In my review of Christoper Nolan’s Batman Begins, I argued that the movie generates a dramatic conflict around the highest of stakes: the destruction of the modern world (epitomized by Gotham City) by the Traditionalist “League of Shadows” versus its preservation and “progressive” improvement by Batman.
I also argued that Batman’s transformation into a Nietzschean Übermensch was incomplete, for he still accepted the reigning egalitarian-humanistic ethics that devalued his superhuman striving and achievements even as he placed them in the service of the little people of Gotham.
This latent conflict between an aristocratic and an egalitarian ethic becomes explicit in Nolan’s breath-taking sequel The Dark Knight (2008), which is surely the greatest supervillain movie ever. (The greatest superhero movie has to be Zack Snyder’s Watchmen .)
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop now.
Philosophizing with Dynamite
The true star of The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger as the Joker. The Joker is a Nietzschean philosopher. In the opening scene, he borrows Nietzsche’s aphorism, “Whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” giving it a twist: “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you . . . stranger.” Following Nietzsche, who philosophized with a hammer, the Joker philosophizes with knives as well as “dynamite, gunpowder, and . . . . gasoline!”
Yes, he is a criminal. A ruthless and casual mass murderer, in fact. But he believes that “Gotham deserves a better class of criminal, and I’m going to give it to them. . . . It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message. Everything burns.” In this, the Joker is not unlike another Nietzschean philosopher, the Unabomber, who philosophized with bombs because he too wanted to send a message.
The Joker’s message is the emptiness of the reigning values. His goal is the transvaluation of values. Although he initially wants to kill Batman, he comes to see him as a kindred spirit, an alter ego: a fellow superhuman, a fellow freak, who is still tragically tied to a humanistic morality. Consider this dialogue:
Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?
The Joker: I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You . . . you . . . complete me.
Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.
The Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these . . . these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
The Joker may want to free Batman, but he is a practitioner of tough love. His therapy involves killing random innocents, then targeting somebody Batman loves.
Death, Authenticity, and Freedom
The basis of the kinship the Joker perceives between himself and Batman is not merely a matter of eccentric garb. It is their relationship to death. The Joker is a bit of an existentialist when it comes to death: “in their last moments, people show you who they really are.” Most people fear death more than anything. Thus they flee from it by picturing their death as somewhere “out there,” in the future, waiting for them. But if you only have one death, and it is somewhere in the future, then right now, one is immortal. And immortal beings can afford to live foolishly and inauthentically. People only become real when they face death, and they usually put that off to the very last minute.
The Joker realizes that there is something scarier than death, and that is a life without freedom or authenticity.
The Joker realizes that mortality is not something waiting for him out there in the future. It is something that he carries around inside him at all times. He does not need a memento mori. He feels his own heart beating.
Because he knows he can die at any moment, he lives every moment.
He is ready to die at any moment. He accepts Harvey Dent’s proposal to kill him based on a coin toss. He indicates he is willing to blow himself up to deter the black gangster Gambol—and everybody believes him. He challenges Batman to run him down just to teach him a lesson.
In his mind, the Joker’s readiness to die at any moment may be his license to kill at any moment.
The Joker can face his mortality, because he has learned not to fear it. Indeed, he has come to love it, for it is the basis of his inner freedom. When Batman tries to beat information out of the Joker, he simply laughs: “You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” Batman is powerless against him, because the Joker is prepared to die.
The Joker senses, perhaps mistakenly, that Batman could attain a similar freedom.
What might be holding Batman back? Could it be his conviction of the sanctity of life? In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne breaks with the League of Shadows because he refuses the final initiation: taking another man’s life. Later in the movie, he refuses to kill Ra’s al Ghul (although he hypocritically lets him die). In The Dark Knight, Batman refuses to kill the Joker. If that is Batman’s hangup, the Joker will teach him that one can only live a more-than-human life if one replaces the love of mere life with the love of liberating death.
Lessons in Transvaluation
Many of the Joker’s crimes can be understood as moral experiments and lessons.
1. When the Joker breaks a pool cue and tosses it to Gambol’s three surviving henchmen, telling them that he is having “tryouts” and that only one of them (meaning the survivor) can “join our team,” he is opposing their moral scruples to their survival instincts. The one with the fewest scruples or the strongest will to survive has the advantage.
2. The joker rigs two boats to explode, one filled with criminals and the other with the good little people of Gotham. He gives each boat the detonator switch to the other one, and tells them that unless one group chooses to blow up the other by midnight, he will blow up both boats. Again, he is opposing moral scruples to survival instincts.
The results are disappointing. The good people cannot act without a vote, and when they vote to blow up the other ship, not one of them has the guts to follow through. They would rather die than take the lives of others, and it is clearly not because they have conquered their fear of death, but simply from a lack of sheer animal vitality, of will to power. Their morality has made them sick. They don’t think they have the right to live at the expense of others. Or, worse still, they all live at the expense of others. This whole System is about eating one another. But none of them will own up to that fact in front of others.
Batman interprets this as a sign that people “are ready to believe in goodness,” i.e., that the Joker was wrong to claim that, “When the chips are down, these . . . these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” The Joker hoped to put oversocialized people back in touch with animal vitality, and he failed. From a biological point of view, eating one another is surely healthier than going passively to one’s death en masse.
3. The Joker goes on a killing spree to force Batman to take off his mask and turn himself in. Thus Batman must choose between giving up his mission or carrying on at the cost of individual lives. If he chooses to continue, he has to regard the Joker’s victims as necessary sacrifices to serve the greater good, which means that humans don’t have absolute rights that trump their sacrifice for society.
4. The Joker forces Batman to choose between saving the life of Rachel Dawes, the woman he loves, or Harvey Dent, an idealistic public servant. If Batman’s true aim is to serve the common good, then he should choose Dent. But he chooses Dawes because he loves her. But the joke is on him. The Joker told him that Dawes was at Dent’s location, so Batman ends up saving Dent anyway. When Batman tells the Joker he has “one rule” (presumably not to kill) the Joker responds that he is going to have to break that one rule if he is going to save one of them, because he can save one only by letting the other die.
5. As Batman races toward the Joker on the Batcycle, the Joker taunts him: “Hit me, hit me, come on, I want you to hit me.” The Joker is free and ready to die at that very moment. Batman, however, cannot bring himself to kill him. He veers off and crashes. The Joker is willing to die to teach Batman simply to kill out of healthy animal anger, without any cant about rights or due process and other moralistic claptrap.
6. Later in the film, Batman saves the Joker from falling to his death. He could have just let him die, as he did Ra’s al Ghul. The Joker says: “Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? . . . You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Again, one has the sense that the Joker would have been glad to die simply to shake Batman out of his “misplaced sense of self-righteousness.”
At the risk of sounding like The Riddler:
Q: What do you call a man who is willing to die to make a philosophical point?
A: A philosopher.
Materialistic versus Aristocratic Morals
Modern materialistic society is based on two basic principles: that nothing is worse than death and nothing is better than wealth. Aristocratic society is based on the principles that there are things worse than death and better than wealth. Dishonor and slavery are worse than death. And honor and freedom are better than wealth.
We have already seen that the Joker fears death less than an inauthentic and unfree life. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, he shows his view of wealth. The setting is the hold of a ship. A vast mountain of money is piled up. The Joker has just recovered a trove of the mob’s money—for which he will receive half. Tied up on top of the pile is Mr. Lau, the money launderer who tried to abscond with it.
One of the gangsters asks the Joker what he will do with all his money. He replies: “I’m a man of simple tastes. I like dynamite, and gunpowder, and . . . gasoline.” At which point his henchmen douse the money with gasoline. The Joker continues: “And you know what they all have in common? They’re cheap.” He then lights the pyre and addresses the gangster: “All you care about is money. Gotham deserves a better class of criminal, and I’m going to give it to them.”
Aristocratic morality makes a virtue of transforming wealth into something spiritual: into honor, prestige, or beautiful and useless things. Trading wealth for spiritual goods demonstrates one’s freedom from material necessity. But the ultimate demonstration of one’s freedom from material goods is the simple destruction of them.
The Indians of the Pacific Northwest practice a ceremony called the “Potlatch.” In a Potlatch, tribal leaders gain prestige by giving away material wealth. However, when there was intense rivalry between individuals, they would vie for honor not by giving away wealth but by destroying it.
The Joker is practicing Potlatch. Perhaps the ultimate put down, though, is when he mentions that he is only burning his share of the money.
Gotham’s District Attorney Harvey Dent (played by Nordic archetype Aaron Eckhart) is a genuinely noble man. He is also a man with a plan. He leaves nothing up to chance, although he pretends to. He makes decisions by flipping a coin, but the coin is rigged. It has two heads.
The Joker kidnaps Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes and rigs them to blow up. He gives Batman the choice of saving one. He races off to save Dawes but finds Dent instead. Dawes is killed, and Dent is horribly burned. Half his face is disfigured, and one side of his coin (which was in Rachel’s possession) is blackened as well. Harvey Dent has become “Two Face.”
The Joker, of course, is a man with a plan too. Truth be told, he is a criminal mastermind, the ultimate schemer. (Indeed, one of the few faults of this movie is that his elaborate schemes seem to spring up without any time for preparation.) When the Joker visits Dent in the hospital, however, he makes the following speech in answer to Dent’s accusation that Rachel’s death was part of the Joker’s plan.
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just . . . do things.
The mob has plans, the cops have plans . . . . You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. . . . It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm?
You know . . . You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!
The Joker’s immediate agenda is to gaslight Harvey Dent, to turn Gotham’s White Knight into a crazed killer. “Madness,” he says, “is like gravity. All you need is a little push.” This speech is his push, and what he says has to be interpreted with this specific aim in mind. For instance, the claim that chaos is “fair” is clearly apropos of Dent’s use of a two-headed coin because he refuses to leave anything up to chance. (Chaos here is equivalent to chance.) Dent’s reply is to propose to decide whether the Joker lives or dies based on a coin toss. The Joker agrees, and the coin comes up in the Joker’s favor. We do not see what happens, but the Joker emerges unscathed and Harvey Dent is transformed into Two Face.
The Contingency Plan
But the Joker’s speech is not merely a lie to send Dent over the edge. In the end, the Joker really isn’t a man with a plan, and the clearest proof of that is that he stakes his life on a coin toss. Yes, the Joker plans for all sorts of contingencies, but he knows that the best laid plans cannot eliminate contingency as such. But that’s all right, for the Joker embraces contingency as he embraces death: it is a principle of freedom.
The Joker is in revolt not only against the morals of modernity, but also its metaphysics, the reigning interpretation of Being, namely that the world is ultimately transparent to reason and susceptible to planning and control. Heidegger called this interpretation of Being the “Gestell,” a term which connotes classification and arrangement to maximize availability, like a book in a well-ordered library, numbered and shelved so it can be located and retrieved at will. For modern man, “to be” is to be susceptible to being classified, labeled, shelved, and available in this fashion.
Heidegger regarded such a world as an inhuman hell, and the Joker agrees. When the Joker is arrested, we find that he has no DNA or fingerprints or dental records on file. He has no name, no address, no identification of any kind. His clothes are custom made, with no labels. As Commissioner Gordon says, there’s “nothing in his pockets but knives and lint.” Yes, the system has him, but it knows nothing about him. When he escapes, they have no idea where to look. He is a book without a barcode: unclassified, unshelved, unavailable . . . free.
For Heidegger, the way to freedom is to meditate on the origins of the Gestell, which he claims are ultimately mysterious. Why did people start thinking that everything can be understood and controlled? Was the idea cooked up by a few individuals and then propagated according to a plan? Heidegger thinks not. The Gestell is a transformation of the Zeitgeist that cannot be traced back to individual thoughts and actions, but instead conditions and leads them. Its origins and power thus remain inscrutable. The Gestell is an “Ereignis,” an event, a contingency.
Heidegger suggests that etymologically “Ereignis” also has the sense of “taking hold” and “captivating.” Some translators render it “appropriation” or “enowning.” I like to render it “enthrallment”: The modern interpretation of Being happened, we know not why. It is a dumb contingency. It just emerged. Now it enthralls us. We can’t understand it. We can’t control it. How do we break free?
The spell is broken as soon as we realize that the idea of the Gestell–the idea that we can understand and control everything–cannot itself be understood or controlled. The origin of idea that all things can be understood cannot be understood. The sway of the idea that all things can be planned and controlled cannot be planned or controlled. The reign of the idea that everything is necessary, that everything has a reason, came about as sheer, irrational contingency.
The Joker seeks to break the power of the Gestell not merely by meditating on contingency, but by acting from it, i.e., by being an irrational contingency, by being an agent of chaos.
He introduces chaos into his own life by acting on whim, by just “doing things” that don’t make sense, like “a dog chasing cars”: staking his life on a coin toss, playing chicken with Batman, etc. When Batman tries to beat information out of the Joker, he tells him that “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
Alfred the butler understands the Joker’s freedom: “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.”
The Joker introduces chaos into society by breaking the grip of the System and its plans.
He is capable of being an agent of chaos because of his relationship to death. He does not fear it. He embraces it as a permanent possibility. He is, therefore, free. His freedom raises him above the Gestell, allowing him to look down on it . . . and laugh. That’s why they call him the Joker.
In All Seriousness
I like the Joker’s philosophy. I think he is right. “But wait,” some of you might say, “the Joker is a monster!” Heath Ledger claimed that the Joker was ‘a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.’ Surely you don’t like someone like that!”
But remember, we are dealing with Hollywood here. In a “free” society we can’t suppress dangerous truths altogether. So we have to be immunized against them. That’s why Hollywood lets dangerous truths appear on screen, but only in the mouths of monsters: Derek Vinyard in American History X, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, the Joker in The Dark Knight, etc.
We need to learn to separate the message from the messenger, and we need to teach the millions of people who have seen this movie (the seventh biggest film of all time) to do so as well. Once we do that, the film ceases to reinforce the system’s message and reinforces ours instead. That’s what I do best. I take their propaganda and turn it on itself.
What lessons can we learn from The Dark Knight?
Batman Begins reveals a deep understanding of the fundamental opposition between the Traditional cyclical view of history and modern progressivism, envisioning a weaponized Traditionalism (The League of Shadows) as the ultimate enemy of Batman and the forces of progress.
The Dark Knight reveals a deep understanding of the moral and metaphysical antipodes of the modern world: the Nietzschean concept of master morality and critique of egalitarian slave morality, allied with the Heideggerian concept of the Gestell and the power of sheer irrational contingency to break it.
The Joker weaponizes these ideas, and he exploits Batman’s latent moral conflict between Nietzschean self-overcoming and his devotion to human rights and equality.
In short, somebody in Hollywood understands who the System’s most radical and fundamental enemy is. They know what ideas can destroy their world. It is time we learn them too.
Let’s show these schemers how pathetic their attempts to control us really are.