Dark Knight Essay: "Slaughter is the Best Medicine"

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By most accounts, popular or critical, the most compelling and interesting character in The Dark Knight is not in fact Bruce Wayne or Harvey Dent; it is the Joker. Audiences of the film were blown away by Joker, and while much of the conversation centered on the late Heath Ledger’s virtuosic performance, that performance is most remarkable because it brings to life one of the most thoroughly demonic villains in recent memory. The Joker is not presented as an inhuman monster; certainly he is terrifying, but he cannot be written off like the antagonists of so many horror films. But neither is he just a regular man who has been corrupted; the Joker is not motivated ambition or greed, or by adherence to an ideological fundamentalism, as are the villains typical to the Action genre. The Joker is too evil for either of these possibilities to be the case, and the Dark Knight’s characters, like its audiences, are wholly baffled that anyone could so perverse. There is an inclination to fit him inside either of these categories of evil men, but they can’t do it. As much as they try, the film’s characters find that the Joker “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” Information about his past is scarce and unreliable, so Batman can’t “just figure out what he’s after.” But the Joker isn’t “just a mad dog,” as Dent thinks, either. Everything he does has clearly been planned with painstaking precision; he is never at a loss as to what he will do next. No one in the film seems to understand him, until at the end Batman says, “It’s not that simple; with the Joker it never is.” The most appropriate response to the Joker is to be baffled by him.

Christian theology has a similarly confounding task when it tries to understand the devil. The Manichaean proposition that Satan is God’s equal and opposite adversary is rightly dismissed as a heresy incompatible with the Christian worldview. But Satan’s place in the Christian tradition (and especially in scripture) is rarely so unflinchingly demythologized that his existence is wholly denied. Luther claimed that if the devil were not real, then Christ had nothing from which to save humanity through His death. Like Christ himself, Luther believed in a demonic, adversarial personality, and not just in the corrupting influence of some entropic force of chaos.

But chaos is crucial to the biblical view of evil. Chaos was an important element of the Hebraic worldview, more closely tied to the Bible’s understanding of evil than the light/dark dualism of the Greeks, through which the devil is so frequently understood. Consider how the Genesis narrative deliberately undoes such creation stories as in the Enûma Eliš, where the dramatic battle between Marduk and Tiamat forms the basis for the word’s existence. There is no such drama in the Genesis account: God separates the waters (which in the Hebraic consciousness were intimately associated with chaos) simply by speaking them into submission—so the Bible favors understanding evil in terms of a chaotic force in its denial that evil is equal to good. The Joker at one point pronounces, “I’m an agent of chaos,” and whether his demonism is to be understood as the source or the product of this corruptive force, this does clearly define his motives, and is the fullest revelation of his character the film offers. The Joker is developed as an agent of chaos through his ‘jokes,’ his dubious and scarcely disclosed background, and through those straightforward monologues where he tells the other characters who he is. And, in relation to Christian theology, his role as agent of chaos identifies the driving question behind the film’s conflict: is anyone as good as the Joker is evil?

In everything the Joker says and does, there is a kind of black humor. He is toying with the people who take him most seriously as an enemy. When he leaves his ‘calling card’ at the scene of the crime, it is just the joker from a standard deck of cards. And his actions seem so arbitrary as a result of his sense of humor that no one knows what violence to expect. (Take as an example the ‘trick’ he performs, making a pencil disappear by stabbing a man with it.) But make no mistake: the Joker does not joke at random. All his darkly comedic antics and plays-on-words can be traced to his role as an agent of chaos. So in an early scene, when the banker with a shotgun cries to the Joker, “What do you believe in, huh?” The Joker answers, “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you—stranger.” This isn’t a weightless pun; he means it. The Joker wants to turn all of Gotham into killers like himself, and he is confident that the city’s ‘civilized people’ are just as capable of being freaks as he.

Interestingly, the Joker does not take credit for Gotham’s state of chaos. The “boring,” ordered equilibrium of the past, where the mob scraped up some profit and the police never quite managed to shut it down, was shaken up when Batman appeared. “This is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham,” he says, as if to explain himself. And when we see him chasing Dent in a Semi, the words along the side that once read “Laughter is the best medicine” have been graffiti-ed to spell out “Slaughter is the best medicine.” Again, the joke isn’t pointless; the Joker is sending a message, that the best way to live in the city Batman has made Gotham is to unhinge oneself from morality.

The question of where the Joker came from, and how he got the scars on his face, represents the attempt to give a psychological or sociological explanation for his evil character. So when the Joker says his drunken father cut the smile into his cheeks after cutting up his mother years ago, the audience thinks, of course: he’s the adult child of an alcoholic father. But later the Joker gives another wholly incompatible account for the scars, according to which version he cut his own cheeks to relate to his wife after the mob tortured her. An explanation of the Joker’s scars could reveal how his past made him an evil man, but there is no final verdict as to where the scars came from.

And no one in the film ever learns for certain who the Joker really is. The trail Bruce Wayne follows (starting with an ingeniously reconstructed fingerprint on a bullet the Joker fired) doesn’t just him to another dead-end, but into a trap—an empty room overlooking the Joker’s attempt on the mayor’s life. So the assumption is that all the information Wayne thought he had gathered about the Joker’s past was just a fabrication, just another cruel joke.

As the film goes on and the conflict between Batman and the Joker begins to come into focus, the Joker starts to talk about himself, to offer explanations of who he is, and why he acts as he does. “Know why I use a knife?” he goads a police officer, “Guns are too quick; you can’t savor all the little emotions. In their last moments people show you who they really are.” This idea is important to the Joker, because his cynical view of humanity is his most tangible motivation. “It’s not about money,” he tells the Puerto Rican mob-boss; “It’s about sending a message.” And in the hospital with Harvey Dent, the Joker offers an apology for that message. “See their morals—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…they’ll eat each other.” The Joker thinks everyone is capable of as much evil as he. Chaos, he thinks, “is like gravity: all it takes is a little push.” And so he concludes, “I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.”

This is not to be misunderstood as dogmatic fundamentalism on the Joker’s part. In the same episode in the hospital, he says to Harvey, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am: I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just—do things. …I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.” There is nothing positive or constructive in the Joker’s worldview; it is entirely negative. The Joker, nihilistic to the core, resembles Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit more closely than Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,” he says. So when the established order has been broken down, there is no ‘new order,’ no distinction between the genius and the herd. “Upset the established order,” he says to Dent, handing him a revolver, “and everything becomes chaos.” For the joker, chaos is not a means to achieve something else; it is its own end.

The Joker is an evil man to the core. He cannot be written off as the scarred product of modern Gotham’s social problems, but he isn’t just a monster either. There is no comfort in finding that the principle of chaos as entropy is what motivates him, because there is something supernaturally destructive in this principle. The Joker turns ordinary citizens into potential murderers by threatening to destroy a hospital; he succeeds in corrupting Harvey Dent (and for fans of the Batman franchise who know that Two-Face becomes a staple villain, this has special meaning). “The Joker took the best of us and tore him down,” says Gordon of Dent; “people will lose hope.” Even Batman, who spies on the entire city’s cell-phone signals, has to break his own rules in response to the Joker, and makes the selfish choice when the Joker kidnaps Rachel.

The Joker is so perfectly evil and villainous that there ought to be some question as to whether The Dark Knight ever resolves the good/evil struggle. When Batman tells the Joker, “this city is full of people who are still ready to believe in good,” we have to wonder if he isn’t being too optimistic. Perhaps none of the citizens on either ferryboat decided to blow up the other, but what is to stop the Joker’s chaos from spreading until they would do this? Every heroic character in the film, from Bruce Wayne, to Harvey Dent, to the optimistically-portrayed general population of Gotham, at some point demonstrates its susceptibility to corruption.

In the midst of the great multitude of Hollywood features, in which people who aren’t really very good prevail over people who aren’t really very bad, The Dark Knight is a rare breed of film. Its chief villain is both terrifying and credible; the Joker is really evil. But the heroes are ultimately unremarkable. Excepting Batman, they’re all stock characters—the DA, the police commissioner, the everyman. And if Batman is right, then all that ‘gives him the right’ to be a vigilante is the fact that he’s “not wearing hockey pads.” Consider that Gotham’s fate depends upon the (demonstrably questionable) moral whims of its wealthiest citizen; Batman is a hero because Bruce Wayne can afford the gadgets he needs, and because he happens to fight bad men. Wayne had a fighting chance against the mob in Batman Begins because he was as good as they were bad. But the Joker is far more evil than any of The Dark Knight’s heroes are good, and by the time the film offers us the prosaic message that people are basically good at heart, the Joker has already proved that this isn’t true. Their actions support his claims that people “are only as good as the world allows them to be.”

Commissioner Gordon’s remarks about Batman at the end of the film, particularly about his acceptance of punishment for crimes that weren’t his, has prompted some to compare Batman to the figure of Christ. This analogy is dangerous, because its particular incongruities allow that anyone is capable of doing what Jesus did on the cross. The Christian worldview holds that this is not the case, that God himself, not just anyone, had to take the punishment for human sin. And if Martin Luther is right, this is because the magnitude of sin is so great that its solution can only come supernaturally. Only God can vanquish the devil. “This town deserves a better class of criminal,” the Joker says, and in him it gets it. So doesn’t Gotham deserve a better class of hero?