Bright Lights Film Journal

It’s Not Just a Movie, or Batman’s Face Is Our Mask

“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” — Batman

So, one recent Tuesday afternoon after seeing a trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, I decided to re-watch The Dark Knight itself. It’d been a few years, and perhaps I’ve aged a little, but I remember the experience being that of indistinct awe. I’m now struck by what I see as the film’s pervasive theme, that all solutions lie in the hands of others, not us, and these others take form in ways we’re asked to trust. This question isn’t explicit, however. It is implied in the nexus between identities chosen and imposed, between who they are and who they tell us they must be.

Batman’s an example of this. He is of course also Bruce Wayne. As Batman, he struggles with a protector’s fame. He grants no interviews, fleshes out no intrapsychic detail. He has impostors willing to fill the void between the outlines of the character he’s created. It is Batman’s essential believability that contains the character’s realism; his are mortal limits, and such limits make him almost one of us. One punk even asks, “What’s so different between me and you?” This is the seduction of proximity. Their fake caper is just that, however, a failed simulation. Asses are kicked and the Dark Knight saves all concerned. Though some may dream of seeing sunlight and donning a most formal disguise complete with ears and snarl, an ultracompetent other just like us is instead willing to sacrifice himself at an altar not his own.

We also have Harvey and Rachel, who, together with Wayne, love not triangularly but rather in parallel lines. Rachel herself seems no more than an opportunity for whatever we might call gender or the politics thereof to again be deemed a pesky irrelevance. In an early scene, Dent & Rachel are in court, trading a quirky flirt and attempting to indict and imprison a mob boss. A witness produces a gun, aims for Dent, and pulls the trigger. A click, two clicks, but Dent lives. Unruffled, he defends himself in a hypermasculine show of total control and legal aplomb equal to postmodern man’s task. Afterward, a noticeably rosy Maggie Gyllenhaal signals her role by dropping all formal pretence and asking Dent to “play nice” with a mutual friend, selling herself as something to later be saved.

Dent goes on to pick a strategy to prove the complicity of Gotham’s usurped bad guys, those now second chair to the Joker (a mask’s privilege, as it were). Their groups’ representatives are seen gathering round a table as equals: “Italians,” “Blacks,” “Spanishish dudes,” “Misc. Third Generation Europeans,” all in tailored suits. Dent would compel them all toward their mutual doom by enforcing the Rico statutes against organised crime. As he suggests this, Maggie “Rachel” Gyllenhaal is on hand to enter the room, offer up “that’s a brilliant idea!” and leave again, presumably to do the legwork of all Dent’s big-picture thinking. It is here that we’re also presented a dapper, black mobster, presumably a member of the upper echelons of the ghetto stereotypes” real executive, who refers to his silent diamond-chain and Gucci wearing sidekick as “my boy.” This is indeed a lucid face of what we now call progress.

The Joker himself chastises the table for their “group-therapy” sessions in daylight, perhaps a minor nod to The Sopranos, dropped in as the camera’s focus is turned toward the token tanned Italian of dubious means. The Joker is unlike most villains in that he doesn’t adhere to any ideological system that makes easy sense. No religion. No state. A taste for cash (actual cash? seriously?) that my brain connects implicitly to a need to finance his operation/s. A whole lotta words and a stated aim of watching our world burn, all for chaos’ sake. The man who we all must fear is too crazy to be real: the man minus ruse, at work cranking out arbitrary symbols on an unending scroll.

We might think the Joker’s motivations alien, quite literally out of character, considering that this is high-budget Hollywood’s dark edge. But I submit that this is a new kind of antihero motif. What he seeks to gain above everything else is the chaos of objects detached from their ordinary stable, precisely placed rotations. He seeks the disruption of ordinary experience. And this is very personal, a metaphysical abstraction rather than any of its usual proxies — money, women, fame, God, Allah, or the last chant etched on Adam Smith’s crypt. He symbolises something at once indistinct and relatable. We might want to find ways to describe his appeal when sharing words with a friend or colleague about last night’s viewing experience, but in speaking of the apparent and appealing ease of his whim’s exercise, we find ourselves mute. His appeal is to the thing without name, the little imbalanced tot inside us all, desire unfulfilled and turned on itself.

Both Batman and the Joker are broken. The trauma wrought on each is familial; the terror of absence v. the terror of presence. Batman’s father was, of course, killed, with a kind of surrogate authority now shared by both Alfred and Lucius, the sum of their differences as that which bisects Wayne/Batman’s personality. This tension is also his conscience. A traumatic opposite, the Joker fared poorly in comparison. For him there were no substitutes. His amateur plastic surgeon of a father serves as a template for the expression of chaos unrestrained by conscience.

Wayne thus performs acts of public indifference and ballet-troupe abduction while masking the good guy within. The Joker is his mask. Whether we are bored or angry or want to save others or save ourselves or sit back and change channels each is in fact a vigorous, serviceable hero. This contrasts with the fine vision of Gotham’s citizenry toward the film’s end. To wit, two boats are wired with explosives, and die volk are asked to act out a sort of temporal prisoner’s dilemma. They’re told that the only way to save themselves is to sacrifice those in the floating bohemia next door. Failure to do so will result in both boats exploding on the Joker’s midnight command. But nothing happens, neither the harried white dude nor the (as credited) “tattooed prisoner” are able to push the button. So, it’s okay. We’ll be saved by our inability to act.

But what is the right thing to do? What is the necessary thing to do? Who will judge us, and what will their judgement be? In the end, Rachel is erased and forgotten. Dent dies with his good face turned upward. The Joker remains in bondage. Wayne rides out into the light.

It occurred to me that Wayne/Batman is ultimately a man of independent wealth. His public life is something excessive and raw and distilled, the summary image of a generation’s faceless saviour. And the inevitable waning of their ambition will be met by his Rise. So, steady that collection of ballet shoes. Your hero is like you, mortal, an identity built on a truth of glass, opaque only to himself.

And what are we to conclude from this?

The rich are here to fight for our apathy. Their avatar is Patrick Bateman.