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

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

100 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1. General Introduction
1.1 Introduction: A Diabolic Laughter
1.2 Some facts aboutThe 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
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 inThe Dark Knight
2.7 Interlinkage of Race and Other Dimensions in the Film

3. The Joker and His Otherness
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 Joker’s Terrorist Organisation
3.4 Scope and Means of Killing

4. References to the Satan
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
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 Mulvey's 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
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
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
8.1 A Great Need for Scapegoating
8.2 The Role of Batman – Allusions and References
8.3The Dark Knightand Its Stance

9. Works Cited


. 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 Jokereasy to the Chechen, a Gotham city gangster boss)

Why so serious?

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

1.General Introduction

1.1 Introduction

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 inStar Warsepisode 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 AdaptationThe 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 latestSpidermanfilms, 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 adaptationThe 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 inThe Dark Knightis 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 Jokers'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 thoughtmyjokes 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 Knighthas 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 ofThe Dark Knightare 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 ofThe Dark Knight. Some critics suggested that the death of one of the most talented Hollywood young stars, having starred in films such asI’m Not ThereandBrokeback Mountain, was not only one butthefactor 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 Mojo2009). 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 thatThe Dark Knighthit the US$500 million margin within 45 days; 53 days faster than James Cameron’s 1997 major successTitanic(Box Office Mojo2009).

Reception of the film was overwhelmingly positive (Metacritic2009). 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 itgoodto 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 likeThe Dark Knightalso 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 ofThe 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 ofThe Dark Knightis 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.

1.4 Otherness Constructions – a Short How-To

This paper wants to contribute to the research in the field of cultural constructions of “Otherness”. Enemy images are the results of societal discourse – they are shaped in political debates, tv coverage and newsreporting, discussions at home and at work, newspaper articles and cultural activities. These images are therefore not static but, quite to the contrary, very fluent and shifting, they are constantly written and rewritten, formed and reformed. What or whom we fear, is a matter of “Zeitgeist”. The fear of Muslim terrorists for example, who explode themselves in planes, cars or as human bombs in crowded subway stations, was a threat twenty years ago only in connection with Palestinian attacks on Western facilities – and the perpetrators were often inspired by a leftist, anticlerical ideology (Aubrey 53). Any filmic allusion to organisations like Al-Qaeda then would have meet with indifference or scepticism.

Discourses instigated and lead by institutions like newspapers, universities and newspapers allow for societal exchange that highlights various aspects of phenomena like Muslim terrorism. Simple Manichaean dualisms – black and white polarisations – in these processes are usually overcome or at least do not prevail. Hollywood has been often criticised of contributing exactly these simplistic world conceptions into the discourse, as Neil Bather notes: “. most notably in Hollywood commercial cinema, and particularly in the dualistic opposition of good and evil as symbolised by light and darkness, black and white, and day and night”, Manichaean doctrines have survived (45).

Hollywood sees its task in entertainment, not in information. As a rule, Hollywood blockbusters are streamlined in their story buildups and character conceptions; suspense, not concentration; adrenaline, not intellect are being stimulated here – Bather expands on Tom Gunning again: “.the story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of cinema” (41). In fast-paced action thrillers that live by their “rapid editing styles, snappy dialogues and violent imagery” (ibid. 39), there is neither time nor demand for complex evolving characters who completely rethink their ways of living after a shocking moment of violence. What is usually needed are clear-shaped figures that do not leave any room for questions – their deeds are self-explanatory. Problematically, the missing part in the character profile – the part the film has no time to explain to – is often filled by a set of external presuppositions, i.e. the societal stereotypes and biases that the audience brings with them. They are no extra dispositions in this context but those essential in order to understand the film.

There is a basic formula for filmmakers: If there is a framework of societal self conceptions that forms an “us”, “evil” can be only displayed through something that is not included in this framework. It is the foreigner, the freak, the loner, the spook that goes out at night, not at daytime. It is an often dehumanised being that moves along the fringes of humanity and social life – an alien in every aspect. His/Her essence is determined by the unknown, as it is the borders of human knowledge that actually shape out spaces of fear, or as Gregory Benford remarked: “If you take something big, unfamiliar, and strange, it doesn't take a lot of characterization to make people afraid of it. People are always afraid of what's new and strange” (qtd. in Urbanski 17).

The terms that define “us” in this context are therefore decency, morality, legitimacy, empathy, defence – even if we attack, we do it to defend ourselves. “Our” time of activity is daytime, therefore the colour that determines “us” is white or colours of transparency, like light; or, like innocence. That is how we see “us” – “they”, however, are amoral, bestial and cruel intruders. As mentioned above, “their” colour is usually dark or black, as they come out at night, have hidden agendas and secrets. Neither Coleman and Cobb in their zeroing in on the term evil, are able to sidestep this dichotomy, as any definition of evil would “begin with describing a war between light and dark, black and white” (103). The former, people delineated as dark, are the “other”; enemies that need to be eliminated. The identification with in-groups and out-groups is a process that is only achieved in group formations, as Vilho Harle notes: This process is called “reification” – “it maintains that the Enemy is a joint production, constructed socially, by all of us together, not usually a phenomenon any one person accomplishes alone” (14). Therefore the cinema visit, which is usually a group experience, bears the potential to maintain, perpetuate and multiply the above mentioned stereotypes and biases.

The floodtide of films that stage the fundamental conflict of good versus evil that has been rolling through cinemas of the West since September 11 – besidesLord of the Rings Harry Potter,Star Wars, various comic adaptations likeX-Men,Hulk,Spider Man,etc. might suggest that there is a great need for the fundamental clash of good and evil these days. Journalist Lance Morrow also observes: “The idea of evil” after the terrorist attacks “regained some of its sinister prestige and seriousness” (12). This development is supported and fostered by the political class, especially in the United States. The Bush administration, in its “War on Terror”, has painted simplistic images of the righteous countries of the West – the “Coalition of the Willing” that fights for freedom and democracy – in fundamental combat with the “Axis of Evil”; Iran, North Korea and Iraq. According to Mr. Bush, the countries from the “Axis of Evil” threaten the peace of the world with Weapons of Mass Destruction and potential terrorist support.

1.5 H ow does Hollywood Deliver to New Trends?

One might think that these are excellent conditions for Hollywood to introduce new villains; in the Muslim terrorist a potential enemy image was out there that after September 11 has entered the stage in the United States, and later, in the attacks of Madrid and London, came to Europe. Additionally, the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 and the preparedness of the populations of the countries of the “West” to accept severe cutbacks on their personal liberties in theWar on Terrorcould have been interpreted as a signal that the potential audiences now were fully committed to the propagandistic exploitation of 9/11. But was the market ripe for film appearances of Muslim terrorists with “dirty bombs” and Anthrax attacks? Hollywood struggled, as Rick Lyman maintained in theNew York Timestwo weeks after the attacks:

But unlike the months after Pearl Harbor, when moviemakers enthusiastically embraced stereotypes of Japanese evil, this time the entertainment industry has opted for restraint to avoid accusations of bias and the danger of offending audience sensibilities in an increasingly multiracial America. (1)

In his essay he stresses the possibility for filmmakers to make for example the Talibans the bad guys, however one has to avoid the notion that all Muslims are villains – “When James Cameron used Islamic terrorists as villains in hisTrue Lies(1994), the film was roundly criticized by Arab-American groups and others” (ibid. 2). Not only superficial commitments to multiracial harmony – and superficial they are in many cases indeed, as I will point out later – prevented the film industry from staging terrorism on screen. The disturbing events of the collapsing World Trade Center were simply too severe and too fresh. After the almost unreal quality of the attacks of September 11 that also Neil Bather in his paper addressed - “It was just like a Movie” (38) – it was inevitable that Hollywood in the months that followed shied away from the symbols and signs that form part of this traumatic event. Flat allusions to Muslim terrorists and crashing buildings in Hollywood blockbusters at that time would have caused a public outcry and provoked severe criticism.

Yet in the years to come Hollywood has resumed its self-confidence and with increased frequency terrorists returned to the cinema screens – as seen in Len Wiseman's 2007 thrillerDie Hard 4.0(Live Free or Die Hard), where a former NSA agent tries to shut down all computer-controlled systems in the United States, such as safety mechanisms and traffic lights. Director Jon Favreau stages Afghan Muslim warriors in the Marvel comic adaptationIron Man(2008). Yet the message is self-critical: the “Taliban” are armed by the West, exactly by the chief character Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a weapon manufacturer who almost dies in a shootout started in Afghanistan with firearms, which were, as he realises, produced by his own company. He then changes his life and leaves the weapons business. Both films avoid the directly pointed finger – the terrorist in the first film is a white Christian American (Timothy Olyphant), just as in the latter, where therealvillain is Stark's company executive, performed by Jeff Bridges. Rather, the Muslims in this film rather assume a functional and mechanistic role; they are henchmen, not real villains, caught in their apparent primitivist Islamist ways of living. With the role of Yinsen, played by Iranian-American Shaun Toub, Tony Stark meets a good Muslim who becomes his friend. Thus the message here is clear; there are evil Muslims, but not all are alike. Both examples indicate the careful approach of many Hollywood producers considering the construction of villains at the moment.

Yet there is no need and no intention in Hollywood to do completely without villains with a “terrorist” slant, as after all it is exactly this kind of fear that currently informs the West's political rhetoric. There is and has always been a varying degree of propaganda in Hollywood's utilisation of enemy images; thus the 20th century has seen numerous “real” Nazis and Communists on screen as well as closely related beings with a tendency towards authoritarianism, martial uniforms and goose-stepping on part of the villains. Depictions of World War II Nazis here line up withStar Wars'Darth Vader andJames Bondvillains like Sir Hugo Drax inMoonraker(1979), who tries to grow a better race of humans, related to Nietzsche'sÜbermensch, on a space station. In Matt GroeningsSimpsonsthese recurrent enemy images have been summed up to “Commie-Nazis”, who attack the brave McBain, a Schwarzenegger Clone determined to save a plane of UNICEF food deliveries (King of the Hill, 1998).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Simpsons: McBain against “Commie-Nazis” inKing of the Hill(1998),”The Simpsons” Copyright and TM by Matt Groening and 20th Century Fox Film

The binary oppositions of freedom and individualism versus dictatorship and equality here form the constant along which the fundamental conflict is being carried out – this dichotomy has not lost its attraction at the turn of the 21st century. Still, concepts of “us” are informed by a fight for freedom and liberties; yet uniforms have been recoded in times where people have to get used to the rather academic idea that the uniforms of the West do not bring death and destruction but democracy and civil liberties.

Hollywood here delivers the part of the iconographic war – through the identification with its heroes it tries to create a worldwide sense of sympathy and understanding for American politics and troop interventions. There were times when this function of the film industries was closely monitored by policy makers, as Gérard Naziri reports. Especially in the early 1950s, the paranoid McCarthy Era, Hollywood studios produced Anticommunism off the peg to avoid being investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) (15). Though this did not pay off in financial terms, the studios carried on – just out of the fear to appear unpatriotic to the American public.

As a matter of fact, the makers not only ofBatman,but also other producers of superhero-comics have constantly joined in this endeavour over the decades. Villains facing the Caped Crusader were always created in response to fears and trends of the day. The criminals in the adaptations have changed over the years – not only has a diversity of characters entered the screen and thus the arena against Batman after the Joker, Two-Face and Penguin, these old-established figures have changed in their styles and interpretations. So did the Joker. In the 1960s performed by Cesar Romero, in the 1990s by Jack Nicholson and in 2008 by Heath Ledger, this central character passed through an evolution from the bank-robbing Jester, via the Gentleman-killer portrayed by Nicholson to today's psychopathic terrorist. Indeed the latest Joker revitalises, in many facets, 9/11 imagery, probably more aggressively than any outspoken terrorist or “real” Muslim in any other films in recent years has.

1.6 Centr al Assumption of my Paper and Preview

The central assumption of my paper will be that the conception of Ledger's latest Joker equals a new “Commie Nazi”, a far-reaching embodiment of today's American fears – his evil “Otherness” is mainly fed by four sources:

--> references to the Devil and clerical images of evil
--> femininity (trans-gender references)
--> references to sickness; disability and further “Otherness” determinants
--> references to Muslim terrorism in an Al-Qaeda fashion

All these references might collectively yield a perspective towards a reconfiguration of the society that could succeed Postmodernism in a Lyotardian sense. The film therefore might reflect the increasing need in the United States for religious ontological interpretations. The setting of Gotham city, figure constellations, plot points, race and gender aspects in their symbolism and functional order will be examined in this paper with hindsight to the above mentioned and elaborated perceived mainstream attitude of today’s United States, and potentially, the “West”. All these points will be however centred around the figure of the Joker.

Of course my paper will consider that what I am dealing with is a fictional fantasy film with no intentional allusions to any people alive – yet its major success delivers the above-mentioned aspects an enormous societal relevance. The filmic language yields to the needs of a new clerical mainstream – a development I will further examine in the course of this paper. Besides the interpretation of the Joker, the film touches upon a whole variety of current societal issues, be it current economical fears and moral issues even going as far as how people should lead their private lives that can be discussed only in relation to a possible post-postmodern societal outlook. It will be my task to clarify these and present them in a current cultural context. Formally, I am partly deviating from the (German) MLA variation in giving the exact points of time when citing from the film – a help for future readers who want to work scientifically with the film.

After a synopsis of the film I want to examine the display of Gotham City inThe Dark Knight– how is this setting realised and presented? The terms used in the characterisation of the place here will oscillate between “postmodern relativism” - a state determining the modern urban place – and “conservative backlash”. Examined will be if the latter societal development has impact on Hollywood culture and descriptions of urban places as well. Especially in the most recent film of theBatman-series the imagery of the city in combination with the display of the society populating this space provides hints to the stance of the film in political and philosophical respect – considering the fact that Gotham City is a fabrication. Particular focus will be on the institutions that lead this urban place and the configuration of societal layerings and how the film positions and labels these.

The chapters thereafter are completely designated to the Joker and his deviancy. Of course the concept of “evil” will be central here with regard to this figure – which in the context of my paper will be treated as a socially and theologically constructed concept that in history was mostly utilised in order to fulfil certain functions. Having read diverse philosophical treatments on this topic – written in recent years – I feel the need to emphasise this point, as also in academic circles a dualist delineation of good and bad as existing forces seems to gain ground.

Expanding on this, an outlook on of some of the most prominent villains in cultural history will follow – based on their historical relevance, their cruelty and a possible relationship to the Joker. The Joker has haunted Gotham City for more than sixty years – his evolution especially since the 1990s however already indicates a possible “terrorist turn”. The following part, the main body of my paper, delineates this figure concerning the above-mentioned “Otherness”-strands. In lieu of a conclusion I want to speculate about the present state of the population of the United States; what is it that makes this film consumable to a mass audience? What are the current discourses in the making of enemy images? Does the film provide possible outlooks for a potential revitalisation of “Grand Narratives” in cultural production – or is it just a Hollywood Blockbuster with no significance whatsoever?

1.7 Syn opsis of the Film

In my synopsis I am combining patterns that make the basic structure of the film comprehensible for a in-depth discussion with interspersed details and dialogues that highlight my observations. Giving a concise and appropriate film synopsis often is a problematic endeavour, as scholar Raymond Bellour in his account “The Unattainable Text” observes about filmic descriptions. In hisFilm Analysishe expands on Roland Barthes and consequently considers films as textual constructions, for the description of which common language often fails to have appropriate instruments. “.it [language] constantly mimics, evokes, describes; in a kind of principled despair it can but try frantically to compete with the object it is attempting to understand” (26).

A film is a multi-layered fabric comprising performed language and mimic play embedded in visual and phonetic surroundings – even the most detailed written or oral film description can only capture certain plot patterns in combination with more precise zooms into important scenes and dialogues. The reduction of sounds and atmosphere in its written textuality is implicit and natural. Of course Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality here again is at play. Especially in sequels or series, previous knowledge – the knowledge a spectator brings into the film as a form of cultural knowledge – makes a film (more) comprehensible. The further introduction of a medium-sized white male person with a bat costume can be omitted in the reliance on the assumption that the audience is aware of who Batman is. Though I tried to keep the synopsis as short as possible, to a reader unfamiliar with the film it might appear long. Yet, as indicated, the film is in its plot structures often very complex, many strands run along parallel to each other before they meet, often barely indicated details in fast-cut sequences determine complete plot patterns. In view of its complexity a further shortening was almost impossible in view of my discussion of the film which requires the reader to have a rough idea about the story of the film.

The Dark Knightstarts with a bank hold-up. The audience learns that the bank is owned by Gotham's mob. Some of the gangsters kill each other after their work is done until there is only one left – the Joker, who had planned the heist as well. The Joker captures a lot of money and flees with a school bus. The following scene shows a meeting of The Chechen (Ritchie Coster), a Gotham mobster and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), one of Batman's adversaries inBatman Begins, in a parking garage. Suddenly several “Batmen” appear and shoot at the gathering mobsters. Then the real Batman cracks down on the mobsters, but is being attacked by the dogs of the Chechen – therefore the latter can escape. Later Commissioner Jim Gordon and Batman meet. They have heard that the Joker is in town and ponder what his plans are – they decide to include the new District Attorney (D.A) Harvey Dent in their fight against crime.

Later we are introduced to the new D.A. in front of the court – the person being accused of heading a mob family is Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts). The person testifying, another mobster, however suddenly claims he was the leader of the family and not Maroni. The man suddenly points a gun at Dent who however manages to disarm the thug. Later in his office he meets Commissioner Gordon and wants to convince him that he needs to see Batman. Gordon is reluctant. This night, in a fancy restaurant Harvey Dent and his partner Rachel Dawes meet millionaire Bruce Wayne and his date Natascha. A discussion about democracy enfolds. Natascha, a Russian national, asks what kind of city it was that applauds a masked vigilante instead of officially appointed officials. That seemed undemocratic to her. Dent however defends Batman, saying that Gothams citizens are proud of a citizen who stands up for what he thinks is right. Bruce Wayne announces to organise a fundraising party Dent for Dent's electoral campaign.

The next scene sees the two most notorious gangs of Gotham in a meeting. They are headed by the Chechen, Sal Maroni and Gambol (Michael Jai White), an African American. Via a screen they are in contact with a Chinese national by the name of Lau (Chin Han), a business partner of Wayne Enterprise. Lau informs the mob that the Joker has robbed “one of our banks”. Lau has taken the rest of the mob money and transferred it to Hong Kong, where he hopes to be safe from Harvey Dent. The Joker enters the meeting. To him, not Dent but Batman is the real problem. The Joker suggests to take down the Batman – but he wants half of the mobsters money. They refuse that – he leaves, however maintaining his offer. The next scene sees Dent and Gordon accuse each other's office of being undermined by the mob – that is why Lau was able to leave for Hong Kong and taking the money with him. They ask if Batman could bring Lau back, as the Chinese never extradite their nationals – he agrees. Meanwhile the Joker kills Gambol. He tells Gambol the presumed story of how he got his scarred face – they were allegedly inflicted by his father with a knife, a “drinker and fiend” using the words “Why so serious?”

Batman captures Lau in Hong Kong, bringing him to Gotham City in a private jet. Due to his corporation with Dent and Dawes, the two Attorneys are capable of suing the gangs of Maroni and the Chechen – 549 people. Before, the gangsters have decided to accept the Joker's offer and ask him to kill Batman. Gothams mayor takes Dent into a discussion in his office – then suddenly the Joker announces his first strike. A dead person in Batman suit, but with a Joker-like painted face in a shock moment hits the window from outside – hanging on a long gallows. The Joker card on his suit reads: “Will the real Batman please stand up?” In the run-up to a fundraising party for Dent, Wayne and Alfred see the Joker on TV: he has kidnapped the fake Batman that earlier this day hung from the flagpole in front of the mayors office. He threatens the fake Batman and announces killings for every day Batman does not reveal his real identity.

The fundraising party for Dent takes place on the upper floor of Bruce Wayne's Business Tower. The same evening, the Joker assassinates Commissioner Loeb and Judge Surillo. He then shows up at Bruce Wayne's party to get Dent, who is brought into safety by Wayne. Among the guests is Rachel Dawes; the Joker tells her another version of his scar-story – Batman attacks him, but he manages to escape. Later Wayne and Alfred agree that they are dealing with a new and unprecedented threat here. Meanwhile Coleman Reese, an employee of Wayne Enterprise Ltd., has found the true identity of Batman and tries to blackmail Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the CEO of Wayne's company. Fox tells Reese he has got no chance to get through with his plans.

On a parade for Commissioner Loeb and the other killed policemen through the inner-city of Gotham the Joker strikes again. Disguised as a policeman, he and one of his men shoot at Mayor Garcia, who can be saved. However, Jim Gordon is fatally hit. Dent catches the Joker's accomplice and questions him in a hidden place. He is threatening the thug, flipping a lucky coin deciding if he should live. From his hideout, he phones Rachel and tells her that the Joker named her as the next victim. Batman enters the room and tells Dent he sees no point in interrogating an paranoid schizophrenic. Batman announces that he would tell the public his real identity in a press conference the next day. Later, Wayne and Alfred discuss the situation. Wayne says he is determined to turn himself in – he “has enough blood on his hands”; Alfred advises Wayne to “endure”. On the very press conference, held by Dent, however, Dent claims he himself was the Batman. He is taken into custody – he tells Rachel he hopes that during his convict transfer to Central Holding, the Joker will strike and Batman gets hold of him.

On its way through the city the convoy is attacked by the Joker and his thugs. Batman is trying to safe Dent, using the Tumbler, his tank-like car, but the vehicle is destroyed. The Joker and his gang – all of them dressed as clowns – fail to capture Harvey Dent. The end of the scene sees the Joker shooting randomly through the streets before Batman approaches in the Batpod, the Bat motorcycle. Batman however does not kill him. Instead the Joker is arrested by Jim Gordon, who, disguised as the driver of the convoy, had before faked his death. The Joker is questioned by Gordon in an interrogation cell. He tells the Joker that Dent did not make it home and Rachel Dawes has disappeared as well. The Joker reveals that the policemen bringing them home were corrupted by Sal Maroni. Then Batman interrogates the Joker who tries to lead Batman astray. He reveals that Dent and Rachel were hidden in different places with explosives, one of them is certain to die. Batman wants to save Rachel but the Joker sends him to the wrong place – Rachel dies of the detonation and Dent, catching fire, loses half of his face. The Joker meanwhile escapes from the police station and frees Lau.

Meanwhile Jim Gordon talks to Harvey Dent whose face is severely damaged – the left side is disfigured. Gordon wants to know who the corrupt cops were, responsible for the kidnapping of Rachel and Dent. Dent, in his hatred for Gotham's police, does not answer. Meanwhile Coleman Reese, the employee of Wayne Ltd who knows about the secret of Bruce Wayne, appears on TV announcing to reveal Batman's true identity. A phone call by the Joker is answered on the show. The Joker does not want Reese to spoil everything – therefore he threatens to explode a Gotham hospital if Reese tells Batman's identity and is not killed within 60 minutes. Reese is attacked by Gotham citizens. The Joker has meanwhile disguised as a nurse in order to avoid Harvey Dent's evacuation from hospital. He talks to Dent to convince him that chaos was the only fair rule in live, giving him a gun to take revenge on the corrupt cops and the other “schemers” – Dent flips his lucky coin which decides that the Joker should live, then he leaves his sickroom. The Joker explodes the hospital.

In a new video message on TV the Joker announces that he will take control of the city by nightfall – the city is evacuated. Later Dent kills the first corrupt cop, Michael Wuertz, flipping his coin again. Batman meanwhile has installed a monitoring system on the whole city, converting every mobile phone into a microphone. He wants Lucius Fox to use the computer controlling the system and help him catch the Joker. Lucius agrees reluctantly. The city is in panic – people are evacuated by ferry. On two of the ferries the Joker places bombs; one ferry has criminals aboard (who are evacuated as well, out of fear the Joker could release them), the other one carries civilians. On both ferries people find a trigger for the other boat – the Joker now tells the people to explode the respective other boat in order to save themselves. If they do not, he will kill all of them by midnight.

People on the civilian boat start a discussion, the criminals on the other boat however are threatened by the guards. Meanwhile, the Joker and his thugs have entered a skyscraper and taken police officers as hostages. Jim Gordon and a SWAT-Team have positioned themselves in a high-rise building nearby and target the building.

Gordon answers a phone call – Harvey Dent has kidnapped Barbara Gordon and his children. Now there are three overlapping situations – the people on the ferries, the SWAT-team closing in on the Joker's gangsters and hostages and Gordon's family kidnapped by Dent. Batman enters the building of the Joker and finds out that Gordon's men are targeting hostages, dressed as gangsters (“clowns”). Batman now has to safe the disguised hostages against Gordon's policemen who just entered the building and at the same time fight against the Joker's clowns. Finally, Batman finds the Joker.

As Batman predicted, people on the boats do not explode each other. Batman, fighting with the Joker, has the chance to kill him. Falling down from the skyscraper, the Joker laughs, but is saved by Batman. The Joker reveals that he has converted Harvey Dent into a monster. Meanwhile Jim Gordon and Dent face each other inside the building where Rachel Dawes died. Two Face, as Harvey Dent is called as well, has Gordon's family at gunpoint and accuses Gordon of not having fought corruption in the police. He wants fairness – the fairness of his coin. After the first flip of it, he shoots Batman, who had just entered the scene. Flipping it again, Dent spares himself. Before he can flip it the third time Batman – whose suit is bullet-proof – tackles him and they both fall out of the building. Dent is apparently dead. Gordon and Batman both decide that Batman should take the blame for the casualties. The last shots show Lucius Fox shutting down Batman's surveillance machine. Police teams and their dogs set out to chase Batman. A manhunt for Batman begins.

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

2.1 Gotham City – Between Postmodernity and Grand Narrative

The Batman series has been traditionally set in Gotham City – the name “Gotham” being an occasional nickname for New York City. Very early after the Batman saga began, the crime-fighting action actually took place in New York, as Mark Cotta-Vaz reports: “Although in the early days New York was identified as Batman's Big City Beat, by Batman 4 the venue was Gotham City”, which, “although it was meant to be a fictional place, (.) is clearly modelled after New York” (66). Christopher Nolan however decided to shootThe Dark Knightin Chicago again, just as he did withBatman Beginsin 2005. The shots inThe Dark Knightonly rarely and remotely depict prominent and landmark Chicago Skyscrapers such as TheJohn Hancock Centeror theSears Tower, both of which are familiar to a wider public both inside and outside of the United States. Only theChicago Board of Trade Buildingand theRichard J. Daley Center, the two buildings housing Wayne Enterprises inBatman BeginsandThe Dark Knightrespectively, might be known to people interested in high-rise buildings or architecture; most shots however in theThe Dark Knightpresent Gotham City as a relatively monotonous conglomeration of skyscrapers and gridded 20th century American urban structures and architecture.

Originally it took an audience only one look at the city imagery of Gotham to get a first impression of what kind of city this was. In this context Mark Cotta Vaz has interviewed Batman editor Denny O'Neill who states: “My standard definition of Gotham City is, it's New York below Fourteenth Street after eleven o'clock at night – recognizably New York, but with emphasis on the grimmer aspects of the city” (ibid. 66). Most directors have stuck to this formula. Christopher Nolan however has contributed other accents. Compared to the tense atmospherical imaging of Gotham during the early 1990s – the city as a dark, steaming cesspool with hidden lowlife pubs and towering Art-Deco skyscrapers with gargoyles on their rooftops – this time Gotham gives a relatively sober impression; overall cleaner, brighter, on the one hand more realistic, on the other hand more faceless and substitutable. The city evokes a high degree of immediacy through its replaceable imagery – the story could take place in any North American City and might even raise a sense of familiarity with some European and Asian audiences.

This is supported through the city's characteristics, which are partly addressed in the film. In one scene Lucius Fox mentions that Gotham had “thirty million” inhabitants (1h 51min), which would dwarf any contemporary city in the United States in size – and, besides some huge Asian conglomerates like Tokyo – any city in the world. Through this dislocation again a paradoxical immediacy is raised; clearly not a place in today's United States, with a relatively ordinary high-rise skyline and realistic imagery, the fabrication of Gotham City in the latest Batman film here seemingly raises not only the claim to have relevance for cities of the United States, but for most Western cities. This however, due to its massive size, only as a future perspective – in times of ever-growing Megacities like Mumbay, Chongquing, Sao Paolo and Shanghai, urban areas of unprecedented dimensions, some of them known for slums, decay and skyrocketing crime rates, this is a clearly dystopian notion. This pessimistic rendering of Gotham City however is deeply rooted in American mythology.

Robert Zecker writes in his accountMetropolis: “From the nation's beginning the deck was stacked against urban America” (3) – speaking in the above mentioned conceptional dichotomy of in- and out-groups, the American cities traditionally were places of “Otherness”. They were “ethnic” places, comprising people of other backgrounds than White Anglo Saxon Protestants, a concept that in itself is rather unstable. Founded by religious European refugees of diverse denominational and national origins, the early settlers of the United States in itself were a heterogeneous and divided group in every respect. In the search of a national mainstream, a wide and organic concept had to be found – open to new settlers natives felt some kind of kinship with, but discriminatory towards a perceived out-group: WASP, comprising ethnic as well as denominational characteristics. In the forming of a civil religion a definitive other was detected in all people considered “non-Whites”: African Americans, Asian Americans, but partly also Italo-Americans – in this context Bernd Ostendorf (15) speaks of a functional racism firmly entrenched in societal order. This line of division is racially as well as spatially delineated and has been incorporated by the city/countryside dichotomy.

Though the picture the rural and remote living communities had of the city was often inaccurate and deriving almost exclusively from fictional accounts – and later, “muckraking journalism” – it was fostered also by the elites ever since.

Political leaders of the early republic such as Thomas Jefferson regarded cities as the seats of chimerical mobs of landless laborers beholden to the nearest demagogue promising them a job in return for their vote (.). (Zecker 3) American values such as family, hard labour and religious community living in American mythology have been traditionally confined to the countryside. Zecker adds: “Whether Jefferson’s self-conception of the white rural yeoman as completely virtuous and self-reliant was accurate (.), it became an enduring antiurban foundational myth” (ibid. 3). Interestingly enough, this antiurban tendency has found resonance in fictional representations all through the 20th century – shattered though, by the onslaught of subversive postmodern theorising since the 1960s, but at its core untouched and especially since the late 1990s, revitalised.

Particularly the writers of the Postmodernist era have written against conformist societal mainstreaming and have chosen a variety of art forms to foreground former marginalised stories and texts. In this endeavour the perspectives of the city as a diverse space have found more liveable representations, as it is particularly here that Postmodern modes of living and arts thrive. I am basing my observation here on the account of Sophie Watson and Kathie Gibson, who have delineated the late 20th and early 21st century city as a Postmodern space: one discourse about Postmodernity concludes that “it is reality, the city, or more specifically late capitalist urban space, that is the subject of transformation and disjuncture” (1). Postmodern spaces are fragmented, dispersed, transient and in their diversity of living modes, hardly form capacities for the overwhelming dominance of “Grand Narratives” – all-encompassing teleological ideologies as outlined by Jean-François Lyotard.

100 of 100 pages


New Evil - The Joker in "The Dark Knight" as a Prototype of the Post-September 11-Villain
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2126 KB
Evil, Joker, Dark, Knight, Prototype, Post-September
Quote paper
Lars Dittmer (Author), 2009, New Evil - The Joker in "The Dark Knight" as a Prototype of the Post-September 11-Villain, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: New Evil - The Joker in "The Dark Knight" as a Prototype of the Post-September 11-Villain

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free