As superhero movies go, The Dark Knight is certainly the best of the bunch — although why Christian Bale’s perfectly normal voice had to descend to a guttural rasp every time he put on his bat helmet escapes me, and one must also assign a few demerit points to the filmmakers for portraying the Russian national ballet as a group of blond and unfeasibly pneumatic ski bunnies. But it’s entertaining and occasionally thoughtful, which is more than one can normally ask of the genre.
The late Heath Ledger, as widely proclaimed, is indeed the best actor in the film. His portrayal of the Joker is far less cartoonish than Jack Nicholson’s own go at it, and Ledger takes the character seriously, giving him a consistency, a style, and a realism wholly absent before. But there are limits to what even Ledger can do: at root the Joker is just a monomaniacal killer, without complex layers of personality or indeed even a personal history (or at least without an immutable one — in the film, the Joker enjoys telling his victims an ever-changing set of stories to explain his mouth-extending facial scars, and perhaps also, though only by implication, his murderous behaviour). He is evil through and through; despite all of the stylistic and physiological versimilitude that Ledger bricks onto his character, the Joker remains nothing more than a comic book villain.
Writer/director Chris Nolan nonetheless is able to use the Joker in an intriguing way, depicting him as bent on unmasking civilized morality as a hypocritical lie, his technique being to create enough fear to cause law-abiding citizens to turn on each other. After severely disfiguring district attorney Harvey Dent, the Joker (amusingly disguised as a red-headed nurse with clown makeup) visits him in his hospital bed to goad him into madness. In the process, he sums up his philosophy: “Those others,” he says, referring to Batman, the mayor, and Commissioner Gordon, “are planners… I am chaos.” There is some irony in this claim, for the Joker is not actually all that effective at causing city-wide chaos: apart from a few desperation-sparked incidents of citizen violence, Gotham suffers no riots, no insurgency, no breakdown of order; the Joker does provoke a mass evacuation, but civil authority does not collapse because of it.
Nolan’s vision of the Joker’s self-appointed role may be based on one of the oldest forms of clowning: that of the court jester, whose status as the most despised and most harmless of the members of the court occasionally enabled him to utter truths to the sovereign which would get anyone else imprisoned for treason. “Jesters do oft prove prophets”, says Regan in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The Joker, of course, is not a tolerated member of a court, but rather a criminal mastermind who seizes the chance to speak his own “truth” by disrupting normal society. In this sense he is reminiscent of an extreme version of the Situationist International. Guy Debord and his small band of followers believed that modern society was controlled by the “Spectacle”, loosely defined as the dominance of objects (especially consumer products) over normal social life, and as the passivity of citizens in consuming such products. “Situations”, by contrast, were events (either non-violent or violent, often planned but sometimes not) which aimed at disrupting the narrative of Spectacle and at breaking down the false consciousness of the public; such events included the 1968 occupation of the Sorbonne and the ensuing general strike, and (retrospectively) the Watts riots of 1965. Here’s part of Debord’s defense of the violence in Los Angeles, which the Situationists distributed in the United States as an unsigned tract five months after the riots:
Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence.
The Watts riots, by the way, were an instance of chaos at a scale that the Joker would have envied. Wrote Debord:
An incident between traffic police and pedestrians developed into two days of spontaneous riots. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. By the third day the blacks had armed themselves by looting accessible gun stores, enabling them to fire even on police helicopters. It took thousands of police and soldiers, including an entire infantry division supported by tanks, to confine the riot to the Watts area, and several more days of street fighting to finally bring it under control. Stores were massively plundered and many were burned. Official sources listed 32 dead (including 27 blacks), more than 800 wounded and 3000 arrests.
Yet any similarities between the Joker and the Situationists are methodological only; in aims, they could not be farther apart. Debord concluded his pamphlet by calling for the end of a society dehumanized by commerce: “A revolt against the spectacle – even if limited to a single district such as Watts – calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanized life, a protest of real individuals against their separation from a community that would fulfill their true human and social nature and transcend the spectacle.” Idealistic, perhaps dangerously so, but well-intended. By contrast, the Joker simply enjoys blowing things up, killing people, and provoking the state (and even more so, Batman). He’s a psychopath with a keen sense of theatre, not a revolutionary.