The Joker: Dark Avatar of the 99%?

This piece began as something else entirely, an article inspired by a paragraph from Film Crit Hulk’s debut post for Badass Digest.

IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF IF THE DARK KNIGHT IS THE AWESOMEST MOVIE EVER OR IF IT’S OVERRATED, BUT THE MILLIONS OF OTHER THINGS THAT MAKE THE FILM INTERESTING. LIKE ITS TREATMENT OF JOKER AS THE ULTIMATE ANARCHIST, THE LOGIC OF WHICH TAKEN TO ITS FURTHEST POSSIBLE POINT….. THE DARK KNIGHT HAS A MILLION GREAT CONVERSATIONS WE’RE NOT HAVING BECAUSE WE’RE TOO BUSY TALKING ABOUT ITS WORTH!

I wrote an article about The Dark Knight a few months ago, but Hulk’s comment gave me an urge to revisit it. Whatever you think about Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker, he certainly produces work that rewards repeat viewership, huge sandboxes of ideas to sift through and explore. I had an idea to take a another look at one of the movie’s weaker choices—the Joker’s convoluted plan.

Let me allow the internet to say its piece:

“Then, while the whole town is on alert, we go ahead and have our henchmen kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes and strap them in with the bombs in the two abandoned buildings. Then I’ll send Batman after one of them, knowing that this will result in Rachel being killed and Dent being a certain distance from the explosion as to become grotesquely injured and disillusioned. Then I’ll blow up the jail without accidentally killing myself. Gentlemen, it couldn’t be simpler.”

Danny Gallagher, Cracked.com

Or if you prefer music:

My question was this: If, as Hulk suggests, Joker represents the purest form of anarchy, then why are his plans so ridiculously organized and over-planned?

So, my wife and I grabbed a notebook and charted the Joker’s actions and statements from the beginning of the movie to the end, weighing his deeds against his words, and parsing out exactly what he seems to be thinking at any given moment.

What we learned is that the Joker’s plan isn’t nearly as complex as it seems. Oh, sure, there are complicated parts, but almost none of the Joker’s wins (the Dent/Dawes scenario, the hospital bombing) appear to be part of some master plan that’s clicking into place. He’s never really outsmarting his opponents. After every event, he seems to retreat to assess the playing field and improvise a new strategy. He occasionally hedges his bets, but he’s rarely thinking too many steps ahead. He has a goal, definitely, but like any great chess match, he rethinks his attack after each of his opponent’s moves. To give him credit for some kind of perfectly-executed master plan is a huge stretch. He’s good, but he’s not Deep Blue.

Maybe because of this, as I watched the film from his perspective I became less interested in the details of the Joker’s plan and more interested in who the Joker is and how he’s presented. Slowly, I hit upon an unexpected thought.

The Joker’s not an anarchist, not really. He’s a populist.

True, that’s a strange thing to call a character as hellbent on destruction and murder as the Joker, but the recently revealed teaser for The Dark Knight Rises convinced me that I might be on to something. That trailer recasts classic Batman villains Catwoman and Bane as champions of the workers, inciting violence, dragging the wealthy from their ornate apartments, and generally flipping Gotham into some kind of October Revolution. No matter what else The Dark Knight Rises is about, clearly it will have roots in the gulf between the rich and the poor.

The thing is, I believe that story of class warfare began in The Dark Knight, hidden beneath the caked makeup of a killer clown and his bullets and drums of gas.

This idea came while I struggled to piece together what we actually KNOW about the Joker. He’s designed as a cipher, a complete unknown, but Nolan’s Gotham is built to resemble the real world, and in our world, a lack of clues is still a clue.

What do we know about The Joker?

  1. He’s smart—like next-level smart.
  2. He’s been scarred, but used to look like Heath Ledger.
  3. He has no criminal record or fingerprint on file

The first two points are intriguing—before he was the Joker, he was smart and attractive, two things society tends to reward. We can speculate about what this means (was he wealthy? successful?) but by itself it’s pure guesswork. We’ll have to look elsewhere.

The third point has more potential. The Joker has no fingerprint record. He has no criminal record of any kind. For someone with a passion for loud crimes and mayhem, that’s got to be incredibly rare. If the Joker were a career criminal—a lowlife thug who laughed at the wrong joke, let’s say, and got sliced for his gaffe—we’d have to assume he’d been picked up at least once, right? Even as a juvenile? A mugging, simple burglary, lighting a fire, stealing a car stereo, something. But before the events of the film, the Joker never entered the system, not even once.

That suggests, at least to me, that the Joker is not a career criminal. Crime is a new pursuit, one at which the Joker excels thanks to his unhinged mind and natural talents. In any case, the Joker was once anonymous, one of the masses, and he’s made himself special, mostly in response (as the ending of Batman Begins heavily implies) to the appearance of Batman.

I’ll get back to that later. For now, accepting the idea of the Joker as a talented newcomer to crime, I examined the way Nolan presents him. The Joker’s anonymity informs everything about him, including how he makes an entrance. For example, the film opens with a shot of the Joker standing still on a street corner, his back to us, clown mask in hand and (presumably) makeup on his face. It’s broad daylight in a heavily populated city, but nobody seems to notice. He’s invisible. Despite his ghoulish appearance, he’s one of them. And then he steps forward.

The following sequence—in which the Joker pretends to be a simple bank robber when he’s anything but—ends with the Joker merging a school bus into a street jammed with the same. He blends back into the anonymous crowd. How does someone like the Joker not stand out, all the time? Gotham PD should be flooded with calls and tips about psychotic clowns driving school buses, but once he blends in with the people, he’s gone. Each appearance of the Joker in the film begins with him returning from that hiding place, not simply from nowhere but specifically from the ranks of the working class.

  • Disguised as a nurse in the hospital
  • Hiding behind a trucker in a big rig
  • Hiding out in a warehouse near the shipping docks
  • Masquerading as a cop
  • Dragged into Gambol’s bar in a garbage bag, supposedly killed by common gang bangers
  • Emerging from a restaurant kitchen

It’s this last scene I want to explore. The Joker’s “magic trick” is the most famous part, but a lot of interesting little details go mostly overlooked. Here’s the scene again.

OK, let’s unpack this a bit. First of all, the guys at the table aren’t common crooks. They’re the best of the best, the heads of their various crime families and organizations. These guys are rich, well-known, and (at least before Batman) completely untouchable. The conversation is about their vast stores of cash money and how to protect it. What’s at stake is the wealth and power they’ve spent decades of hard work acquiring. For criminals, at least, these guys are the 1%.

When the Joker gets a mention, the mobsters dismiss him. Not for his actions or his insanity, mind you, but because he wears “a cheap purple suit.” He’s “a nobody.” He’s dismissed because he’s not in the class of the men in the room.

A moment later, the Joker appears, walking out of the shadows like he’s part of the kitchen crew or the help interrupting the boss’s party. Sure, he earns a seat at the table through a show of force, but the mobsters smirk at him. From their perspective, they’re simply humoring a bad gag.

But then the Joker talks sense, and it worries them. He casts doubt on the security of their money, and they react. He tells them that he’ll kill the Batman (who, in this case, represents government oversight about as clearly as he represents anything) and that gets their attention. And what does he want?

Half.

The Joker asks for half of their accumulated wealth. He did nothing to help them earn their money, but now he wants an equal share. Sure, he’s contracting a job, but it’s a job he never actually performs. Eventually, he’ll take that money and fritter it away on a bonfire (“If you had our money, you’d just waste it!” you can almost imagine them moaning), while doing nothing at all to earn it. The deal he made was to kill Batman, not to find the money or silence Lau. And yet he takes it anyway. He rises up from the anonymous, from the working class, from being a “nobody” in a cheap suit, and he takes half of the wealth from the special elite and sends them on the run.

In fact, the Joker seems to have a particular taste for putting wealthy people on their heels, as well as for attracting help from Gotham’s blue collars. The Joker’s most visible minions in the film are the insane idiots the cops keep catching (the schizophrenic shooter, the fat guy with the cell phone in his belly) but the Joker only uses nutjobs when he expects—actually, when he requires—them to be caught. The jobs that call for more reliable help wind up in the hands of corrupt cops on the mob payroll, cops like Ramirez whose struggle with an expensive and oppressive medical system (a flashpoint for the 99%) put her in desperate need of cash. It’s these cops who kidnap Rachel and Harvey for the bomb dilemma, who poison the Police Commissioner, and who put the judge into her rigged car.

But Dent’s bigwig fundraiser in Bruce’s penthouse? For that The Joker shows up personally, and he takes special delight in putting the in-crowd in their place. See, the crooks were right. Despite his obvious talents, the Joker was a nobody, and he displays a unique rage against the people who had the opportunities, who were too wealthy and powerful to be anonymous.

This isn’t the pattern of an anarchist, but rather the pattern of someone with an axe to grind, someone who wants everyone to suffer, but who wants the rich to suffer more than their fair share.

Many people point to the Joker’s speech at Harvey Dent’s bedside as the truest manifestation of his philosophy. The Joker talks about the pointlessness of plans and the blissful beauty of anarchy. But, remember, the Joker lies. All the time. It’s what he did for breakfast this morning. So why give his hospital speech more weight than any of his other, conflicting rants? When he tells the crooks that he wants to kill Batman, that’s clearly a lie, and when he tells Harvey that he believes in anarchy, that’s also a lie. He doesn’t put the gun in Harvey’s hand to bring anarchy into Gotham. He does it to destroy Harvey, because that serves the Joker’s purpose and gets him a step closer to the goal. There’s nothing anarchic about Joker’s action as it leads one step closer to a specific, calculated result–equality

The only time the Joker tells the entire truth is exactly when you’d expect the villain to spill his beans, the finale confrontation on the high rise platform. What he wants, more than anything, is Gotham’s soul or, as Batman puts it, to prove that everyone is as ugly as he is.

Or as ugly as they are. See, the Joker’s actions in the finale and at the peak of his plan convince me that he’s telling at least a half-truth in an earlier scene, the police interrogation scene. There, the Joker describes how Batman changed the rules in Gotham between the oppressors and the oppressed. Now that Batman, supposedly one of the oppressed, has risen up to fight back, there must be a Joker to meet him. Two sides of the coin, yes, but both exceptional. The rest of the movie is spent trying to get the people of Gotham to act as the Joker does, to shake off the chains of anonymity and become nihilistically exceptional in the Joker’s own image, to destroy one another using their rational self-interest.

This is why he points the ferries at one another, why he forces Gambol’s men to kill or be killed, why he feeds the drug lord to his own dogs. In a way, the Joker speaks for the 1%, for the followers of Ayn Rand who believe self-interest is the only real motivation. But where the Joker veers off is the application of this philosophy. He can’t stand the idea of remaining exceptional.

Batman was born into wealth and spent and spent his billions to become exceptional. The Joker, on the other hand, rose through his own ingenuity and natural talent. They’re both elite, but The Joker’s sin is that he doesn’t want to keep the status he earned to himself. No, the Joker wants to share.

See, just as he drags the wealthy elite (both the criminal and the legitimate) down into the gutter, he attempts to bring the gutter up to the elite. He seeks a balance, a beautiful nightmare where Gotham burns and all are equal because all life is worth exactly the same–nothing. There is no wealth in Joker’s heaven, no elite class. There is only alive or dead, and every citizen either kills or is killed. The Joker hopes to convince the city to destroy itself by either compromising Batman’s moral strength (which he fails to do, even though he’s willing to die to do it) or by corrupting the incorruptible symbol of hope, Dent (which he succeeds in doing before Batman hides his victory.) The Joker seeks equality and balance between all layers of Gotham society, but he wants it in a way that creates a hell in which nobody can possibly be happy.

By now you’ll realize I’m presenting a wildly warped view of the populist philosophy behind the Occupy movement and other rallying points of the 99%. None of this represents the actual, on-the-ground thinking behind last year’s widespread protests. Am I reading too much into what I’m seeing? Perhaps twisting the goals of the 99% to fit some intriguing accidents in the way the film depicts the Joker?

Maybe. But I don’t think so.

The thing is, the Chris Nolan Batman movies, as they’ve so far developed, are turning into an oddly enthusiastic endorsement of the fascistic, right-wing policies of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Critics like Devin Faraci have noted that the ending reads like a pat on the back for the Patriot Act. “I’m not thrilled,” Batman seems to be saying “that I have to spy on every free citizen of Gotham to find this terrorist, but I saved lives and so the end justifies the means.” And then Morgan Freeman smiles wisely, destroys the system that we’ll never use again (unless we need it, right?), and we fade out. Writers long ago made the connection between superheroes and fascism—a subject most notably explored in Alan Moore’s Watchmen—but Nolan seems to be gift-wrapping this philosophy, barely disguised, as consequence-free entertainment. I have no idea about Nolan’s personal politics, but his Batman films have championed the notion of the exceptional exercising  rich man’s burden to keep the poor from destroying themselves—class was a central theme in Batman Begins and it appears to be a major, major part of The Dark Knight Rises.

(Nolan even considered filming at an actual Occupy protest, and it now seems possible, even probable, that those scenes would have been connected to the civil unrest Bane and Catwoman unleash. In other words, the real-world Occupy protestors would be painted as either villains or pawns of the villains, which might explain why Nolan eventually shied away from the idea.)

I’m not saying that The Dark Knight script was written to paint the Joker as a populist rabble-rouser; the Nolans and David Goyer may have actually believed they were writing a pure anarchist. But if the Occupy movement has its roots in the unrest over foreign wars—and it does—then those ideas were already bouncing around our culture and starting to form and may have found their way into the screenplay unintentionally, sprouting from the same garden as the decidedly intentional “truckload of soldiers” comment Joker uses to point out Gotham’s hypocrisy. If the Joker is mad about wartime apathy, then what else might he be mad about?

So, no, the actual real-life Occupy protestors and supporters of the 99% wouldn’t support the Joker or his actions. But I’d remind you that if these Batman films are truly from the point of view of the 1%–and our main character is in the 1% of the 1%–then it stands to reason that the Joker’s actions are seen through that point of view as well. And we already know how the elite class sees this movement:

Is this guy a sociopath just itching to spray down a row of peaceful people because, fuck, pepper spray is really fun? Maybe. It’s possible. I don’t know the guy. But it’s just as likely to me that this image resulted from the collision of two ideas. The people on the ground had the idea that they were protesting peacefully as the Constitution allows, and the guy with the can of spray decided that their protest represented something he’s employed to fight—anarchy. To the people in charge of defending the gates, challenging the system looks an awful lot like terrorism, and the America the Occupy protestors want to see looks an awful lot like hell. Specifically, it looks like Joker’s dream, with the world turning on itself and drowning in poisonous ideas because we can’t all be exceptional. The Joker’s brand of terrorism may not resemble the actual populist movement, but it comes mighty close to how that movement appears to the people who have all the money and the power and stand to lose it. The elite no longer snort and call these people nobodies. No, instead they’re passing laws.

We won’t know Nolan’s plans for sure until his trilogy’s conclusion, but I’ve got a fairly good guess about how it’s shaping up. The first film was about burdens of the wealthy, and the last film appears to be about the misguided, manipulated poor attempting to destroy their wealthy protectors. If that’s right, and if The Dark Knight is really only about an anarchist, then the excellent, middle film no longer has an organic purpose in the trilogy Nolan has built. I don’t think that’s the case. To my eyes, the Joker represents the first volley towards equality in Gotham, but it’s a failed equality built on extremism and terror, and Batman’s next battle is to prevent a more organized, crystallized version of Joker’s ideal from coming to pass. To most, the Joker is simply a terrorist, but I have a feeling that when Bane throws Gotham into a shooting war, and when the poor drag the rich from their houses, and when expensive furniture burns in the street, the Joker will peek through the window of his Arkham cell and smile.

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  1. #1 by Rob Hodgson on 01/13/2012 - 9:04 PM

    I agree with the vast majority of this, with the one exception that the class warfare aspect of the story began in the Dark Knight. The backstory of the League of Shadows mentioned in Batman Begins that the wealthy of the city fought against their “economic warfare”.

    This, of course, just plays into your point of the empowered rich protecting the endangered poor. The mob boss even kinda explains this to Bruce, telling him that he’d never “get” the underside of the city, because he’d have to go a thousand miles to even find someone who didn’t know his name. I got enough respect for Nolan as a director to bet that Bruce handing his cash and coat off to a beggar before he went on his walkabout wasn’t just an idle moment in the film. It was a pure expression of, as you said, the Rich Man’s Burden.

    • #2 by thehollywoodprojects on 01/13/2012 - 9:14 PM

      Yeah, the whole opening of ‘Batman Begins’ is this really strange path of Bruce learning to understand the criminal mind so that he can better beat it senseless. Good points.

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