[Guest blogger HC Duvall has some thoughts on the Dark Knight, which really does provide endless discussion. Dark Knight is really like Morrison's New X-Men in that it is often really brilliant in spots and stretches but also overrated: the perfect conversation piece.]
The Joker should be a clown who robs banks.
That's certainly less menacing--but Dark Knight, big and serious and entertaining good movie that it is, exhausts the idea of a serious Joker. I'm going to glide over many good things: the acting (Even Morgan Freeman did more than chuckle this time) and Heath Ledger's Joker in general; and some bad things: that the Hong Kong escapade is a long-winded way to establish some gear and Joker's employment to the mob and the generally draggy fourth act. I'm going to fixate on a notion that tumbles in my head whenever a superhero turns extra somber. Boy, this kind of a dead end.
"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."
Oh, what sloppy business that I might've let go. But Gordon intones it with such concluding meaning, this filmmaker's point of view. It took the wind out of my sails. So the Joker here has been a mass murdering terrorist, all crazy for chaos.* This very much the Killing Joke take. Batman and Joker are lonely lunatic bosom buddies, men who had one very bad day, snapped, and now share this bleak joke. Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, is alone, and fixated on saving people. Joker, no disguise necessary, is alone, and fixated of chaos (meaning killing people). Different enough in effect, but both victims of trauma of some sort.
Dark Knight's Joker supposedly has no established origin. He's a master planner of wheels-within-wheels (who else does that?) and with a speech--it's a meander that sets up the great line about burning down the forest--we are given the notion that some men are born for destruction via the poor robber example. A man who could, after all, be a thrill junkie. Or a Zorro figure set on embarrassing colonial powers. Or a man, raised by monkeys looking for delicious shiny things, who ends up throwing gems away because though shiny, they are not very delicious. Oh sir, there's many a ways away from someone who wants to see the world burn other than being born an arsonist. Fate, poorly supported as it is, is a clumsier argument yet.
Batman Begins had this clumsy shorthand as well: After the first Bat-tank chase, there was a voice over declaring no casualties. How could the audience enjoy the ride if people had died? How could you support a Batman who risked civilians so casually? Where would you be if you took it seriously? Hancock tried this approach this summer (before the interesting character arc was discarded for relationship allegory), and some of Hellboy 2's flaws are from the same vein. Iron Man's more or less neocon foreign policy style is palatable specifically because of it's disregard for this sort of study.
But Batman saves people, and for that they must be worth saving...but back to the quote above...the people, it says, despite making the right choice in the boats, are a cowardly and suspicious lot, and deserve a lie. They'll forgive a boatload of criminals,* but can't be trusted to forgive Harvey Dent, a man with half his face and all his life burned away who killed, eh...two of the people responsible? And if Alfred hadn't burned that note, you see, Batman would realize he's alone and snap again and starting popping some heads. Probably criminal heads, but still. Or maybe he'd just be really sad. Batman saving lives is arbitrary, really. Chance (hello Dent!).
Where else, after all, can this seriousity go? The Joker goes to Arkham? Gotham seems like a capital punishment kinda town. Is Batman going to rescue him from the chair? Not this Batman, he has limits to his belief in rehabilitation. He'll let you die, not that anyone would let him try otherwise. But if we're going to lock up one lone nut killing people, we should probably lock up the one who goes around beating people up, dropping them from buildings, who lets people die if he doesn't like them.** This is why societies don't actually want vigilantes. Incidentally, this is where I think the movie shines re:Batman. He's always paired with the Joker, but Harvey Dent as the opposite of Batman, that's good. The Joker and Batman both are totalitarian in their worldviews and its imposition on everyone else, and Dent actually believed in society. Trouble is, it's hard to fathom a motive for Batman this way, unless he's just fated to be heroic. Fate robs a lot of the cache of hard choices, though. Or he's a depressing symbol of pettiness of humanity then. The crisis of faith regarding cell phone sonar in the movie is supposed to be an example of a line Batman doesn't cross, but why he stopped other then nobody wants to disappoint a frowning Morgan Freeman is kind of opaque. I mean, I see a moral argument to stop, but I don't see why this Batman did. Good on him though, quit while he was ahead. When a character is does something suitably unheroic enough though morally gray enough to be justifiable (or say Dent kills the corrupt cops, but even Dent is a villain, albeit sympathetic), then it becomes a vigilante story rather than a superhero (one where despite all odds, heroism is done). I'll hazard to say that any story that fights this hard against its supposed genre confines is in the wrong genre, or is the wrong story.
Obviously the mileage on this sort of take is actually pretty good, Killing Joke and Nolan's Batman movies praised for reasons. But eventually, going this route of serious forces you to have to explain a crazy guy in a bat suit trying to punch crime in the face. Dark Knight called attention to this in the same breaths that we're supposed to accept a rich man trying to work out his childhood trauma flouting the law. Nothing that solipsistic in movies since The Game. Superheroes are a limited vehicle for this sort of thing, and such things (and Watchmen, oh lovely Watchmen) are end stories with nowhere to go but somewhere entirely different without costumes, or powers, or possibly even heroics, and I don't know, a superhero story needs some of that.
Or, less lament of the disgruntled nerd version:
Seriousness calls attention to silliness, and dressing like a bat is really silly. If the movie disagrees with me, it did a poor job of arguing it.
* I think a good joke for this Joker would be if the civilian boat hits the trigger and their own boat explodes.
** Even Frank Miller doesn't have Batman killing. And Frank Miller likes manly men killing things, no?