Who is the dark knight in the movie The Dark Knight? It is quite natural to assume that the title character is supposed to be the Batman, and no doubt the authorial intention was to instill this belief. When one takes a long, hard look at the film, however, an argument must inevitably arise that it is the Joker who will ultimately stand as the greatest force for goodness in the universe inhabited by the residents of Gotham City.
The Dark Knight is a movie about duality, but it is more about the possibility for absolutes and for creating shades of gray. In addition to good v. evil, the dualistic elements at work in this Batman epic also include things as grand as life v. death and as specific as Rachel v. Harvey. What lifts The Dark Knight far out of the miasma of the entire superhero movie genre that is constructed on a solid foundation of duality is how it manages to explore the hidden realms. The force behind that exploration is, of course, the Joker. And so it is only fitting that the Joker is himself an example of duality. What makes his presence even more fascinating is that the overwhelming multitudes doubtlessly see the Joker only in his role as darkness to the Batman’s light. To do so may be to risk missing the entire point of the movie.
The Dark Knight is not really a movie that casts the Joker against Batman. The movie is really set up to place Batman in opposition to Harvey Dent. Batman, as is perhaps overstated in the movie, represents the incorruptible force of goodness. And yet, as is clearly seen not only in the movie but in real life, good actions often produce bad results. Were this not the case, no college student would ever toss the writings of Kant against the wall in utter frustration at penetrating his often impenetrable writing style. Equally so, sometimes bad actions produce good results. That is a given to most of us, but the dark underbelly of The Dark Knight speaks to that sort of consciousness of absolutism morality that has occupied the Executive Branch of government since January 20, 2001. The kind of thinking exemplified by the architects of the war on terror engenders an ideology that suggests good can do evil without being evil and, likewise, an evil can never produce a good. That may sound contradictory in theory, but in practice it is clearly evident.
Batman represents good intentions gone awry on occasion, but it is known that Batman will never, like certain politicians, do evil for the sake of good. He is truly incorruptible. Harvey Dent, it becomes clear, is most certainly corruptible and it is for his soul that the movie becomes a battle between the Joker and Batman, not for Batman’s soul. But even that is not nearly profound enough for the to-be-admired filmmakers. That might have been good enough for the Spiderman movies, but not these guys. To the mix is added utter chaos and chaos, it is rarely understood, can go either way. Chaos can result in an ultimate good or an ultimate evil. Or, to put it better, both good and evil. The Joker acts as an agent not of good or evil, but pure chaos. At one point, the Joker observes about himself that he is like a dog chasing a car who would not know what to do with it if he got it. It is perhaps a bit disingenuous on his part because the Joker does have a plan. But that plan is ultimately about chaos.
How is it possible to read the Joker as being the real dark knight, and not Batman? Batman ends the movie in a very dark place, but it is a dark place only from the outside. From the inside he still a pure good. An absolute good. Except, of course, there is no such thing as an absolute good as the bloody path left in his wake attests. The single most fascinating scene in The Dark Knight is a conversation that takes place between the Joker and a major character in which he observes that there are rules for society. And in these rules a truck filled with soldiers getting blown up is acceptable, but a Mayor being assassinated is a tragedy and something to toss a city into hysterics.
Ultimately, the chaos perpetrated by the Joker conjoins both good and evil, both light and dark to create an anarchic situation of mass hysteria. But with mass hysteria often comes a realization that society is composed of misplaced priorities. The Joker’s chaos, if introduced into the real world, might very well accomplish what absolutely nothing else has been able to: how incredibly misplaced our priorities are. If a real life Joker existed today and stopped electricity in major cities, or destroyed the financial foundation of this country, or even just made very single record in the IRS disappear, it would point out the utter ridiculousness of spending trillions to police a foreign country or denying basic health care and education to tens of millions.
The Joker is not the real evil of the Dark Knight. The Joker is more akin to a virus. A health virus alerts us to the dangers eating contaminated food or living in unsanitary conditions. Yes, millions may die, but ultimately the virus may be said to save more lives than it killed because it alerts us to an overlooked priority. A computer virus may destroy millions of records, but it may also alert us to the dangers of internet hacking. The duality that exists in the Dark Knight is often confounding. Batman and the police rush to two different places in an attempt to save someone only to find out they are attempting to save the other person; even the duality of life v. death is not always what it seems. Nor is the duality that absolutely places the Joker as an agent of darkness completely apt. An examination of what the Joker really wants suggests that, like his conflicting stories about his appearance, he may not exactly be a fountain of truth. That is not to suggest that the Joker’s intent is on the lighter side of the spectrum, but like authorial intention, sometimes the motivations of what is termed darkness are not always evil. And, as an examination of the last seven and a half years of the Bush administration proves, sometimes the motivation of what is termed lightness does not always result in good.