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The Joker in Room V

by  in Comic News Comment
The Joker in Room V

So I finally saw The Dark Knight. And now I have to blog about it!

Just so you know, I’m not completely convinced by Selective Selleck. And as I was the last person in the known universe who wants to see this movie that hadn’t seen it yet, there will be SPOILERS aplenty in this post! Beware! Be aware! Leave now if you don’t want SPOILERS aplenty!





(Seriously, people – nothing but SPOILERS) …






(I’m going to talk about V for Vendetta and Unbreakable, too, so if you haven’t seen those …)





(Okay, this is your last warning) …




First of all, The Dark Knight a good movie. Never let it be said that it’s not. And, unlike a certain commenter who called it a “joyless, ultraserious pretentious treatment” (T. probably wishes that, instead of telling the story of a harrowing and enigmatic dream that illuminates the grand theme of the movie, Tommy Lee Jones had just told a knock-knock joke at the end of No Country For Old Men), I thought the joylessness of it was quite appropriate. This is Batman, after all, not Spider-Man. One of the reasons Spider-Man 3 didn’t work was because of its darkness – “Evil Peter” notwithstanding, it’s kind of hard to take the murky themes of that movie too seriously (and even Raimi isn’t taking “Evil Peter” seriously, as he’s still a dork even if he doesn’t think he is). Batman ought to be joyless – that’s kind of the point of the character. I’m sure T. would argue that it’s not, but that’s not what we’re here to argue (and I always have to point out that I disagree with T. on a lot of things, but the dude thinks deeply about a lot of topics, and he’s always interesting).

Something bugs me about the movie, though, and I can’t put my finger on it. I spoke to two other people who saw it and liked it a lot more than I did, and they didn’t convince me that it’s the greatest superhero movie ever. There are obvious flaws: no one can convince me the Hong Kong sequence is necessary (except to establish the sonar thing, which could have been done differently), and although it’s a neat part visually, I’m not sure it was needed. Christian Bale’s “Batman” voice gets sillier as the movie goes on, and by the end I had to restrain myself from laughing when he used it, which isn’t good when he’s debating the movie’s take on morality with the Joker. But that’s not why the movie bugs me.

The performances are almost universally good. Bale is a fine actor, Aaron Eckhart does a nice job with the “golden boy” aspect of Harvey Dent as well as the revenge-driven obsessed Two-Face, Maggie Gyllenhaal is an upgrade from Katie Holmes (although not as much as people seem to think), and Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman do their thing (Al Simmons was in the movie, too, and it’s nice to see him getting some work). Ledger, of course, steals the movie, but Eckhart’s narrative arc is the most important, and that’s why his performance is as award-worthy in many ways as Ledger’s (this often happens in movies; the flashy performances get the raves, while the more difficult, less flashy roles often get overlooked – see Cruise in Rain Man, Robbins in Mystic River, Washington in Philadelphia, Pacino in The Godfather, McGillis in The Accused, ad infinitum). Ledger might be too good, which is something I’ll get to.

What makes the movie fascinating is not the ethical dilemma that the Joker presents the citizens of Gotham with. It’s far too heavy-handed in its presentation, and it’s a testament to the actors that they keep it from being silly. What’s fascinating is that the film itself subverts its intentions, which we can look at as intentional on the part of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan or completely unintentional. How you view that central tenet colors what you think of the movie. This is a far more conservative movie than it seems, and it’s part of why I can’t completely love it.

The biggest question posed by the movie is “Does the Joker win?” On the surface, it would appear he does. Batman is a fugitive, the citizens of Gotham, who had started to embrace him, believe that he’s a cop- and DA-killer, and he has no hope of a happy ending with the girl of his dreams. The Joker’s entire raison d’etre is to destroy what is good in people, and we’re led to believe that he succeeded, if not with Harvey (the cover-up of his actual demise takes care of that), at least with regard to Batman. The chaos he causes means that people are less likely to trust each other, because there’s always the thought in their minds that their neighbor could turn on them at any moment. The Joker’s main scheme was to break social bonds, and the implication is that he succeeded.

But did he? Batman-as-fugitive works much better than Batman-as-unofficial-cop as a narrative device, because the tension of a hero working outside the law is always more interesting than one working inside the law (which is why movie cops are always getting suspended). Batman does not care one whit if people think he’s a murderer – as Gordon makes clear when he talks to his son at the end of the movie and tells him that Batman is the hero Gotham needs, whether they like him or not. So the Joker’s scheme to ruin Batman’s reputation does not matter at all, because Batman is going to do what he does no matter who likes him or not. Almost everything else the Joker does to spread chaos fails as well. The only real success he has is when the various citizens try to kill Coleman Reese, the accountant who figured out Batman’s identity. Are those small chinks in the armor enough to convince us that all of society is a powder keg just waiting to explode, especially when we compare it to what happens on both ferries?

What about Harvey Dent, you might say. The Joker destroyed him! Well, yeah. This is where the comics are actually better than the movie, because Nolan didn’t have much time to delve too far into Harvey’s psyche, and it’s a testament to Eckhart’s ability that we believe so much in Harvey (to paraphrase Bruce Wayne). The Joker convinces Two-Face to go after Gordon’s family (and their confrontation in the hospital is one of the most thrilling scenes in a superhero movie in a long time), but what are we to make of Dent’s transformation? Do we accept that the Joker had nothing to do with Harvey and Rachel’s kidnapping? He claims that he didn’t, although we know he’s a liar. If we are convinced that the Joker, through his minions, was behind the kidnapping, then Harvey’s scarring and Rachel’s death are part of his scheme. If not, then he just uses it to point Two-Face in the right direction. Either way, is Harvey’s fall from grace, which is the true arc of the film, evidence that the Joker is right? Obviously, this movie owes quite a bit to The Killing Joke, in which the Joker’s attempts to destroy Gordon’s sanity failed. Nolan simply substitutes Harvey for Gordon. What recent comics have done, however, is lay bare the fact that Harvey had deep psychological scars prior to becoming Two-Face, and his dichotomous outward scarring is, in fact, a symptom of his inner turmoil, and not the other way around. In the comics, Harvey was Two-Face long before Maroni’s acid showed it to the world. In the movie, Nolan only hints at this, when he flips the coin to decide the fate of the Joker’s accomplice who might know where Rachel is. His accident causes Two-Face’s birth, and prior to that, he was the “golden boy” everyone says he was.

So, the Joker succeeds: he convinces Two-Face to get revenge on Gordon for failing to save Rachel. He ruins the “golden boy” of Gotham and, when the police cover it up, ruins Batman’s reputation. But consider what Harvey does and how it’s presented. Harvey wants revenge for a horrible crime. His “insanity,” so to speak, is completely understandable. It’s difficult to even call it insanity. Yes, he kills at least one cop and threatens the life of an innocent child, but the cop was dirty, he gave him a chance to live (and spares Ramirez, the other dirty cop, because the coin comes up clean), and he’s even giving Gordon’s son a chance when Batman stops him. If he had killed Gordon’s son, would he have stopped? Would he have quenched his thirst for revenge? You may argue it doesn’t matter – killing an innocent boy is unforgivable, but my point is not that he’s not a criminal, but would we consider him irredeemably insane, like the Joker? The Joker’s entire point is that he has no motive beyond wanting people to be as depraved as he is. However, no one – not even those people who try to kill Reese – suddenly turn completely amoral as he. The Joker can’t see that, as Batman puts it in The Killing Joke, “Despite all your sick, vicious little games, [Gordon’s] as sane as he ever was. So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack. Maybe there isn’t any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimey things when trouble hits … Maybe it was just you, all the time.” This is his failure. Harvey falls, and that’s the horror of the movie. But does he fall far enough?

If we compare the Joker’s brand of chaos to the man from Room V in V for Vendetta, the insanity of each character comes into better focus. The Joker and V are both insane, and they have many similarities. Despite the Joker’s claim that he’s all about chaos, he’s a meticulous planner. One of the problems with the character is that he seems almost superhuman. V is a master planner as well, but he’s had years to come up with his schemes, and it appears the Joker’s plans come from nowhere. The Joker is a more frightening character on one level. His brand of insanity is completely unpredictable, almost random, and therefore more horrifying to a degree. Ultimately, though, the Joker is like a force of nature, and cannot be too terrifying. People do not evacuate Oklahoma because tornadoes spin through there every so often, nor is Florida a wasteland because hurricanes smash into it with stunning regularity. The people of Gotham will not change the way they live their lives because of the Joker. V’s insanity is less frightening on the surface, because we think we understand it. We know why V does what he does, and so we aren’t afraid of it. However, V is a far more terrifying individual, because of the fact that he has a purpose. Critics have called the Joker a terrorist, but he’s not – V is. Despite the contention by some reviewers that the Joker is a terrorist and that the smoking hospital eerily resembles Ground Zero, the Joker is not a terrorist, because no matter what we think of terrorists, they do have motives. We may reject their motives, but if we ask the terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center, they would have their reasons for doing so. The Joker would not, beyond “spreading chaos.” V’s character arc is more interesting than the Joker’s (even though Natalie Portman anchors the movie, much like Eckhart does this movie), not only because we get his origin (and I don’t want a definitive Joker origin; one of the great things of the movie is the Joker’s “multiple choice” origin, but it does make V more interesting), but because we’re supposed to be on his side. This makes the fact that he’s essentially a terrorist more uncomfortable for the audience. Therefore, his attack on the establishment is much more frightening, because it’s so subversive. The Joker is something we can’t worry about, because if he decides to kill us, it’s probably a random event. Again, that seems more frightening, but it’s not really. V is attacking the foundations of society. The Joker is simply skimming the surface. He fails because Gotham’s society survives. V succeeds because his society falls.

The other interesting aspect of the Joker’s personality is that he decides, rather suddenly, that he needs Batman. This is a common motif in the comics, mostly because writers have realized that there’s no way either character can ever go away permanently. It’s a fascinating part of the movie, and in Ledger’s final speech (brilliantly filmed by Nolan upside down, so that the Joker, who’s hanging from a rope, is right side up but weirdly distorted) it comes into better focus. The Joker, of course, earlier sums up his feelings toward Batman when he quotes Jerry Maguire, of all movies: “You complete me.” Interestingly enough, this reminds us of Unbreakable, one of the earliest of the “new wave” of superhero movies in this new millennium. The movie is an origin story of both Bruce Willis’ superhero character, David Dunn, and Samuel L. Jackson’s villain, Elijah Price. While a Joker origin story would be completely beside the point (and was perhaps the biggest weakness of Tim Burton’s 1989 version), it’s fascinating to consider how Price goes about finding Dunn – by committing horrific acts of terrorism. Like the Joker but unlike V, Price’s brand of terrorism is superficially more terrifying, because of its seeming randomness. Price has more of an agenda than the Joker does, of course, but not one as broad as V’s. By the time we reach the end, and Price reveals himself, his speech to David fits perfectly: “Now that we know who you are … I know who I am.” It carries more emotional impact than the Joker’s desire to keep Batman alive, because of the way Shyamalan has constructed his movie. Even if we can guess that Price is the villain (which is not the point of the movie, but Shyamalan seems to be unable to make a movie without a “twist”), the fascinating thing about this movie is that Price, for all intents and purposes, is a comic book nerd. He’s an elitist comic book nerd, of course, but Shyamalan makes sure we’re “on his side.” Much like the Wachowskis and James McTeigue (the writers and director of V for Vendetta) do with their “villain.” We want to like Elijah Price, and we don’t want to like the Joker. His villainy is purer, but less interesting than that of Price or V.

All of this makes The Dark Knight a fascinating but flawed movie. One of the reasons it is not as great as many people think is because of its lack of subtlety. It’s certainly deeper than most superhero movies, but its themes are heavy-handed and therefore not as powerful as they could be. Ledger dominates the movie, which is both good and bad. As I wrote above, too often the more nuanced performances in movies are lost to the blustery ones, which, based on the Oscar buzz around Ledger’s Joker, is probably going to happen here. But Ledger does such a magnificent job in creating this lunatic that any chance of examining what’s really going on in the movie is hampered, because we’re so dazzled by the Ledger’s craft. As I mentioned, it’s ultimately a conservative movie, which doesn’t necessarily surprise anyone, as superhero fiction is essentially a conservative genre (with exceptions, of course, but that’s true of almost anything). What Ledger does is provide us with a good reason for Batman to do things that are, upon reflection, quite troubling (depending, of course, on your point of view). Conservatives and liberals seem to agree on this – that this is a conservative movie, and it’s whether you like that or not that will color your enjoyment of the film. Kevin Church linked to a conservative review and a liberal review, and while they both agree – it’s right-wing propaganda – and they both should keep in mind that this is a fantasy, so reading so much into it is a bit silly, it’s noteworthy that the conservative, at least, misses the point of the Joker. He’s NOT like the Muslim terrorists we hate so much, and that’s where the conservative outlook breaks down a bit. Saying this is essentially a conservative movie isn’t terribly controversial, because we as fans understand that it’s meant to be. What Ledger does with his performance is provide us with an excuse to do what the liberals are freaking out about – the Joker is a supernatural force of evil, and therefore Batman is enabled to stop at nothing to defeat him. Kevin’s point (which has been made elsewhere, of course) that Lucius and Alfred provide Bruce with an “ethical center he may not have otherwise” is meaningless, of course, because Lucius does, after all, help Batman invade everyone’s privacy, his protestations and resignation notwithstanding. Ledger’s Joker is so beyond the pale that Batman’s actions can be seen by both conservatives and liberals as an endorsement of George Bush’s regime, and that robs the movie of some of its depth. If we return to The Killing Joke, we see a more devastatingly honest look at the Batman/Joker relationship. Whatever you think of the comic itself, Moore understood that Batman’s relationship with the Joker wasn’t as simple as two sides of the same coin. It makes that short comic book a more insightful examination of Batman and the Joker than Nolan’s occasionally bloated masterpiece.

When I state the obvious by pointing out that this is a conservative movie, that’s not necessarily a criticism from a political viewpoint. It’s more of a criticism from an aesthetic viewpoint, because it’s difficult to call conservative art truly great. Art should break down social constructs and challenge the viewer, and if it doesn’t, it’s entertainment (and I should point out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with entertainment). The Dark Knight fails as art because it’s a bit too Manichean, despite some elements of doubt that are introduced. It’s not a coincidence that Harvey’s coin flip is a central image of the movie – in Two-Face’s world, there are no shades of gray; you’re either dead or alive, guilty or innocent. It’s a random event, true, as he lets Ramirez live, but once the coin has told your fate, that’s it. There is no hope for rehabilitation of the Joker, and Batman is never in doubt about the rightness of his mission. Interestingly, Batman Begins is less conservative and more subversive, as Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) introduces the element of doubt into Bruce’s mind and also offers an alternative to the life he leads. In The Dark Knight, Bruce briefly considers giving up the mantle, but it’s not because he thinks he can do a better job making Gotham liveable as Bruce Wayne (which, let’s be honest, he could), but because Harvey will take the job from him. In Batman Begins, the possibility that Bruce would put down the mantle and change the city for the better the way his father did is tantalizingly present throughout. In The Dark Knight, the Batman has won. Bruce pays lip service to quitting, but it’s never a realistic possibility. To contrast the franchise with V for Vendetta again, while that movie isn’t great art for other reasons, the fact that it is far more subversive than The Dark Knight and therefore more interesting gives it a leg up. In one way, it’s even more subversive than the comic on which it’s based. Evey becomes V at the end of the comic, while in the movie, everyone becomes V. The idea that V has achieved true anarchy is something we don’t often see in mainstream movies. It certainly doesn’t happen in The Dark Knight, which ends with the police firmly in control of the streets, even to the point that they will hunt the savior of the city, however mistakenly (for all the praise heaped on the movie by conservatives because Batman “gets things done that whiny liberals don’t like,” the point remains that at the end, he’s as much a fugitive as the Joker is).

As well done as The Dark Knight is, there are those flaws in it that keep it from achieving greatness. I would have no problem if Ledger got nominated for an award, but it would sum up the entire movie: a bit bombastic, a bit over-the-top, a bit obvious, and a bit less than the sum of its parts. I am interested in seeing what happens next. I assume Nolan will be back, and I heard recently that both Eckhart and Gyllenhaal signed up for two movies, which is odd unless it was misdirection (and no, I’m not getting into whether Harvey dies at the end or not, but I think we can all agree about Rachel). There are certainly places the franchise could go that would not push it into Schumacher territory, but turning Rachel into Catwoman (as the rumors go) is NOT one of them. It’s somewhat unfortunate that there will be a sequel (and there will be, no matter who’s attached), because the ultimate image of this movie, of Batman running through the dark, alone and unloved by adults but still inspiring the children (a nice touch) is perhaps the perfect statement about the character himself. He’s not the hero they want, but he’s the hero they need. And that’s a good statement to make about superheroes in general. Why do we need more?

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