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WR 123: Essay 1 Guidelines

Choose either “

The Dark Knight

and the Evilness of Evil” (Cocksworth) or “The Exceptional Darkness of

The Dark Knight

”(McGowan — only first 3 ½ p.); read, annotate, and analyze.

Craft an introduction that catches the reader’s interest and previews the topics to be discussed. You can either state your claim here or forecast what your claim might be.

Next, address the “they say” — summarize your chosen article efficiently in around 200-300 words. Summarize specifically highlighting the main claim or subclaim you will be responding to and the reasons/evidence that apply. Please use a few direct quotes to illustrate your summary. This should be at least two to three meaty paragraphs in length.

Note: You can assume the reader is familiar with

The Dark Knight

but not the article being summarized.

In the next part of your essay (note — these are not to be sectioned off, part 1 and part 2; it should be cohesive), you will respond, saying what you agree with or what you disagree with in your chosen article (or both) in roughly 400-600 words, provide

your claim

, and then the


supporting that. Please use specific examples for your evidence (quotes from your chosen article, quotes/scenes from the film, related examples in real life, etc.).

Finish with a conclusion the reflects on the importance of what’s been expressed and possibly applying it to the broader world.

Volume 120 Number 11 Pages 541–543
© ThetAuthor(s),
h e e x2009.
p o sReprints
i t o rand
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DOI: 10.1177/0014524609106841
The Dark Knight and the Evilness of Evil
By ashley cocksworth
School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh
The problem of evil is a recurring cinematic motif. However, in the theatres as much as in theology, evil is
often misunderstood. Its peculiar ontology (as neither created nor divine) and its problematic presence (as
defeated yet hostile) makes evil conceptually hard to speak of. Surprisingly, then, the latest Batman movie,
The Dark Knight, offers a very good (or rather, very evil) account of wickedness that aims not to ‘solve’ the
problem of evil but to expose wickedness in all its savaging awfulness. This article will discuss some of the
issues that stand behind the account of evil proffered by Batman’s archenemy and Gotham City’s agent of
chaos, the Joker.
Augustine, evil, wickedness, theodicy, ethics, The Dark Knight
vents of unrestrained violence demand at
  least some sort of explanation, or so
   our modern selves have led us to believe.
However, sometimes an attempt at the explanation
of inequitable wickedness is as problematic as
the problem of evil itself. Those seeking comfort
in this explanation tend toward oversimplifying
evil thereby producing an account that inevitably
trivializes evil. To help prevent such tendencies, it
is important to rethink the evilness of evil and a
framework for doing so can be found in the latest
Batman movie.
The Dark Knight (2008) is the second instalment
in Christopher Noland’s series that aims to retrieve
the darkened Batman mythology that was crudely
lost in Joel Schumacher’s pantomimic renditions of
the nineties – Batman and Robin (1997) and Batman
Forever (1995). The latest movie competes with the
menacing eeriness that we saw during the Burton era
(1989–92) without falling into Burton’s (trademark)
over-theatric surrealism.
In this movie, billionaire Bruce Wayne’s vigilante
alter ego, the Batman, finds himself defending Gotham
City’s liberty against a new class of criminality,
the Joker. Unlike the comic insanity of previous
incarnations, Heath Ledger’s Joker emerges as a
psychopathic madman, a self-confessed ‘freak’ and
overall a very different sort of villain indeed. His face
caked in flaking white paint terrifyingly exaggerates
his horrific scars which have served to immortalize
the Joker as a hideous yet thrilling villain. The Joker’s
character was so wicked and Ledger’s performance
so convincing that, in the wake of the actor’s tragic
suicide, the audience is left wondering whether
Ledger, by immersing himself into the depths of the
Joker’s psychotic disturbance, became himself one of
the Joker’s victims. Behind the theatrics and costume,
though, the Joker is a very interesting character.
He is of interest for at least three broad reasons:
(i) his interrogation of Gotham City’s moral order,
(ii) his defiance of stereotypical villainy and (iii) the
inexplicability of his evilness.
(i) The Joker deliberately tests the audience’s
moral assumptions about the ‘good’ and the
‘bad’. We can see this clearly in the Joker’s ‘social
experiment’ in which the Joker takes hostage two
ships that are trying to flee his campaign of terror.
The first harbours Gotham’s ‘sweet and innocent
civilians’, and the other, the city’s ‘scumbags’, the
murderers and thieves. What the Joker aims to
prove in the siege is that Gotham’s ‘moral code
. . . drops at the first sign of trouble; these civilized
people will eat each other’, he tells Batman. To
prove his point, the Joker demands the sacrifice of
one ship for the survival of the other. On the ‘bad’
ship, the criminals dismiss the choice to murder
the other ship as an impossible decision; their only
choice is to destroy the detonator. The ‘good’ ship,
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the expository times
however, reverts to a standard democratic vote
to settle the dilemma and the anonymous vote
favours the murder of the criminals, ‘who’, after all,
‘have had their chance’. But at the eleventh hour,
the democracy fails to produce an individual to
follow through the detonation. Although both the
‘good’ and the ‘bad’ refuse to facilitate the Joker’s
depravity, the prisoners end up looking slightly
more virtuous. In other words, the ‘good’ are not so
good after all and are only separated from the ‘bad’
by a very thin and faint line of morality. Here the
filmmakers are using the Joker to force the audience
to confront and question the very structure of our
self-constructed and self-preservatory moral system.
In fact, the Joker aims to completely rid Gotham of
all such moral categories by proposing to replace
these empty categories with a sadistic anarchy;
‘the only sensible way to live in this world is
without rules’, goes the advice of the most senseless
character of the movie.
(ii) Having disrupted the audiences’ moral
assumptions, The Dark Knight uses the character of
the Joker to illustrate that evil is a highly complex
concept. For instance, the Joker is portrayed in
such an evil and senseless way because there are no
external motivations that can explain his criminality.
By claiming complete unconcern for the pursuit of
the rational and material rewards that drive the
average villain, the Joker defies the category of
stereotypical villainy. To name a few examples, the
Joker has no interest in climbing the echelons of
Gotham City’s underworld; hence the unabashed
betrayal of his criminal entourage in the opening
scene of the movie. At another point, he even burns
a stockpile of stolen cash, which is the classic tenet
of comic criminality. The Joker’s motivation, then,
is simply to cause boundless terror and chaos for no
reason other than for the sake of terrorizing. ‘Some
men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money
. . . some men just want to watch the world burn’,
said Alfred (Batman’s butler and moral conscience)
with characteristic poignancy. Moreover, the Joker is
not content with just burning the world for the sake
of burning the world, he actually wants to sit back
and watch the tortuous burning and smell the sizzling
flesh. This is why the Joker’s weapon of choice is a
knife and not a gun.
(iii) The Joker remains so wicked throughout the
film not only because his actions are inexplicable
but also because the origin of his evilness remains
unknown. At various points, the Joker is asked of the
origins of his distorted face. Whilst Jack Nicholson’s
Joker previously accredited this to an accident in a
chemical factory and botched plastic surgery, the
Joker of The Dark Knight produces conflicting
answers: child abuse, self-mutilation, etc. This
serves only to indulge and tempt the demands for
explanation from the people interrogating the Joker
who unbeknown to each other are led to believe
that they hold the key to his insanity. Furthermore,
against the convention, the Joker of The Dark
Knight remains nameless. In the 1989 version, the
Joker was named Jack Napier and like most other
archenemies in the superhero genre, such as Lord
Voldemort in Harry Potter, Napier had murdered
the parents of the protagonist. Noland, however,
refused to place the Joker within any sort of wider
narrative arch. He refused to satisfy the fanboy’s call
for description because without an explanation, the
Joker appears ever more irrational and menacing.
Even Batman has to be reminded by Alfred that
‘with respect, maybe this is a man you don’t fully
understand’. This is not because Batman can’t but
because the Joker actually defies explanation.
Indeed, contemporary culture has been increasingly
obsessed with finding the root cause of evil, as if
to say ‘Well, there’s your problem!’ and as if an
explanation is in anyway comforting to those on the
suffering end of evil. It is thought that if an attempt
is not made to explain evil then the full reality of evil
is denied. Since the work of Leibniz, theology has
been tempted to frame this explanation around the
enterprise of theodicy which attempts to (dis)solve
the problem of evil – i.e. how to account for the
presence of evil in a creation created good by a
Creator we know to be good and omnipotent
– along logical lines. In this way, and this is
the real problem of evil, evil is treated as an
entirely explainable phenomenon. However, once
explained, evil has to occupy a specified place in
the created order thus permitting evil to operate
under the alibi of goodness (as all things created,
according to the writer of Genesis 1, are good).
Evil becomes naturalized, domesticated within the
orderliness of creation and written into our system;
under these conditions, the full evilness of evil is
However, a close reading of the Genesis saga
illustrates an important refusal to account for how
or why the serpent was present in the Garden of
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the expository times
Eden; it was just inexplicably and absurdly there
(Gen 3:1). If evil claimed createdness then evil would
be good, therefore, evil must be decreative of that
which God does create. This is why the topic of
evil can never become a theological topic because
evil, by definition, is entirely anti-theological and
destructive of the very intentions of creatureliness;
hence its absence from the creedal confessions.
Evil, then, cannot become an alternative principle
that is waged in a spiritual battle against the good
and can therefore be marginalized as something
that only others do. Rather, evil, according to the
Augustinian tradition, is the distortion and privation
of the good. Therefore, it is highly significant that the
Joker takes on the appearance of a clown. A clown
is, of course, an image that we usually associate
with happiness, laughter and joviality but the Joker
disrupts and distorts the good connotations of the
image he bears. It is equally significant that the
Joker identifies the scars on his face as indicative
of his depravity. Collectively, these two elements
of the Joker’s existence illustrates that because evil
is not created, it is not something that can boast
an independent substance of its own; rather, evil
is that which distorts an otherwise good. Evil is
the perversion of something that is good, or put
differently, evil is the scars to the Joker’s otherwise
scar-less face, but (to avoid substantiating evil with
ontological features) it is not the face itself. In an
important sense, we all bear the scars of evil; we
are all universally implicated in evil as the entirety
of humanity was somehow seminally present at the
Fall. Darkness descends over the whole of Gotham:
‘You can all be like me’, the Joker seductively temps.
This temptation is confirmed in the Joker’s eventual
corruption of ‘the face of Gotham City’s bright
future’, District Attorney Harvey Dent. This is an
important qualification to what could be seen as a
problematic, yet over simplistic, dualism between
the good (Batman) and the evil (the Joker). It would
be tempting to identify evil as something that the
demonic other does; the evil would be the Joker,
his terrorists, our neighbours, but not actually us.
This culture of blame fails to account for human
responsibility and neglects the pervasive reach of
In short, if one could either identify a motivation,
fit the Joker into a category that could contain his
wickedness, or even name him then the Joker would
not be all that wicked; he would possess the qualities
of the generic comic book bad-guy – which are all
scary, but not terrifying and not corrupting, not
really evil. Here we can mention Harvey Dent who,
after a tragic event, becomes another of Gotham’s
criminals, ‘Two Face’. Unlike the Joker, however,
Two Face’s villainy is accounted for: it is the product
of an accident and defined by a broken heart.
From start to finish, however, the Joker appears as
thoroughly and wickedly evil; the last we see of the
Joker is of him hanging upside down in a position
that alludes to the upturned cross, the emblem of
The Dark Knight protects the evilness of evil by,
firstly, refusing to account for origins of the evil
represented by the Joker, and secondly, by ensuring
that the Joker’s evilness is not an independent
phenomenon, but is rather a privation of the good.
And consequently, the Joker is truly terrifying. By
protecting the evilness of evil, The Dark Knight
teaches an important lesson to our violence-obsessed
culture, namely, evil is not something to be trivialized
or glorified. The Joker represents the return to
non-being and the very ending of his humanity;
hence he is unnameable. Therefore, there is a real
ethical dimension to The Dark Knight. It asks a very
important question that shifts attention from the
language of theodicy, which is predicated on the basis
of an unavailable metaphysical appropriation of the
components involved in the theodicial equation, onto
actually facing the horrendously beastly presence of
evil. The point is that by beginning to rethink the
evilness of evil, we begin to learn how to respond
to evil and where to place our hope. We cannot
hope in someone like Batman, who although is
motivated by the good, arrives at the good via a
morally ambiguous and violent route, and at points
even Batman needs ‘saving’; neither can we hope in
our-evil-selves. Rather creaturely hope is placed in
Jesus Christ, the central character in the drama of
resistance against evil who rehumanizes humanity
and initiates not an explanation of evil but its very
elimination through the restoration of the good. The
Christian narrative culminates in the restoration of
the entirety of humanity to a position of goodness in
which all scars, no matter how deep, will be healed
and forgiven.
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copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
The exceptional darkness of
The Dark Knight
by Todd McGowan
The exceptional superhero
The superhero film and its comic book source contend that the law alone is not a
sufficient condition for justice. From the time of Superman’s emergence in the
first superhero comic book in 1938, the law’s inadequacy has been the genre’s
central concern, and this theme has remained constant through the proliferation
of superhero films in the 1990s and 2000s. Under even the most benign
historical circumstances, injustice is more powerful than justice, and as a result,
justice requires an exceptional figure who operates outside or on the periphery of
the law. This figure, the superhero, goes where the law can’t go and accomplishes
what it can’t accomplish. According to the scripts’ logic, superheroes earn their
exceptional status by dint of some extra-human ability or some special skill that
others lack. Endowed with this ability or skill, the superhero acquires an
exceptional relation to the law. By skirting or even violating particular laws in
order to sustain the order of law, the superhero provides the extra-legal
supplement that the law requires in order to deliver justice.
The mask that superheroes wear indicates their complex relation to the law.
Ordinary police officers can avow their identity publicly, and this is what
separates them from criminals, who would be in jail if they publicly
avowed their criminality. Even undercover police officers cease hiding their
identity after each assignment, and those who can’t effectively become criminals.
Being a figure of the law includes implicitly the public avowal of one’s
status.[1][open endnotes in new window] Superheroes, however, are a different
type of figure. While they struggle against criminals who break the law,
superheroes cannot openly identify themselves with law’s public nature. They
represent instead the underside of public law, the dimension of private support
that it requires in order to function effectively as a public institution.[2]
Even the most ethical superheroes occupy a position outside of the order of law
simply by virtue of their heightened powers. Critics usually see Superman as one
of the least engaging superheroes precisely because of his probity and absence of
any dark side to his character.[3] Unlike other superheroes, Superman almost
never violates the law — except perhaps with indecent exposure in phone booths
— in order to uphold the legal order. But he does, as in Richard Donner’s
originalSuperman: The Movie (1978), violate the laws of the universe, causing
the earth to spin backwards and time to reverse itself in order to save Lois Lane
(Margot Kidder). Donner’s film presents this act as a moment of ethical crisis
because it reveals Superman’s exceptional relation to law and the way that his
superpowers placs him at odds with the law’s limited and limiting nature. The
uneasiness of the superhero’s — and, in fact, that of the hero as such —
coexistence with the law prompts German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel to see them
as antithetical.
Hegel lived through the French Revolution and his thought was shaped by it.
Through the experience of revolution, he saw that modernity possessed the
capacity for radical change but lacked the philosophical space for thinking of a
hero as the agent of that change. As a result, though the philosopher was
unacquainted with Superman, Hegel thought a great deal about the phenomenon
that Superman represents. In Hegel’s aesthetic philosophy, he distinguishes
between a heroic age and the era of legal order. In the latter era of legal order,
ethical activity is realized through the laws of the state rather than through
individual action. Though laws can be unjust and we may have to change them,
our ethical activity occurs within the law rather than outside it once a legal order
has been established. The legal order thus leaves no room for the hero, the figure
who acts outside of the law’s constraint. Heroism is antithetical to law because it
always serves to constitute its own law even if it doesn’t mean to do so. For the
hero, as Hegel puts it,
“Individuality is a law unto itself, without being subjected to an independently
subsisting law, judgement, and tribunal.”[4]
In the context of legal order, the hero’s activity would become criminality, and
there would be no way to differentiate it from evil. This is why Hegel rejects the
idea of a modern hero. Such a figure fails to see how the private morality that it
proffers as an alternative or as a supplement to the legal order is already included
within that order. As a result of its structural incompatibility, the hero’s activity
will have the effect of undermining the law even if it is done to supplement the
law. But a problem remains: Left to itself the law cannot arrive at justice, and the
persistence of injustice within the legal order leads to a demand for the hero and
for an heroic exception to the law.[5]
Using Batman, not Superman, as the protagonist, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark
Knight (2008) takes this problem posed by the hero and the hero’s exceptional
status in relation to the law as its overriding concern. The title for the film
(though not the plot) derives from Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel
series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and it provides a less idealizing
portrait of Batman than those developed previously. The film is not simply,
however, a critique of heroic exceptionality. The film’s universe makes clear the
need for an exception to the law. Without Batman (Christian Bale) providing
extra-legal assistance to Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the
crime lords that menace Gotham would render the city uninhabitable. Even with
Batman’s help, the film’s ominous and brooding mise-en-scène reveals the extent
to which criminality sets the tone for life there. Unlike Nolan’s earlier
film Batman Begins (2005), in which Gotham appears as a futuristic city despite
its crime problem, here crime shapes the look and feel of the city as grim.
Buildings stand in disrepair; people’s dress is generally disheveled; and even
daytime scenes occur under dark skies.
Given the film’s appreciation of the need for heroic exception to the legal order, it
is easy to understand why a right-wing political commentator, after viewing the
film, might regard it as a tribute to George W. Bush and his prosecution of the
Iraq War. In his Wall Street Journal article, “What Bush and Batman Have in
Common,” Andrew Klavan contends in this vein,
“There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently
breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to
the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this
time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting
terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to
push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will
re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.”[6]
The similarity between Bush and Batman consists in their joint recognition that
an exceptional threat to the legal order requires an extra-legal exception in order
to quell the threat. Though Klavan has to read the film creatively in order to
arrive at the thesis that it constitutes “a conservative movie about the war on
terror,” he does rightly grasp the film’s fundamental contention that we need a
figure of exception.[7]
The problem with accepting and celebrating the hero’s exceptionality is not
simply that such acceptance produces conservative misreadings but that this
exceptionality has an inherent tendency to multiply itself exponentially. In Dark
Knight, this kind of proliferation occurs early in the film when copycat vigilantes
place both themselves and others at risk. In the United States during the War on
Terror, exceptionality takes the form of an ever-increasing extension of
surveillance and security. Once we grant the necessity of the position of the
exception, the law can no longer define those who will occupy this position nor
restrain their activity. Once we violate rights of non-citizens, we will soon be
violating the rights of citizens as well, and finally we will end up with a society in
which rights as such cease to exist. The exception necessarily exists beyond the
limits of the law, and if the law could contain its magnitude, it would cease to be
exceptional. This is the dilemma that shapes The Dark Knight. The film’s
incredible popularity attests not simply to Nolan’s skill as a filmmaker or to a
successful marketing campaign by Warner Brothers but also to the contemporary
urgency of the question it addresses.
The film begins with Batman’s grasp of the problem, as it depicts his attempt to
relinquish his exceptional status and to allow the legal order to operate on its
own. In order to do this, a different form of heroism is required, and the quest
that constitutes The Dark Knight is Batman’s attempt to find the proper public
face for heroism. He is drawn to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) because Dent
seems to embody the possibility of a heroism that would be consistent with public
law and that could consequently function without the need for disguise. After the
death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Dent’s own serious facial burn
transforms him from a defender of the law into the criminal figure Two-Face,
Batman sees the impossibility of doing away with the hero’s mask. Dent, the
would-be hero without a mask, quickly becomes a criminal himself when he
experiences traumatic loss. This turn of events reveals that the hero must remain
an exception, but it also shows that the heroism of the hero must pass itself off as
its opposite.
Just as the truth that Leonard (Guy Pearce) discovers at the end of
Nolan’s Memento (2000) is a constitutive lie, the conclusion of The Dark
Knight illustrates that the true form of appearance of heroism is evil. The film
concludes with Batman voluntarily taking responsibility for the murders that
Dent/Two-Face committed. By doing so, Batman allows Dent to die as a hero in
the public mind, but he also — and more importantly — changes the public
perception of his own exceptional status. When he agrees to appear as a criminal
at the end of the film, Batman avows simultaneously the need for the heroic
exception and the need for this exception to appear as criminality. If the heroic
exception is not to multiply itself in a way that threatens any possibility for
justice, then its appearance must become indistinguishable from criminality.
The heroic gesture, as The Dark Knight conceives it, does not consist in any of
the particular crime-fighting or life-saving activities that Batman performs
throughout the film. It lies rather in his embrace of the appearance of criminality
that concludes the film. Gordon’s voiceover panegyric to Batman that punctuates
the film affirms that this is the truly heroic act. This act privileges and
necessitates its own misrecognition: it is only through misrecognition that one
sees it correctly. If the people of Gotham were to see through Batman’s form of
appearance and recognition his real heroism, the heroism would be instantly lost.
As the film portrays it, the form of appearance of authentic heroism must be that
of evil. Only in this way does the heroic exceptionality that the superhero
embodies avoid placing us on the road to fascist rule.
From Batman to Guantanamo
The nearest cousin to the superhero film is the western. Both genres address the
problem of exceptional violence that resides outside the legal order and yet is
necessary for the existence of that order. However, the western concerns the
initial violence that founds the law, what Walter Benjamin labels “lawmaking
violence.”[8] In George Stevens’ Shane (1953), for instance, the violence of Shane
(Alan Ladd) helps to establish a democratic and agrarian society that will replace
the ranchers’ lawless reigne. Shane acts violently in defense of the Starrett family
and their farm, but his violence has no legal authorization because it occurs
before the law has been firmly constituted. In order for the social order that his
violence founds to function as a legal entity, Shane must leave at the end of the
film. His violence has a purely exceptional status, and his departure confirms that
the exception can disappear after the new social order comes into existence.
There is no such recourse for exceptionality in the superhero film. This type of
film confronts not the necessity of lawmaking violence but that of a certain
necessary violence that exists outside the law.[9] The law evokes this violence in
extreme situations that merely legal violence cannot properly address. In The
Dark Knight, the extreme situation is the rampant criminality of the various
gangs that control Gotham. Responding to each outburst of excessive criminal
activity that the police themselves cannot handle, Lieutenant Gordon shines the
Bat Signal in the night sky and thus announces the decree of a temporary state of
exception in which Batman will employ violence to supplement the police.
Unlike Shane, Batman does not ultimately leave the society that he sustains with
his violence. Once the western hero violently carves out the place for a modern
society, he must abandon that society in order to avoid contaminating it with his
violence. But Batman remains as a persistent exception that the law cannot do
without, and as a result, the superhero film confronts a more imposing dilemma
than the western does. A western can simply end with the departure of the hero
(or his domesticization, as in the conclusion of Howard Hawks’ Red River, 1948),
but the superhero film has no such recourse. For the sake of the possibility of
justice, the superhero must remain. But his presence as an exception is
problematic, calling into question the legality of the law. By their very presence,
superheroes expose the law’s inherent insufficiency and inspire everyone to
doubt its efficacy. The heroic exception constantly works to undermine the law
that it supplements.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the great danger inherent in the
exception. It leads not just to abuses of civil rights but to large-scale horrors like
the Holocaust, which functions as a major point of reference for Agamben’s
thought. Exceptionality, for Agamben, launches a legal civil war and thereby
plays the key role in the transition from democracy to fascist authoritarianism.
The declaration of the state of exception attempts
“to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very
distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes
The problem is that the exceptional time never comes to an end, and the
disappearance of the distinction between an emergency and everyday life pushes
the society toward a state of civil war that the very exception itself was supposed
to quell. Rather than acting as a temporary stopgap for a society on the brink of
self-annihilation, the state of exception actually pushes the society further down
the path to this annihilation by undermining the distinction between law and
criminality and thereby helping to foster a Hobbesian war of all against all, in
which every act of sovereign power becomes justified in the name of order.
The Dark Knight begins with a focus on the problem engendered by the state of
exception embodied by Batman. He is a figure outside the law on whom the law
relies to respond to the most recalcitrant criminal elements in Gotham. But
Batman’s very success at fighting crime outside the law has, when the film opens,
spawned numerous imitators — vigilantes who dress like Batman and spend their
nights fighting crime. The result is an increased degree of lawlessness and
insecurity in the city. Through these copycat vigilantes, the film begins by making
clear the danger of the sanctioned exception that exists outside the law. Once one
embraces the exception, the need for exceptionality will constantly expand
insofar as the exception augments the very problem that it is created to fight
The fake Batmen question Batman directly on the monopoly he attempts to hold
on exceptionality. After Batman rescues them from their botched effort to
interrupt a drug deal, he warns them against this type of activity:
One says, “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”
Batman responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”
While amusing, this quip is actually wholly inadequate as an argument. Batman
has no inherent right to guard exceptionality for himself, and as long as he
occupies this position, others will be drawn to it. And a self-multiplying
exceptionality portends the destruction of the social order.
The state of exception justifies any type of action — any encroachment on civil
liberties — in order to realize the justice that ordinary law is incapable of
realizing.The Dark Knight explicitly links the heroic exception embodied by
Batman with the violation of civil liberties associated with the official declaration
of a state of emergency (in the current War on Terror, for instance). Batman acts
exceptionally not just by wearing a mask and breaking a few traffic laws but by
creating a system of surveillance that completely erases the idea of private space
within Gotham. When Batman commissions his technical designer Lucius Fox
(Morgan Freeman) to create a device that will allow him to map the location of
everyone within the entire city of Gotham, Fox balks at the violation of civil
liberties that this entails. He agrees to help to catch the Joker (Heath Ledger) but
promises to resign immediately afterward. As Fox changes from fully supporting
Batman and his exceptionality, his outrage signifies that Batman has crossed a
line beyond heroic exceptionality where one can no longer differentiate the heroic
masked man from the criminals that he pursues. But in order to apprehend the
Joker and disrupt his criminal plans, the film makes clear that Batman must
cross this line. It places him fully on the terrain of contemporary politics and in
the company of conservative political figures.
The logic of the War on Terror waged by President George W. Bush and Vice
President Dick Cheney derives entirely from the idea that they rule in a state of
emergency where the normal rule of law will be insufficient for safeguarding the
U.S. populace. One must thus carve out an exceptional position outside the law.
One of the ramifications of this idea is the legitimization of torture as a normal
practice during the interrogation of anyone suspected of having a link with a
terrorist organization. But the other ramification touches directly on the actions
of Batman in The Dark Knight. The War on Terror, as conceived by Bush and
Cheney, is being fought with increased surveillance more than with additional
weapons. The nature of the emergency calls for exceptional measures of
surveillance, including eavesdropping on telephone calls, spying on emails, and
using satellites to track movements, all without court authorization. When
Batman uses the device that Fox builds for him, the film’s hero elevates himself to
an exception in the Bush and Cheney sense of the term. This is one of the points
of resonance that led conservative writer Andrew Klavan to link Batman and
Bush. But there is nonetheless a fundamental distinction between the two figures
and between Batman’s relation to exceptionality and that displayed by Bush.
One might assume that the difference lies in Batman’s readiness to abandon the
system of total surveillance after he catches the Joker and the emergency ends.
Batman arranges for the system to self-destruct after Lucius Fox has finished
using it, and as he walks away from the exploding system, Fox smiles to himself,
cheered by Batman’s ethical commitment to abandoning the power Batman had
amassed for himself. This image does certainly seem to contrast with the image of
the system of surveillance established during the War on Terror, which increases
rather than self-destructs as the September 11th attacks move further and further
into history. Neither President Bush nor his successor will call an end to the War
on Terror or revoke all of the aspects of the Patriot Act. But Klavan can
nonetheless see a parallel between Batman’s restoration of full civil rights and
Bush’s intention to do so after the emergency ends. The difference between
Bush’s version of the state of exception and Batman’s — between the conservative
and the leftist — does not ultimately reside in the fact that it is temporary for
Batman and permanent for Bush. Both figures view it as temporary, but what
separates Batman is the attitude that he takes toward this violation of the law: he
accepts that his willingness to embrace this type of exceptionality constitutes him
as a criminal. Because he views it as a criminal act, Batman is quick to eliminate
it. But this is precisely what Bush would be loath to accept and why he views the
War on Terror as a quasi-eternal struggle.
The superhero film has emerged as a popular genre when the problem of the state
of exception has moved to the foreground historically. That is not to say, of
course, that superhero films owe their popularity to George W. Bush, but that
they attract an audience when the relationship between exceptionality and the
law has increasingly come into question. As Agamben notes,
“The state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of
government in contemporary politics. This transformation of a provisional and
exceptional measure into a technique of government threatens radically to alter
— in fact, has already palpably altered — the structure and meaning of the
traditional distinction between constitutional forms.”[11]
The state of exception, for Agamben, is the path by which democracy falls into
fascism. The exception becomes confounded with the rule and soon takes its
place. From that point forward, a total authority emerges who exercises control
over the people with their own security as this authority’s justification. Because
the heroic exception is written into the generic requirements, the superhero film
exists within this political context.
Most superhero films simply affirm our need for the heroic exception and don’t
call the status of this exception into question. This is true for John Favreau’s Iron
Man (2008) and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008), to name just two
films released around the same time as The Dark Knight. As a result, even when
they have some critical content about the ruling ideology — as with the (albeit
limited) critique of the military-industrial complex in Iron Man — their form
employing the heroic exception vitiates this content and ends up justifying the
conservative direction of contemporary politics. In these films, even if the heroic
exception causes certain problems, it is fundamentally necessary for the cause of
justice, which would simply be overpowered without it.
The hero’s relation to heroic exceptionality forms the basis of what constitutes
authentic heroism. If the hero adopts the position of exception as a difficult duty
that one must perform for the sake of a greater good (the position of Iron Man,
President Bush, Superman, and most exceptional heroes), then exceptionality
becomes an unlimited end in itself that will never cease to be required. If,
however, the hero adopts the position of exception as a criminal duty, as a
necessity that removes him from the realm of heroism altogether, then
exceptionality can realize itself in justice rather than in the production of an
increasing amount of injustice. Nolan’s film shows us that authentic heroism
necessarily appears in the form of evil.
Ethics is a joke
Justice requires an exception because our adherence to the law is always
compromised from the outset. Many theorists who have tackled the question of
the subject’s relation to the law have run up against the same problem. The
inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, for one, contends that the basis of
our acquiescence to the law lies in envy, envy of others’ satisfaction, and that this
inevitably distorts all social arrangements. Similarly, German philosopher
Immanuel Kant posits that our devotion to the law is never devotion to the law
for its sake but for some attendant pathological motivation. This becomes the
central moral problem that Kant tries to work out in his 1788 Critique of
Practical Reason. Kant sees that even if we initially and instinctively obey the
law, we do not do so for the right reasons.
According to Kant, when we emerge as subjects, we do so as beings of radical evil,
that is, beings who do good for evil reasons. We help our neighbor for the
recognition we gain; we volunteer to help with the school dance in order to spend
time with a potential romantic interest; we give money for disaster relief in order
to feel comfortable about our level of material comfort; and so on. For Kant, this
is the fundamental problem that morality confronts and the most difficult type of
evil to extirpate. He explains,
“The human being (even the best) is evil only because he reverses the moral order
of his incentives in incorporating them into his maxims. He indeed incorporates
the moral law into those maxims, together with the law of self-love; since,
however, he realizes that the two cannot stand on an equal footing, but one must
be subordinated to the other as its supreme condition, he makes the incentives of
self-love and their inclinations the condition of compliance with the moral law —
whereas it is this latter that, as the supreme condition of the satisfaction of the
former, should have been incorporated into the universal maxim of the power of
choice as the sole incentive.”[12]
Though Kant believes that we have the capacity to turn from beings of radical evil
to moral beings, we cannot escape a certain originary radical evil that leads us to
place our incentives of self-love above the law and that prevents us from adhering
to the law for its own sake.[13]
Our first inclination always involves the thought of what we will gain from not
lying rather than the importance of telling the truth. Even when we do tell the
truth, we do so out of prudence or convenience rather than out of duty. This is
why Kant contends that most obedience to the moral law is in fact radical evil —
obedience for the wrong reasons. The presence of radical evil at the heart of
obedience to the law taints this obedience and gives criminality the upper hand
over the law.
There is always a fundamental imbalance between law and criminality.
Criminality is inscribed into the law itself in the form of misdirected obedience,
and no law can free itself from its reliance on the evil of such obedience. A
consequentialist ethics develops as a compromise with this radical evil at the
heart of the law. Consequentialism is an ethics that sees value only in the end —
obedience — and it disregards whatever evil means that the subject uses to arrive
at that obedience. If people obey the law, the consequentialist thinks, it doesn’t
matter why they do so. Those who take up this or some other compromise with
radical evil predominate within society, and they constitute the behavioral norm.
They obey the law when necessary, but they do so in order to satisfy some
incentive of self-love. Theirs is a morality of calculation in which acts have value
in terms of the ultimate good that they produce or the interest that they serve.
Anyone who obeys the law for its own sake becomes exceptional.
Both Batman and the Joker exist outside the calculating morality that
predominates among the police, the law-abiding citizens, and the criminal
underworld in Gotham. Both have the status of an exception because they adhere
to a code that cuts against their incentives for self-love and violates any
consequentialist morality or morality concerned solely with results. Though
Batman tries to save Gotham and the Joker tries to destroy it, though Batman
commits himself to justice and the Joker commits himself to injustice, they share
a position that transcends the inadequate and calculated ethics authorized by the
law itself. Their differences mask a similar relationship to Kantian morality.
Through the parallel between them, Christopher Nolan makes clear the role that
evil must play in authentic heroism.
It is the Joker, not Batman, who gives the most eloquent account of the ethical
position that they occupy together. He sets himself up against the
consequentialist and utilitarian ethic that rules Gotham, and he tries to analyze
this ethic in order to understand what motivates it. As the Joker sees it, despite
their apparent differences, all of the different groups in Gotham indulge in an
ethics of what he calls scheming. That is to say, they act not on the basis of the
rightness or wrongness of the act itself but in order to achieve some ultimate
object. In doing so, they inherently degrade their acts and deprive them of their
basis in freedom. Scheming enslaves one to the object of one’s scheme.
For the Joker, the problem with scheming is not so much moral as it is
aesthetic.[14] When one thinks of an action in terms of the end it will produce,
one robs the action of its independence. When he talks to Dent after the latter’s
disfigurement, he explains,
“I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I
am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I
just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s.
Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I
am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things
really are. So when I say that what happened to you and your girlfriend wasn’t
personal, you know I’m telling the truth.”
The Joker explicitly denies seeking any object in his criminal activity, which
separates him decisively from the other criminals in the film. This provides him a
freedom that no one else, save Batman, can enjoy. He can burn piles of money or
put his life at risk because he doesn’t think of his acts in terms of the ends that
they will accomplish for him. He breaks out of what Kant calls heteronomy in
order to achieve autonomy.[15]
For Kant, adherence to the law designed to procure some object or some ultimate
good leaves one inevitably bereft of freedom. As he points out in theGroundwork
of the Metaphysics of Morals,
“If the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness
of its maxims for its own giving of universal law — consequently if, in going
beyond itself, it seeks this law in a property of any of its objects —
heteronomy always results. The will in that case does not give itself the law;
instead the object, by means of its relation to the will, gives the law to it.”[16]
Though Kant would not hold up the Joker as an exemplar of his morality, the
latter does avoid, unlike the law-abiding citizens in the film, elevating an object
above the law. The Joker’s law, however, is one that Kant would not recognize.
He values doing evil for its own sake, being “a wrench in the gears,” which marks
out an ethical position that Kant believes cannot exist, that of the diabolically evil
The Joker and Batman have an exceptional status in the film because they refuse
the heteronomy that results from acting according to a calculus of ends. Both are
figures who devote themselves to an ethical principle and follow it to its endpoint.
For Batman, this is fighting injustice, and for the Joker, it is creating chaos. Even
when this principle causes them harm or threatens their happiness, they
nonetheless adhere to it. On several occasions in the film, the Joker welcomes his
own death as part of his effort to unleash chaos, and Batman endures not only the
physical pain that stems from his fight against injustice but also the absence of
any recognition for what he does. Not only must he avoid revealing that Batman
is really Bruce Wayne, but at the end of the film, he must also accept being an
outcast and criminal figure as Batman himself. Even the one outsider who knows
his true identity, Rachel, cannot properly love him because the singularity of his
devotion to fighting injustice renders him incapable of existing in a love
relationship. Both Batman and the Joker are completely isolated because they
exist on a different ethical plane.[18]
Though the Joker and Batman occupy the same terrain of the exception, Nolan
shows the ethical priority of the figure of evil. The Joker goes further than
Batman in his pursuit of an ethical position that privileges the act over its
consequences. Unlike Batman, the Joker does not hold onto a symbolic identity
that he hides beneath his make-up. In this sense, the film creates a clear contrast
between make-up and a mask. If one removed Batman’s mask, one would
discover his true identity. The Joker’s make-up does not hide his true identity,
but instead it attests to the absence of one. All he is is located in his appearance.
This is why he never seems to worry about his make-up when it starts to come off.
The status of the Joker’s make-up throughout the film reveals that its function is
not one of hiding a true identity. Even when we first see him in the midst of
robbing a bank, the white make-up that covers his face is not complete. The
wrinkles on his forehead mark gaps through which his bare skin becomes visible.
Later, during his interrogation at the police station, more gaps appear in the
white make-up, and the black color around his eyes is smeared over his forehead.
Though it distorts his appearance, the gradual disintegration of the Joker’s makeup never bothers him nor threatens to reveal his identity.
The Joker’s lack of attention to his make-up raises the question of why he puts it
on in the first place. He does not attempt to deceive in the traditional way, but
instead his make-up hides the fact that he has nothing to hide. He deceives
characters in the film because they attribute motives behind his actions while
these actions actually serve as their own motivation. That is, the Joker acts for the
sake of acting, not in response to some grievance or in order to gain some object.
This complete investment in the act itself creates a freedom for him that no other
characters in the film — not even Batman — are able to share in. As Batman
interrogates him, he can say with complete believability, “You have nothing to
threaten me with.” The Joker acts without concern for his object and without a
basis in an identity that someone might exploit.
The identity (or lack of identity) of the Joker bespeaks his commitment to the act
itself. Unlike the other characters in the film (including Batman), he has no
identity that the film reveals. Nolan leaves the character of the Joker — his
origins, his motivations, his real name — a complete mystery for the spectator,
but it is not a mystery that one might figure out. The mystery is its own solution.
Even after the police take him into custody, they can discover no information
about him. Responding to the mayor’s question concerning what they know about
the Joker, Gordon says,
“Nothing. No DNA, no fingerprints. Clothing is custom, no tags or brand labels.
Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.”
This complete absence of identifying information is not an indication that the
Joker has successfully hidden who he really is but that he has no identity to hide.
The film further shows that even biographical information about the Joker has
the status of pure appearance. On two occasions, he provides an account of how
his face became disfigured. When we hear the first account, it appears to be a
plausible description of a childhood trauma. As he prepares to kill the gangster
Gambol (Michael Jai White), he explains,
“Want to know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker. And a fiend. And
one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend
herself. He doesn’t like that. Not — one — bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife
to her, laughing while he does it, turns to me, and he says, ‘Why so serious?’
Comes at me with the knife. ‘Why so serious?’ He sticks the blade in my mouth.
‘Let’s put a smile on that face.’”
Nolan films this explanation in a series of close-ups alternating between the
Joker and Gambol, and the intensity visible on the Joker’s face gives a sense of
authenticity to this story. When he kills Gambol immediately afterward by slicing
his face, the act appears to have its ultimate motivation in the violence done to
the Joker when he was a child.
But later, the Joker provides a conflicting account, and this second version
reveals to the film’s spectators that they know nothing about the Joker’s past or
about the trauma that disfigured his face. When he invades the fundraiser for
Dent, he seizes Rachel and tells her,
“So I had a wife, beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me
I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. Look at
me! One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t
take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care
about the scars. So I stick a razor in my mouth and do this to myself. And you
know what? She can’t stand the sight of me. She leaves. Now I see the funny side.
Now I’m always smiling.”
In contrast to the first scene where the Joker relates the origins of scars in a
series of close-ups, in this one the explanation occurs while a 360 degree tracking
shot circles the Joker and Rachel. The formal shift in the depiction of the Joker’s
explanation helps to transform the spectator’s response to the Joker.
The Joker’s first account of extreme child abuse at the hands of his father plays
into contemporary explanations for violent criminality and thus provides a
plausible, if not entirely justifying, reason for the Joker’s activity. The form of the
film during this first account further authenticates it. The close-ups of the Joker
and his victim Gambol register the seriousness of what he says. But when he
repeats the history of his scars with new content, the lack of seriousness of the
history becomes apparent. The 360 degree tracking shot creates disequilibrium in
the spectator appropriate to the revelation that the Joker is not really telling the
history of his scars. We move from the close-ups, which provide a direct and
seemingly veridical account of his history, to the 360 degree tracking shot, which
enacts the circumlocution evident as we hear the story a second time with its
content changed. The film offers us no way of adjudicating between the
conflicting accounts (or discerning another) but instead suggests that the truth of
the origin of the scars is unimportant. The Joker uses the story of their origin to
shock and to create terror rather than to offer an explanation for his criminal
acts. His acts cannot be reduced to what motivates them, and he attempts to
promulgate the proper respect for the act throughout the film.
Because the Joker detests and wants to destroy the morality of scheming or
consequentialism, he sets up a series of tests that challenge the capacity of this
morality. He forces Batman to choose between saving Harvey Dent and Rachel
Dawes. He threatens to blow up a hospital if no one murders within an hour the
man who threatens to reveal Batman’s identity. And he gives two boats fleeing
Gotham Island a detonator for explosives on the other boat, promising to blow up
both boats unless one blows up the other before midnight. This last test actually
paves the way for citizens of Gotham to transcend the morality of calculation in
the way that the Joker himself does. The problem of the two boats seems to
provide a simple moral dilemma. If one thinks in terms of the greatest good for
the greatest number — if one adopts the position of the schemer — it is clear that
one boat must blow up the other in order that the people on both boats don’t
perish. And since one boat is filled with criminals being transferred and the other
is filled with ordinary citizens, the ethical dilemma that the Joker offers seems
easy to solve.[19] But Nolan depicts an abandonment of the morality of the
schemer that at first appears to represent the typical kind of narrative cheating
that one finds in the typical Hollywood film.
The two ethical acts that culminate the film seem to mark a turn away from the
critical edge that the film displays earlier and a capitulation to sentimental
morality that sees the underlying goodness of humanity. One could view the end
of The Dark Knight as a new version of the conclusion of Frank Capra’s It’s a
Wonderful Life (1946), where a mass eruption of compassion comes to rescue
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from financial ruin. In The Dark Knight, the
people on both boats decide to accept their own deaths rather than take
responsibility for killing the people on the other boat. But in contrast to Capra,
Nolan complicates the ethical dimension of the acts. He begins by showing the
utter immorality of traditional consequentialist or utilitarian moral claims. The
civilians on the first boat begin by insisting on their moral right to destroy the
group of criminals on the second boat. One argues for blowing up the other boat
by claiming, “They had their chance.” If one group must die in order to save the
other — this is the ground rule that the Joker establishes — then it is clear which
group should live and which should perish. No one on the civilian boat argues for
not blowing up the other boat, and it is clear that their arguments have nothing to
do with morality and everything to do with their own survival.
What’s more, the film reveals the completely antithetical relation between the
institutions of democracy and ethical action. The authorities on the civilian boat
decide — prompted by an outspoken passenger and due presumably to their
devotion to the ideology of democracy — to vote on whether or not to destroy the
other boat. As the film shows it, the simple act of voting on a question such as this
underscores its inappropriateness. But when the authorities count the votes and a
large majority (396-140) votes to blow up the criminal boat, we see baldly that
democratic procedures (such as the popular vote) have no ethical status at all. In
fact, the secret ballot allows each subject to retreat from the trauma of the ethical
decision rather than confronting it directly. The film shows one passenger writing
out his vote and handing it in with great determination, while a shot of another
reveals his emotional struggle with the difficulties of the moral issue. But the way
that Nolan films these two passengers — and his entire treatment of the vote — is
replete with irony. Both of these attitudes toward the vote serve only to illustrate
the absurdity of voting on the decision to blow up a boatful of other people. The
vote is an inadequate mechanism for approaching a decision of this magnitude.
The ethical act occurs not through the hastily put together franchise on the
civilian boat but through the revolutionary seizure of power on the prisoners’
boat. During the crisis, Nolan focuses several shots on a group of large prisoners
huddled together, appearing to conspire to take the detonator from the
authorities on the boat who have it. The way that the prisoners are depicted
accentuates their menace: they stare ominously at the authorities; they whisper
to each other while staring; they maintain a determined grimacing expression.
These visual clues, added to the fact that the film establishes them as dangerous
criminals, suggest that they are planning to seize the detonator and blow up the
civilian ship in order to save their own lives. But the film turns the tables on the
spectator’s expectation.
The leader of this group of prisoners approaches the authority holding the
detonator and confronts him. A shot of the frightened look on the guard’s face
shows how the prisoner intimidates him, not because the guard fears being
overpowered but because he believes that the prisoner will force him to do what
he wants to do anyway — that is, blow up the other boat. The prisoner upbraids
the guard, “You don’t want to die, but you don’t know how to take a life.” After
the prisoner says this, Nolan cuts back to the other boat, where a civilian
proclaims, “Those men on that boat. They made their choices.” This crosscutting
sequence appears to establish a kind of moral equivalency: though the prisoner is
more straightforward about his willingness to kill in order to survive, the civilian
partakes in exactly the same attitude. When the film cuts back to the prisoner’s
boat, the prisoner makes his final argument before taking the detonator. He says,
“Give it to me. You can tell them I took it by force. Give it to me, and I’ll do what
you should have done 10 minutes ago.”
These words put the final touch on the conviction that the prisoner plans to blow
up the other boat, but instead we see him take the detonator and throw it out the
window into the water, apparently destroying his own chance at survival. In a
subsequent close-up, the civilian who had volunteered to press the detonator
softly lays it back in its box.
Both the prisoners and the civilians act in a way that violates not only their selfinterest (risking death by refusing to kill someone else) but in a way that defies all
rational calculation. According to the rules of the game that the Joker
established, if neither boat uses the detonator, both boats will be destroyed.
Rejecting this wager requires rejecting the morality of calculation because
according to any calculation of good ends, it will be preferable that one boat
survives rather than both being destroyed. Here, Nolan reveals that a group of
anonymous people are capable of a great ethical act, but what saves this depiction
from becoming Capraesque — and thus perpetuating an ideological fantasy
allowing the spectator to leave the film assured of intrinsic human goodness — is
where he locates the source of the ethical act and what factors militate against it.
The source of the ethical act is not the popular vote (which goes 396-140 against
acting ethically), nor is it the good mother trying to protect her child (who argues
for blowing up the prisoners), nor is it the figures of authority (who come across
as feckless, unable to decide one way or the other). Instead, it is the prisoner, the
figure of criminality, who is able to make the ethical gesture. And ultimately the
Joker himself acts as the source for the display of ethics that we see at the end of
the film. By setting up an abhorrent ethical situation where he expects people to
act in a calculating fashion, the Joker provides an opportunity for them to break
out of calculation. He confronts them with the logic of their scheming taken to its
endpoint, and this creates the possibility for a recoil from scheming, which is
what occurs.
The Joker is the ethical center of The Dark Knight because he manages to
challenge the hegemony of calculation that controls Gotham and to show that
another world, a world where ethical acts are not part of a scheming calculation,
is possible. Of course, the Joker does horrible things: he stabs a pencil through a
man’s eye; he blows up a hospital; he kills countless people; and so on. By placing
the Joker at the ethical center of the film, Nolan does not exculpate him for these
deeds nor celebrate them. He shows rather that there is a certain necessary
violence behind all ethical acts. They must violently wipe away the predominating
world of calculation that underlies and pathologizes all obedience to the law.
Though he is himself a figure of evil in the film, the violence of the Joker takes
aim at the radical evil present in typical obedience to the law — the fact that we
obey the law, as Kant notes, for reasons other than the law itself. The Joker’s evil
provides the basis for any ethical heroism because it highlights and strives to
eliminate the evil of calculation that defines the subject’s original relation to the
law. He thereby constitutes the ground on which the ethical act can emerge.
The hero’s public face
Just as The Dark Knight illustrates the inextricable relation between heroism and
evil, it also undermines the idea of the hero who can appear as heroic. From early
in the film, Batman proclaims his desire to step aside in order to cede his position
to someone who can be heroic without wearing a mask. He sees this possibility in
the figure of Harvey Dent. But the film shows that there is no hero without a
mask — and, more specifically, without a mask of evil. As Slavoj Žižek puts it,
“The properly human good, the good elevated above the natural good, the infinite
spiritual good, is ultimately the mask of evil.”[20]
Without the mask of evil, good cannot emerge and remains stuck the calculation
of interest; without the mask of evil, good remains scheming. This is precisely
what Harvey Dent evinces, despite the promise that Batman sees in him for the
perfect form of heroism.
Throughout the beginning part of the film, Harvey Dent seems like a figure of
pure good. The purity of his goodness allows him to never be nonplused. Even
when a mobster tries to shoot him in open court, he calmly grabs the gun from
the mobster’s hand and punches the mobster in the face. After the punch, we see
Dent’s expression of total equanimity, even in the midst of an attempted
assassination. This coolness stems from his absolute certainty that events will
ultimately follow according to his plans. The rapidity with which Nolan edits
together the threat from the mobster and Dent’s response minimizes the
spectator’s sense of danger. The threat against Dent’s life disappears almost
before we can experience it as such, which suggests that it lacks a quality of
realness, both for Dent and for the spectator. The court scene establishes him as a
hero whom one cannot harm. Ironically, the superhero in the film, Batman,
shows himself to be vulnerable when he first appears in the film, as dogs bite him
through his protective armor. This distinction between Dent and Batman’s
vulnerability explains why the former cannot be an authentic hero.
In contrast to Batman, Dent’s heroism does not involve the experience of loss and
is based on a repudiation of the very possibility of losing. Bruce Wayne adopted
the identity of Batman after the trauma of being dropped in a cave full of bats and
the loss of his parents, but no such traumatic loss animates the heroism of Dent.
He is heroic through an immediate identification with the good, which enables
him to have a purity that Batman doesn’t have. No rupture and subsequent
return animates his commitment to justice. He can publicly avow his heroic
actions because he performs them in a pure way, without resorting to the guise of
evil. But the falsity of this immediate identification with the good becomes
apparent in Dent’s disavowal of loss, which Nolan locates in the tic that marks
Dent’s character — his proclivity for flipping a coin to resolve dilemmas.
On several occasions, he flips the coin that his father had given him in order to
introduce the possibility of loss into his activities. By flipping a coin, one admits
that events might not go according to plan, that the other might win, and that loss
is an ever-present possibility. Though the coin flip represents an attempt to
master loss by rendering it random rather than necessary or constitutive, it
nonetheless ipso facto accedes to the fact that one might lose. Dent first flips the
coin when he is late to examine a key witness in court, and the coin flip will
determine whether he or his assistant Rachel will do the questioning. When
Rachel wonders how he could leave something so important to chance, Dent
replies, “I make my own luck.” It is just after this that the mobster tries and fails
to shoot Dent, further suggesting his invulnerability.
Dent wins this and subsequent coin flips in the first part of the film because he
uses a loaded coin, a coin with two heads. When it comes to the coin flip, Dent
does make his own luck by eliminating the element of chance. The coin that he
uses ensures that he will avoid the possibility of losing. The coin with two heads is
certainly a clever device, but it also stands as the objective correlative for Dent’s
lack of authentic heroism. The immediacy of his heroism cannot survive any
mediation. Once loss is introduced into Dent’s world, his heroism disappears,
and he becomes a figure of criminality.
The transformation of Harvey Dent after his disfigurement is so precipitous that
it strains credulity. One day he is the pure defender of absolute justice, and the
next he is on a homicidal warpath willing to shoot innocent children. One could
chalk up this rapid change to sloppy filmmaking on Christopher Nolan’s part, to
an eagerness to move too quickly to the film’s concluding moments of tension.
But the rapidity of the transformation signifies all the more because it seems so
forced and jarring. It allows us to retroactively examine Harvey Dent’s
relationship to the law earlier in the film.
Dent becomes Two-Face after his injury, but in doing so he merely takes up the
identity that police department had adopted for him when he was working for the
Internal Affairs division. As an investigator of other officers, Dent earned this
nickname by insisting on absolute purity and by targeting any sign of police
corruption. Even Gordon, an officer who is not corrupt, complains to Dent of the
paralyzing effects on the department of these tactics. On the one hand, an
insistence on purity seems to be a consistently noncalculating ethical position.
One can imagine this insistence obstructing the longterm goal of better law
enforcement (which is why Gordon objects to it). On the other hand, however, the
demand for purity always anticipates its own failure. The pure hero quickly
becomes the criminal when an experience of loss disrupts this purity.
This first occurs when Gordon is apparently killed at the police commissioner’s
funeral. In response to this blatant display of public criminality, Dent abuses a
suspect from the shooting and even threatens to kill him, using his trick coin as a
device for mental torture. Even though Dent has no intention of actually shooting
the suspect, Batman nonetheless scolds Dent for his methods when he interrupts
the private interrogation. This scene offers the first insight into what Dent will
become later in the film, but it also shows the implications of his form of heroism.
Dent resorts to torture because his form of heroism has no ontological space for
loss. When it occurs, his heroism becomes completely derailed.
Rachel’s death and his own disfigurement introduce traumatic loss into Dent’s
existence. Nolan shows the ramifications of this change through the
transformation that his coin undergoes during the explosion that kills Rachel.
The explosion chars one side of Dent’s two-headed coin (which he had earlier
flipped to Rachel as he was taken away to jail), so that it becomes, through being
submitted to a traumatic force, a coin with two different sides. The film indicates
here how trauma introduces loss into the world and how this introduction of loss
removes all subjective certainty.
When Dent as Two-Face flips the newly marked coin, the act takes on an entirely
new significance. Unlike earlier, he is no longer certain about the result of the
flip. He flips to decide whether he will kill the Joker in the hospital room,
whether he will kill Detective Wuertz (Ron Dean) in a bar, or whether he will kill
Detective Ramirez (Monique Curnen) in an alley. Of the three, only Wuertz ends
up dead, but Dent also kills another officer and the criminal boss Maroni, along
with some of his men. This rampage ends with Dent holding Gordon’s family
hostage and threatening to kill the one whom Gordon holds most dear. Dent
becomes a killer in order to inflict his own experience of loss on others: he tells
Gordon that he wants to kill what is most precious to him so that Gordon will feel
what he felt. Dent can so quickly take up this attitude because his heroism has no
place for loss. When it occurs, the heroism becomes completely undone.
After Dent’s death, the film ends with Batman accepting responsibility for the
killings performed by Dent in order to salvage Dent’s public reputation and
thereby sustain the image of the public hero. Gordon and Batman believe that
this gesture is necessary for saving the city and keeping its hope for justice alive.
When Gordon says, “Gotham needs its true hero,” we see a shot of him turning
Dent’s face over, obscuring the burned side and exposing the human side. In
death, Dent will begin to wear the mask that he would never wear in life. A mask
of heroism will cover his criminality. As the film conceives it, this lie — that purity
is possible — represents the sine qua non of social being. Without it, without the
idea that one can sustain an ethical position, calculation of interest would have
nothing to offset it, and the city would become identified with criminality.
But the real interest of the film’s conclusion lies with Batman and the form of
appearance that his heroism takes. It is as if Batman takes responsibility for
Dent’s act not to save Dent’s face but to stain his own image irrevocably with evil.
He remains the heroic exception, but his status changes radically. In order to
guarantee that Dent dies as a hero, Batman must take responsibility for the
murders that Dent committed. With this gesture, he truly adopts the mask of evil.
In the closing montage sequence, we see the police hunting him down, Gordon
smashing the Bat Signal, and finally Batman driving away into the night on his
motorcycle. As this sequence concludes, we hear Gordon’s voiceover say,
“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll
hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian,
a watchful protector … a dark knight.”
As Gordon pronounces the final word, the film cuts to black from the image of
Batman on his motorcycle. The melodrama of this voiceover elevates Batman’s
heroism, but it does so precisely because he agrees to appear as evil. This gesture,
even more than any of his physical acts of courage, is the gesture of the true hero
because it leaves him without any recognition for his heroism. For the hero who
appears in the form of evil, heroic exceptionality must be an end in itself without
any hope for a greater reward. When the exception takes this form, it loses the
danger that adheres to the typical hero. The mask of evil allows the exception to
persist without multiplying itself. By adopting this position at the end of the film,
Batman reveals that he has taken up the lesson of the Joker and grasped the
importance of the break from calculation. Dent, the hero who wants to appear
heroic, descends into murderous evil. But Batman, the hero who accepts evil as
his form of appearance, sustains the only possible path for heroic exceptionality.
In an epoch when the law’s inadequacy is evident, the need for the heroic
exception becomes ever more pronounced, but the danger of the exception has
also never been more apparent. Declarations of exceptionality abound in the
contemporary world, and they allow us to see the negative ramifications that
follow from the exception, no matter how heroic its intent. Audiences flock to
superhero movies in search of a heroic exception that they can embrace, an
exception that would work toward justice without simultaneously adding to
injustice in the manner of today’s real world exceptions. In The Dark Knight,
Christopher Nolan offers a viable image of heroic exceptionality. As he sees, its
form of appearance must be its opposite if it to avoid implicating itself in the
injustice that it fights. The lesson for our real world exceptions is thus a difficult
one. Rather than being celebrated as the liberator of Iraq and the savoir of U.S.
freedom, George W. Bush would have to act behind the scenes to encourage
charges being brought against him as a war criminal at the World Court, and then
he would have to flee to the streets of The Hague as the authorities pursue him
there. In the eyes of the public, true heroes must identify themselves with the evil
that we fight.
1. The necessarily public dimension of the police officer’s identity follows from
the public nature of the law itself. A law that was not publicized would cease to be
a law, and a state that operated with hidden laws would cease to be a state in the
proper sense of the term.
2. Film noir represents the aesthetic rendering of what occurs when private
interest overruns public law. While public law provides a bond between subjects,
the noir universe shows how the triumph of private interest shatters this bond. As
a result, one cannot extend trust to anyone in this universe. As Hugh Manon
notes, “The view of noir is invited to contemplate the objects, people, and events
of ordinary daily life in a sinister light.” Hugh Manon, “X-Ray Visions:
Radiography,Chiaroscuro, and the Fantasy of Unsuspicion in Film Noir,” Film
Criticism 32, no. 2 (2007): 8.
3. Zack Snyder, director of 300 (2006), turned down the opportunity to direct a
Superman film because of his lack of moral complexity. Snyder explains, “He’s
the king daddy of all comic-book heroes, but I’m just not sure how you sell that
kind of earnestness to a sophisticated audience anymore.” Qtd. in Scott Bowles,
“Are Superheroes Done For?,” USA Today (28 July 2008): 2D.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 185.
5. Hegel understands the insufficiency of the legal order and the need for an
exception, but he locates the exception not in the hero but in the sovereign. He
insists on preserving the monarch even in modernity because he grasps the
necessity of sustaining the exceptional position outside the law. See G. W. F.
Hegel,Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (London: Oxford University Press,
6. Andrew Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,” The Wall Street
Journal (25 July 2008):
After this article appeared, leftist bloggers (such as Christopher Orr) almost
immediately pointed out the central problems with Klavan’s thesis — namely that
Batman follows an ethic that doesn’t allow him to kill anyone no matter how evil
the person may be, that Bush has not re-established the boundaries of civil rights
as Batman does, and that Klavan wants Bush’s heroism to be recognized when
the film insists that true heroism can’t be — but there is nonetheless some aspect
of the film that invites Klavan’s analysis. With its defense of the need for the
figure of exception, The Dark Knight grants a fundamental premise of
conservative (and even fascist) politics.
7. Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,”
8. According to Benjamin, the presence of lawmaking violence in a social order
does not disappear with the cessation of the violent act itself and the founding of
the law. The social order relies on the idea of this violence in order to sustain its
functioning. Benjamin notes, “When the consciousness of the latent presence of
violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay.” Walter
Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Walter Benjamin:
Selected Writings Volume I, 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
1996), 244.
9. The question, for the superhero film, is the precise status of the superhero’s
violence in Benjamin’s terms. Is it merely law-preserving violence, a supplement
to the violence of the police? Or is it divine violence, the kind of violence outside
the law that renders an infinite justice that goes beyond the balancing of
accounts? It is according to this opposition that we must judge each act of
exceptional violence.
10. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2005), 22.
11. Agabmen, State of Exception, 2.
12. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in Religion
within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans. and eds. Allen
Wood and George di Giovanni (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998),
13. As Kant puts it, “Whatever his state in the acquisition of a good disposition,
and, indeed, however steadfastly a human being may have persevered in such a
disposition in a life conduct conformable to it, he nevertheless started from evil,
and this is a debt which is impossible for him to wipe out.” Kant, Religion Within
the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 88.
14. The Joker’s aesthetic critique of the morality that rules the other characters
echoes Nietzsche’s condemnation of what he calls a slave morality. Nolan makes
the link between the Joker and Nietzsche explicit during the bank robbery that
opens the film. As he places a grenade in the mouth of the bank manager, the
Joker paraphrases Nietzsche, proclaiming, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you
simply makes you … stranger.”
15. The autonomy of the Joker renders him difficult to understand, even for
Batman. At first, he interprets the Joker as just another criminal seeking to
enrich himself, but Alfred (Michael Caine) points out the possibility that this
interpretation fails to capture what motivates someone like the Joker. Through a
story from his own past, Alfred suggests that the Joker acts for the sake of acting
rather than for a goal like money. He tells Bruce Wayne, Alfred: “When I was in
Burma, a long time ago, my friends and I were working for the local government.
They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders, bribing them with precious
stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a
bandit. We were asked to take care of the problem, so we started looking for the
stones. But after six months, we couldn’t find anyone who had traded with him.
One day I found a child playing with a ruby as big as a tangerine. The bandit had
been throwing them away.” Wayne asks in response, “Then why steal them?”
Alfred says, “Because he thought it was good sport. Because 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.”
16. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, in Practical
Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1996), 89.
17. As Alenka Zupancic notes, tracing out Kant’s own logic leads to the conclusion
that diabolical evil has the exact same structure as adherence to the moral law.
Kant’s rejection of the possibility of diabolical evil — evil for its own sake —
stems, according to Zupancic, from his unconscious recognition of this
underlying sameness. She says, “diabolical evil, the highest evil, is
indistinguishable from the highest good, and that they are nothing other than
the definitions of an accomplished (ethical) act. In other words, at the level of the
structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At
this level, evil is formally indistinguishable from good.” Alenka Zupancic, Ethics
of the Real: Kant, Lacan (New York: Verso, 2000), 92.
18. The bond between Batman and the Joker becomes evident on several
occasions. When Batman interrogates the Joker in the jail cell, the Joker tells
him, quoting literally the famous expression of romantic love from Cameron
Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), “You complete me.”
19. The most relentless advocate of utilitarian ethics in contemporary culture is
the television program 24, where federal agent Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland)
confronts a series of ethical dilemmas and consistently reduces them to
quantitative problems in order to arrive at the proper ethical decision. To put it in
the Joker’s terms, Jack is a schemer.
20. Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008),

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