In Alan Moore’s superb and baroque graphic novel From Hell, Jack the Ripper is quoted as saying, “One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century.” If such bloody and fevered characters can be set to frame a century, then Heath Ledger’s incarnation of The Joker in The Dark Knight is the cinematic icon that frames the 21st century thus far. Christopher Nolan returned to theaters over the summer with yet another big, loud opus, the World War II epic Dunkirk. Yet his most successful film has not only aged well but has gained a potent and disturbing relevance.
Made at the tail end of the George W. Bush era, The Dark Knight is a superhero film as parable about the post-9/11 age. It was Nolan’s sequel to his successful 2005 relaunch of the Batman franchise for Warner Brothers, Batman Begins. It pits a stiff-faced vigilante, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne also known as Batman- decked in wealth- against the wild urban terrorism of a clown-faced lunatic, Ledger’s Joker. In the middle between these disturbed and warring characters is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the Gotham City district attorney, who is unique in that he is incorruptible. After Dent and Batman hit the local mob bosses hard with major arrests and raids, the gangsters hire the make-up caked Joker to kill Batman for them. But The Joker’s aims aren’t just to kill the caped crime fighter, but to prove through sadistic violence that the entire system Batman and Dent are fighting to protect is a joke and façade.
As art, The Dark Knight deserves to be mentioned in the same way German critic Siegfried Kracauer analyzed the psyche of German Expressionist cinema in his seminal work From Caligari to Hitler.
When The Dark Knight first opened to massive box office success in July 2008 the Bush administration was reviled globally as much as Trump is today (hard to remember, I know). The Iraq War was increasingly unpopular and remained the most explosive point of political debate. The Great Recession was mere months away. The tragic death of Ledger earlier in the year immediately granted his portrayal of the classic villain a legendary status, and it helped that it was a fierce and unforgettable performance which rightfully won him a posthumous Oscar.
But as art, The Dark Knight deserves to be mentioned in the same way German critic Siegfried Kracauer analyzed the psyche of German Expressionist cinema in his seminal work From Caligari to Hitler. Kracauer argued that a close analysis of the German films of the 1920s and 1930s revealed the mindset of a society preparing itself for Nazism. Films like Fritz Lang’s M and Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel were works draped in shadow which revealed a world in decay as serial killers stalked the land, the rich became richer, and government authority lost all credibility. Comic book films in our time are reflections of our deepest fears and grandest fantasies. The stories in these films deal with external threats destroying cities, dark powers entrenching themselves in government, and of course the yearning for heroic figures to deliver us.
The Dark Knight, photographed with baroque darkness by Wally Pfister, takes place in an American metropolis where all authorities are corrupt, hence the need for a gothic vigilante like Batman. The Joker himself has a striking resemblance to the chilling character of Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni, a Jewish refugee who had worked on German Expressionist films. It is a dark, melodramatic film about the son of a condemned man in 1690’s England, who has his face slashed by a doctor so he may have a scarred smile for life.
Inspired by Punk aesthetic and the paintings of Francis Bacon, Nolan’s vision of the Joker is the edgiest creation he has ever conjured. The character grows in relevance because he isn’t a mere professional criminal, but a dangerous carrier of particularly radical and violent ideas.
In the nine years since the film was released, Ledger’s Joker seems like a cinematic manifestation of the times, even with his feral and lip-smacking mannerisms. In the 1960s Batman TV series version of the character, played by Cesar Romero, the Joker is a jolly prankster, in the 1989 Tim Burton film Jack Nicholson brings a more murderous edge but still performs the role as humor over substance. Ledger’s Joker transforms the character into an anarchic menace, who like the devils of Faust or The Master & Margarita, seeks to turn the established order upside down by exposing its hypocrisies and blind spots.
Inspired by Punk aesthetic and the paintings of Francis Bacon, Nolan’s vision of the Joker is the edgiest creation he has ever conjured. The character grows in relevance because he isn’t a mere professional criminal, but a dangerous carrier of particularly radical and violent ideas. His own bank robberies are a form of controlled chaos. During the movie’s riveting opening scene, the clown masked members of his heist crew suddenly realize they’ve been individually ordered to kill each other as part of the operation. In the film the Joker taps into our chilling zeitgeist of sudden violence that can erupt anywhere- whether as a mass shooting inspired by some terribly superficial grievance (the Santa Barbara killer who couldn’t get a date), or planned mass killings carried out by driven assassins (Paris, Istanbul). Indeed, public mass violence has become so common now that it takes large numbers and ever more horrific methods to garner enough air time. As The Joker tells a hospitalized Harvey Dent in one scene, “nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying.” The media didn’t pay much attention to Aleppo until it became a real slaughterhouse, and even now the Syrian war has somewhat receded in coverage, until another notable bloodbath ensues no doubt.
Nolan’s Joker is a twisted, pop culture variant of the anarchist bombers and assassins of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As profiled by Pankaj Mishra in his recent and brilliant book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, the rise of modernity produced violent individuals who responded to a rapidly changing world by wanting to blow it up. Some had egalitarian aims, in particular the actual Anarchists, while others were simply full of the rage of the dispossessed and left behind. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Batman’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) tells him in trying to explain the mindset of the clown-faced villain.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is the spawn of the 21st century — nihilistic, birthed out of a society which he will now burn down, dismissive of all laws and petty concerns about money.
The Joker delights in his love of cheap dynamite, and uses the bombings of empty hospitals, the burning of a firetruck in an empty freeway, and the assault of a parade almost as artistic choreography. It is a nihilistic take on the anarchist revolutionary Bakunin’s statement that the “urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” One of the film’s iconic moments shows the devilish clown slide down a mountain of cash owed to him by his mob employers. He cheerfully sets it on fire, dismissing its value. It is a striking image for this age where opulence is desperately sought after and worshipped. In another scene, where the Joker and his gang crash a luxurious fund raiser, he tells the Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his scars were the result of dealing with his wife falling prey to gambling sharks. Societies based on greed will readily produce little monsters, as Gotham has produced the Joker. Recall too that ISIS was allowed to fester in the Middle East until war helped it spring to life like a black-clad menace.
The codas the Joker expresses through-out the movie are fitting for this era when established systems are questioned, uncertainty reigns and the mad have been elected into office. “Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. When the chips are down these ‘civilized’ people will eat each other,” says the Joker to Batman during an interrogation scene. One wonders what Ledger’s Joker would quip about the current administration and its Twitter feeds.
The Dark Knight is . . . Nolan’s most daring work because with the Joker we see a director stepping out of his common zone, to which he returned in his later work and hasn’t left since.
Batman himself is a conservative corrective to a decaying system. He is flushed in wealth, his alter ego parades around with models, but he clandestinely channels his money into bypassing the system to fight crime. In a plot line that was relevant when the Patriot Act was still hotly debated, but now is even more prescient in the era of Edward Snowden, Batman essentially wiretaps all of Gotham secretly to try and track down the Joker. Nearly ten years later, we are still debating if surveillance without notice is worth it in the name of stopping terrorism.
The Dark Knight is above all a terrific entertainment, and a rare comic book adaptation that merits mention next to thrillers like Michael Mann’s Heat. It is also Christopher Nolan’s most daring work because with the Joker we see a director stepping out of his common zone, to which he returned in his later work and hasn’t left since. If his recent films have celebrated sheer spectacle for the sake of grandeur, The Dark Knight is spectacle with a rich subtext contained in an unforgettable character. It will endure because Heath Ledger’s Joker is the spawn of the 21st century — nihilistic, birthed out of a society which he will now burn down, dismissive of all laws and petty concerns about money. Like the urban terrorism of now, he has an ideology, but it is dark and formless. It was an interesting choice to cast someone who had been associated with handsomeness to play such a fierce deformity. He is the American nightmare- scarred and smeared with a crimson smile.
Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.