. White quotes Batman’s sidekick Robin, in one comic book as saying, “The Joker exists because of [Batman]. How [he] represents order that is necessary to live in Gotham City and The Joker is the chaos that disrupts that order” (White 274).

Perhaps this duality is best displayed in The Dark Knight in the character of Gotham’s Defense Attorney, Harvey Dent. Dent initially can be easily placed on the same end of this binary as Batman and order. He opens the film in a role very similar to Batman’s as an enforcer of order who has played a large role in the lowering crime rate in Gotham City. However, he is immediately contrasted with Batman, even as the two work together, as a legitimate source of power due to his role as a public servant, and is referred to frequently as the city’s White Knight, obviously contrasting with the film’s title character. It is interesting that Batman considers Dent his logical successor due to his legitimacy, and refers to him as Gotham’s “hero with a face” (The Dark Knight), indicating that even in differing, Batman considers Dent as an ally. It is also interesting that Dent and Batman share a passion for incarcerating the same criminals while also sharing romantic feelings for the same character, Rachel Dawes, as it implies a similar sense of character judgment. Judgment is a key word, as Dent’s role on either end of the binary is not distinctly chaos or order. Rather, he represents ideas that relate to judgment and compliment the two ends of the larger order-chaos binary, justice and chance. Dent’s interpretation of justice while acting as Gotham’s District Attorney is one that relies on the justice system, built upon an order: that those who commit crimes are punished as the law, through the people, calls for and defines. To display Dent’s reliance on an order developed by and administered by humans, The Dark Knight routinely depicts him flipping a two-headed coin stating that he will perform a given action should it land heads. This shows him on the same end of the binary as order through its reliance on free will, as Dent makes a decision himself, rendering the coin-flip arbitrary. When Dawes is killed and half of Dent’s face is burnt off as a result of one of The Joker’s schemes, Dent’s attitude towards justice changes. One head on his coin is also disfigured by the explosion, and with some encouragement by The Joker’s argument for chaos, Dent begins to administer a new form of judgment by use of the coin in the form of chance; those that he seeks to punish, he allows no case but instead leaves the judgment of their life or death on the result of a flip of the coin. In his new two-faced form, Dent abandons his belief in the order of justice system and establishes a dependence on chance to administer judgment. Dent differs from the Joker in his reliance on a rule, so there is some disunity in his character’s connection to chaos. However, Dent is seeking liberation from the responsibility of making judgments, choosing instead to pass the duty to chance. In doing away with the previous system of many rules and leaving one rule up to chance rather than himself, he is participating in the same revolt as The Joker, denying the acknowledged order. Because Dent experiences both sides of the binary through a separate supporting binary of justice and chance, he supports both ends and therefore its inherent duality.

The binary is extremely inclusive and The Dark Knight calls for its critic to consider its lofty implications. Chaos and order define several areas of conflict. The atheist and the revolutionary, for instance, are each invested in disrupting the order created by God and the state, respectively. Psychoanalytically, we see a similar conflict between the conscious and the unconscious, in both the Freudian and Lacanian sense. Chaos is the unconscious that has not been placed in an orderly structure as has the conscious. The Joker, as an agent of chaos then, is the critic, seeking to expose chaos from this order. He examines things as a text and acts to reveal its subconscious. Peter Barry says that this is one way of describing the process of “deconstruction” (Barry 115).

Hence, we arrive at perhaps the most apt theoretical classification for the two ends of the binary represented by Batman and his arch enemy: the structuralist and the post-structuralist. The concept of order does act as the structuralist acts when it “appl[ies] the concept of systematic patterning and structuring to the whole field of Western culture, and across cultures” (Barry 49). The structuralist is looking to examine things from within an assigned system as are the institutions associated with order. On the other end of the spectrum is deconstruction. The Joker is a post-structuralist, seeking to expose disunity and a lack of meaning within systems (Barry 73). The strenuous workload of the post-structuralist critic’s intense reading in order to reveal its meaninglessness is the same apparent contradiction evident in The Joker’s plot and scheme to bring about chaos. Perhaps post-structuralism’s relation to The Joker is best noted where Jacques Derrida introduces aspects of the theory stating that, “By organizing and orienting the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself” (Derrida 196). The Joker does not support the concept of a system or total form, preferring to actively de-center structure and exist in a world without rules.

Historically, the terms good and evil have been applied to the sides of Batman and The Joker respectively. Batman’s order has been painted as what is morally correct or good, while The Joker, an outlaw, and his affinity for anarchy and chaos are seen as evil. With half a century of legacy behind The Dark Knight’s main characters, it may be difficult to break away from this structure. However, the film allows The Joker to make the case for chaos. As a result, the film calls for an examination of to which side of the order-chaos binary fall right and wrong.

Batman’s claim to morality in The Dark Knight is a strong one. It is backed by the common perceptions of right and wrong ascribed to the characters’ legacies. The binary at large also seems to contend that what is ordered is moral, especially considering the presence of God, commonly seen as the pinnacle of morality, on its side. However, we can also look to the text to see where this claim of morality may come from. Certainly, the idea of a moral Batman is related to his designation as a crime fighter. In fighting crime and corruption in Gotham City, Batman is creating a sense of security for Gotham’s citizens. Providing order for the masses is widely seen as moral. The issue of Batman’s role as a lawless vigilante, though, seems to create a paradox surrounding this idea. Thus, there must be more to Batman that deems him good beyond tackling crime. Perhaps, then, it is that Batman possesses a sense of legitimacy-by-extension due to his work with Dent and Gotham Police Department Commissioner James Gordon. Spanakos offers that it is Batman’s working relationship with governing entities, symbolic of the relationship between state and society in developing order and a social contract, that legitimizes him and thus paints the caped crusade as morally good (Spanakos 68). One other reason that Batman is likely considered good within the binary is the fact that he won’t kill. Not only does this rule reaffirm to the reader the ancient (and, today, particularly connected to the concept of God) idea that human life is to be respected and to end it is inherently evil, but it also creates a sense of order for the reader to rely on. Because Batman’s rule does two things to classify him as traditionally good, it also indicates two things about morality through the lens of order: that acts commonly designated as moral are perceived by the people within this order as such, and that the idea of order, by its very nature, is to be perceived as good. Therefore, order assigns right or wrong to various entities, resultantly fostering and perpetuating moral distinctions because they are distinguished as such within a structure. Order, then, is authoritative in distinguishing right from wrong, as it is both the source and judge of morality.

Chaos’s case regarding morality is made simply and fittingly by giving a closer reading to order and contrasting it with itself. One way that order’s morality is potentially paradoxical is in Batman’s lies. He is a liar by definition, complete with a mask and an alter ego. Even when acting as Bruce Wayne, Batman lies by pretending to be something he is not: a playboy billionaire who has no passion for the protection of Gotham but instead seeks a good time. After Dent falls to his death in the movie’s final scene, Batman assumes blame for the lives Dent previously took, stating, “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded” (The Dark Knight). In doing so, Batman is acting to keep open a case against Gotham’s mob started by Dent and hide from the public that The Joker was able to create chaos from the order Dent represented, seemingly acting in the best interest of the masses by exerting his power to re-establish order. However, the very fact that he and Gordon opt to lie is in strong conflict to the presumption of actions as inherently good or bad explored above, if honesty and transparency are to be considered morally good. The Joker also claims in The Dark Knight that people generally do not consider morality while acting under a system when he states, “Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!” The only thing The Joker says in positive terms regarding chaos as compared to order is that it is more fair and objective than order, an argument that sways Dent, who has experienced the potential horrific consequences of life under a system should the agent of chaos deconstruct it.

That The Joker makes only one argument for chaos, and even in this analysis he fails to mention the concept of morality, is telling. In fact, in The Dark Knight, it is only the side of order that speaks of right and wrong. Upon curbing The Joker’s plan, Batman denotes The Joker’s actions as “ugly” and the people of Gotham as “ready to believe in good” (The Dark Knight). Later, Batman states that between Dent, Gordon, and himself, Dent was the moral exemplar. It is this binary of good and bad that allows Batman to develop order. However, The Joker renounces all forms of order. He states in an early confrontation with Batman, “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. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these…civilized people, they'll eat each other” (The Dark Knight). It is exactly this rejection of codes, systems, structures, and order that does not allow for the designation of right and wrong under the deconstructive mindset. One simply cannot tell The Joker or his end of the binary that they are good or evil because it means nothing to them. The Joker’s philosophy is one of interested nihilism that denies structure and meaning, and therefore denies the very concept of morality. Perhaps Batman does have a claim to morality as he defines it under the order he creates, but it is not a triumph. The Joker forfeits any claim to morality; he does not compete for it. The question of good and evil with regards to the conflict of The Dark Knight is unanswerable. Instead, Batman can only be ascribed the entire concept of morality, while The Joker’s end of the binary opposes with amorality, a denial of the entire structure of right and wrong and therefore capable of being classified as neither, as made clear by its denial of structure at large.

Works Cited

Azzarello, Brian. Joker. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Bull, Hedley. “Does Order Exist In World Politics?” Essential Readings in World Politics. Eds. Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Modern Literary Theory. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. “Course in General Linguistics.” Modern Literary Theory. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Harding, Harry. “Political Trends in China Since the Cultural Revolution.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 402 (1972): 67-82.

Spanakos, Tony. “Governing Gotham.” Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of The Soul. Eds. Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008.

The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2008.

White, Mark D. “The Tao of the Bat.” Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of The Soul. Eds. Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008.

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