New Evil – The Joker in “The Dark Knight” as a Prototype of the Post-September 11-Villain

Thesis, Wintersemester 2008/2009, grade 1,3 (“very good”), Potsdam University by Lars Dittmer

… 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. (Alfred Pennyworth, Butler of Bruce Wayne, assessing the Joker)

All you care about is money. This town deserves a better class of criminals. I m going to give it to them. Tell your men they work for me now. This is my city. (The Joker to the Chechen, a Gotham city gangster boss)

Why so serious? (The Joker to Rachel Dawes, telling the assumed story of his scarred face)

My thesis “New Evil. The Joker in The Dark Knight as a Post-September 11-Villain” establishes a picture of Gotham City that is more “realistic” than in previous Batman films. The population of this city is realised in three parts: the mob consists of African Americans and other “Ethnic”-Americans, the Jetset is almost completely light-skinned. In between one finds Gotham’s police, mixed Ethnic/black and white, but also known to be corrupt. Indeed, the film follows subtle anti-state-sentiments in making the three highest officers in Gotham “Ethnic”-Americans: Garcia, Loeb and Surrillo. Only a disfunctional state makes the nightly operations of a vigilante like Batman – a person, who decides for himself what is good and what is bad – necessary.

The predecessors of the Joker are the great villains of film- and culture history, starting with Shakespeares Iago up to slashers like Freddy Krueger. The Joker clearly does not fit into the three-part pattern in the first part of my paper. His malice is sourced by four different strands: references to Satan references to femininity references to disability and references to a terrorism clearly related to the one of Al-Qaeda and its supporter groups. In establishing a villain along these lines, the producers of the film address a mainstream which is in their view reactionary, latently racist and anti-emancipatory. Though the film makes exceptional statements (eg. Morgan Freeman), evil in their eyes is either black, disabled or feminin. In its displayed reaction to the new threat of the Joker – Batman sets up a surveillance systems that monitors all citizens of Gotham – the film can be interpreted as a defense of the Bush policies after 9/11.


Table of Contents

1. General Introduction 1

1.1 Introduction: A Diabolic Laughter

1.2 Some facts about The Dark Knight

1.3 Changing Concepts of Evil ­ Problem Identification and Approach

1.4 Otherness Constructions ­ a Short How-To

1.5 How Does Hollywood Deliver to New Trends?

1.6 Central Assumption of My Paper and Preview

1.7 Synopsis of the Film

2. Setting and Framework of the Film ­ A Structural Analysis 18

2.1 Gotham City ­ Between Postmodernity and Grand Narrative

2.2 Identity and the Mirroring of Images in Postmodern Spaces

2.3 Is There Anybody Here We Can Trust?

2.4 Law-Abiding Citizens Versus Scum

2.5 Hollywood and Representations of Minorities

2.6 Mobs, Cops, Money ­ The Racialised Hierarchy in The Dark Knight

2.7 Interlinkage of Race and Other Dimensions in the Film

3. The Joker and His Otherness 38

3.1 From the Bank-Robbing Harlequin to the Psychopathic Terrorist

3.2 Influences and Lines of Tradition

3.3 A State Inside the State ­ the Jokers Terrorist Organisation

3.4 Scope and Means of Killing

4. References to the Satan 47

4.1 Evil and Its Personifications

4.2 The Joker as a Satanically-Coded Being

4.3 And Lead Us Not Into Temptation ­ the Role as Seducer and Accuser

4.4 Pan and Beelzebub ­ Figures from the Underworld

5. References to Femininity 57

5.1 Misfit to the System: ­ the Joker

5.2 The “Vamp” ­ a Cross-Gender Threat


5.3 Male Order Versus Female Chaos

5.4 Mulveys Gaze Revisited ­ the Interrogation of the Joker

5.5 Restoring the Order ­ Batman and His High-Tech Equipment

6. References to Sickness, Disability and Further “Otherness”-Determinants 66

6.1 Physical Deformity ­ Visible Evil(?)

6.2 This City Needs a Hero With a Face

6.3 Both Clown and Monster: ­ Gotham’s Chief Evildoer

7. References to an Al-Qaeda Version of Terrorism 72

7.1 The Joker as an Islamist Terrorist? Obvious Differences and Subtle Similarities

7.2 The Joker’s Men and Al Qaeda: Myth or Truth?

7.3 New Aims, New Cruelty

7.4 The Forces of Reaction and the Response

8. In Lieu of a Conclusion 80

8.1 A Great Need for Scapegoating

8.2 The Role of Batman ­ Allusions and References

8.3 The Dark Knight and Its Stance

9. Works Cited 89

Annex 94/95

If there ever was a stylistic element determining the evildoer in fiction that featured in Hollywood fiction with a relative constancy over the years, it was his/her proverbial diabolic laughter. It gives the person who laughs the air of a lunatic but at the same time often raises the audiences` awareness to a possible mono-dimensional or burlesque figural profile. It is an indicator that good and evil are clearly allocated within the story and is therefore often found in the realms of science fiction, fantasy or comic adaptations. For the audience it is then obvious that this villain has fun in doing wrong; the character is not robbing a bank out of financial problems or is killing as a last resort but because he/she enjoys it. This dislocates the character from a complicated reality in which an infinite number of reasons and contexts exist that could lead to a criminal “career” – it seems that pure evil steers him/her. Criminal acts here become an activity that determines the very essence of the character in question.

These characters tend to have a restricted functional profile in the story line, i.e. they tend to be what German literary scholar Manfred Pfister calls abstract personifications (244), usually defined by a a small set of information. It may also imply that they are not going to evolve or change for better. This begins with Disney’s harmless Beagle Boys with their seemingly endless grinning, who try to become law-abiding citizens every now and then but constantly fail. It is simply not in their nature. It is much more subtle in the self-righteous smiles of James Bond’s adversaries, who in the final part of the story traditionally get hold of 007 and before they announce they are going to kill him in a complicated, nonetheless cruel way, they explain every detail of their genius plans and why it was vital to get rid of him now.

The laughter in its mad form could be heard in several fantasy and science- fiction stories within the last ten years as well. It echoes through the hall of the intergalactic parliament where the disfigured Emperor fights the Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars episode III. Formerly a corrupt Senator with a slight tendency to the Dark Side, the evil force now has completely infested the Emperor and destroyed his face, and at the same time, his soul. Again much more moderate the laughter figures in the Tolkien Adaptation The Lord of the Rings. Here it comes in the form of an arrogant sneer by the evil wizard Saruman, who shares the Emperor’s fate in so far, that he used to be good but has been conquered by an evil force that now determines his actions.

This kind of laughter figures prominently especially in comic adaptations, of which several have been brought into cinema during the last decade by Hollywood. So it was the case in the latest Spiderman films, which were released during the first five years of the 00-decade. In the first episode (Spiderman, 2002) the supervillain was the terrorist-like Green Goblin, the father of Peter Parker (Spidermans real ego) best friend. In an experiment tested on himself, Mr. Osborn becomes this Devilish creature, who combines the scientific abilities of his real ego with superhuman strength – there is hardly a moment this Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr.Hyde-inspired character does not openly show his pleasure in destruction. And the diabolic laughter of course came back in 2008. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman adaptation The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger in his final role, fills the figure of the Joker with an unprecedented nihilistic morbidity. The majority of commentators agreed that ledger in The Dark Knight is not only the best Joker there ever was, but also one of the gloomiest villains in the history of film. It will be my task in this paper to address how this evil Otherness is constructed and embed this structure in a contemporary cultural context.

The Joker’s laughter in this context is not a trivial extra feature but one of his essential characteristics. After all it is inscribed in his face and thereby contributes to a full-fledged deconstruction of the classic clown image, a figure that is generically a “comic figure that induces laughter” (Tobias 37) and is meant to give people pleasure (especially if it is called “Joker”), but never to inflict death and destruction. In one of his early scenes the Joker meets Gotham City’s underworld, i.e. two of the most dangerous gangs of criminals which hold a meeting in a secret place. The mobsters, momentarily engaged in conversation, listen up as this shabby clown-like appearance enters the room with a laugh. But it is no diabolic laughter let alone a hearty one, it is a bored and mechanistic laughter, almost spoken: “Ha, ha, ha, he, ho, haaa.” The Joker then slowly approaches, looking at the mobsters and says: “I thought my jokes were bad” (23min). In this early scene the figure establishes that he is not going to fulfil prefigured expectations. Though it is clear to the audience that the Joker is supposed to be the bad guy – and he has killed in the opening scene – here the possibility of an ironic twist or an untypical negotiation – a possible re-negotiation – of good and evil is indicated. His laughter is the caricature of a laughter; one that comes because he knows people expect him to laugh.

1.2 Some Facts About The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight has been one of the major box office successes in years. Images and iconographics of the film were dispersed in a unique viral marketing strategy all over the United States. Image teasers and trailers were made accessible on the internet months before the film was released. Efforts to keep its shooting secret – major parts of The Dark Knight are set in Chicago – failed. The sad news of the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008 as a result of a overdose of sleeping pills provided a further boost to the commercial machinery of The Dark Knight. Some critics suggested that the death of one of the most talented Hollywood young stars, having starred in films such as “I’m Not There” and “Brokeback Mountain”, was not only one but the factor that had the box office figures skyrocketing – the film was legendary before it was even released. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) the Dark Knight grossed US$158,41 million during its first weekend, the highest result in the history of US cinema (Box Office Mojo 2009). While film scholar Neil Bather reports that “US$100 million at the North American domestic box office… roughly delineates success from failure in the marketplace” (38), it is probably important to know that The Dark Knight hit the US$500 million margin within 45 days; 53 days faster than James Cameron’s 1997 major success Titanic (Box Office Mojo 2009).

Reception of the film was overwhelmingly positive (Metacritic 2009). Most commentators highlighted fast and ambitious action scenes and the performance of ledger, which in the opinion of many writers not only dwarfed Christian Bale as Batman, but also all other actors – nonetheless the film boasted a first-class Hollywood ensemble including Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine. A negative point for many commentators were the story, which, though in its basic structures rather shallow, to many viewers was hard to follow
due to very condensed dialogues and rapid sequencing. As Dirk Honeycutt writes for the Hollywood Reporter: “That adrenaline rush comes at a cost: With the film’s race-car pace, noise levels, throbbing music and density of stratagems, no one will follow all the plot points at first glance” (2008).

Opinions on the acting were ambivalent. Some commentators opined that most figures were kept flat and therefore visibly did not present great challenges to the actors; so, aside from the Joker, brilliant acting simply did not follow from the screenplay. Richard Corliss notes, on, with regards to the other actors: “Actually, they’re just diversions from the epochal face-off of Bruce and the Joker” (2008). Author opinions were also divided on the film’s discussion of its central topic as well: morality. Indeed, the film leaves the watcher with ambiguous and contestable messages about why Batman and the Joker fight at all. Is it necessary to follow laws? Is it good to follow laws which are after all, man-made and therefore error-prone? Equals democracy goodness or is there a superior goodness or morality? The film disperses some rather small nuggets into these discourses; to be a real contribution in these fundamental conflicts, however, cannot be the task of a Hollywood blockbuster.

1.3 Changing Concepts of Evil – Problem Identification and Approach

Open questions and contestable meanings are no accidents in modern Hollywood cinema, as Neil Bather reports, rather they are mere intention. Basing his observation on Tom Gunning’s 1990 essay “cinema of attractions”, he states: “Through the 1970s on, spectacle has emerged from a mere excessive visual to a conflation of image, ideological function and contestable meaning” (41). Though Gunning in his essay elaborates on films before 1906, a phase in the history of cinema he calls “cinema of attractions”, many of his statements hold true for modern blockbusters:

It is the direct address of the audience, in which attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to film making. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasising the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe.The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. (59) Though films like The Dark Knight also of course base themselves on a narrative editing style, the intricacy of the film’s structuredness – as mentioned – allow for the statement that spectators cannot be expected to follow the plot at once. They are expected to follow the action, that is, the “attractions”.

The Trend to ever increasing amounts of “attractions” certainly continued during the 1990s, during which many of the blockbuster action films were produced that form major part of today’s cultural knowledge. In other words, meaning that is produced in Hollywood cinema is not based on narration but largely emerges within often fast and breathtaking action scenes – character treats such as intelligence, wit, fairness, etc. as well as story lines are now completely constructed through mimetic display. This observation builds up on Julia Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality that decentres the author of a story and transfers the process of producing meaning to the recipient.

New here is the extent of intentionality – Hollywood blockbusters are, as Bather describes in a different context (53), designed to reach large audiences. One of their foremost aims, after all, is making money. Thus they are designed to attract a diverse audience with an almost endless variety of different experiences and expectations – what is therefore needed is the broadest ideological catch-all approach conceivable to not alienate parts of the potential customer base.

Nevertheless it is my contention that interpretations of Hollywood blockbusters are possible and important. The most successful Hollywood producers and playwrights are often quite sensitive and sophisticated observers of current societal trends and developments. The above mentioned catch-all approach is therefore capable of giving a vital picture of US society and delineates a broad set of current common attitudes, ideological mind-sets, and fears. An assumed mutual reflexivity between societal trends and cinema has been the topic of scholarly work since the beginnings of silent cinema. Especially after September 11 the dividing line of Hollywood and Washington – entertainment and politics – has been blurred again.

After all, the United States is at war. New enemy images inform politics and film. Martin Norden reports:
Though it might be tempting to regard national political rhetoric and film/TV entertainment as mutually exclusive areas, the construct of good and evil – or, more accurately, good v. evil – clearly undergirds both. In the public’s mind, they cannot help but be linked. (xii) Hollywood on its part has no other option but to adapt to these new circumstances. A possible analysis is capable of carving out what might be called the mainstream attitude – in the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s amazing monetary success has the potential to deliver a vital confirmation to such a claim.

Yet the concept of mainstream in this context should not be understood as a generalisation or even the effort of a stereotypical characterisation. There is no such thing as a fixed national character – nevertheless the examination of Hollywood blockbusters allows for certain movements and tendencies within the society with the potential to have influence on other Western countries. Also the monetary aspect of delivering to the needs of the US- society by Hollywood is addressed by Neil Bather very bluntly: “The Lords of Kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule” (41). Naturally, a medium confirming long-held biases and beliefs is more comfortably consumable than a piece that challenges and contests one’s attitudes and taste. Even if the story of a film is long-forgotten there will be a pleasant aftertaste felt by most of the spectators – an advantage the sequel of a film makes use of. As mentioned above, the success of The Dark Knight is also consequence of Ledger’s early decease – to which degree however cannot be satisfactorily clarified and could only be speculated on.

It is especially on current societal fears that I will concentrate on in this paper as they most vocally address the current state of a society; the United States are here, as in other fields, the spearhead and avant-garde in the countries of the “West”. As a matter of fact, Hollywood does not only pick up on these trends, it shapes fear discourses and contributes to them as well. In the case of larger-than-life villains such as Heath Ledger’s Joker, there are grounds to believe that their public “success” – the term here is based on box office figures and euphoric critical reception – is a product of the thorough and exact societal analysis of a playwright and the respective producer of the film project. Such a figure therefore has the potential to be the filmic incarnation of the fears of a society.

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