Tattoos & Totems

Part VI: The Dark Knight (2008)

Is our identity defined by our limits?

“Not being the hero means something more.”

Nolan changed the face of what a superhero movie could be with “Batman Begins”. He was given free reign to revolutionize an American icon, and allowed us to experience the Batman’s struggle to discover his identity along with the masked avenger. This was the kind of story Nolan thrived upon, and once it was so successful, there was no way in Hollywood that he wasn’t going to jump at the opportunity to develop the character further, and to allow the audience to empathize with the inherent plight of what the Batman is and what he stands for. Everyday he is forced to decide how far he’s willing to go in the name of good, and to come face to face with the consequences of what he becomes by stepping over that line.

“The Dark Knight” is far more blockbuster-tastic than its predecessor; Nolan knows the curse of the sequel – the followup to something so spectacular has to not only be bigger, longer, and contain more badass-icism and explode-osity, it has to have larger than life representations of our inner-most thoughts and desires as characters, both “good guys” and “bad guys”, to boot. And it does.


Compare the opening scenes of both films. “Batman Begins” opens with a boy falling down a well and having the living piss scared out of him by a slew of flying rodents. The entire film is spent with this boy becoming a man and discovering what his experiences have made him. Now he must embrace what he’s discovered. Enter “The Dark Knight”. The sequel opens with a man in a ragged purple suit, head down, holding a sad/angry/creepy clown mask, and, of all Hollywood movie scenes, a bank robbery. However, this doesn’t feel like most heist scenes we’ve witnessed before; not only do the masks hide the identity of the thieves – although the anticipation of a certain dastardly jester is milked to perfection – but the thieves don’t know each other’s identity, either. And the consequences of five unknown identities in the mastermind’s grand plan? They all end up dead save the mastermind himself, a man who’s face we don’t see.

The Joker is the perfect villain in the Batman’s life of identity confusion. He’s the Batman’s nemesis, literally the antithesis of identity. The key theme of which being that he doesn’t wear a mask. His actual face is disfigured, and although he smears paint all over it, one of the things he is most proud of is that he has accepted himself for “who he really is”. He even ridicules the Batman on several occasions and taunts him, begs him to take off his mask and stop hiding, to accept himself as a “freak”, just as the Joker has. We never discover where he came from or the truth about how he was so disfigured. He literally has no past, or at least several contradictory (therefore most likely false) pasts, according to two accounts he gives of how his face came to be disfigured. The first time he mentions his scars he says that his dad was a drunk, and cut his mom up in front of him when he was a wee little Jokester and then turns to the young boy and cuts a smile into his cheeks asking (in a much scarier voice than the Batman’s pretend growl), “Why so serious?” Later in the film, however, he tells Rachel Dawes (talk about an identity crisis…didn’t Maggie Gyllenhaal use to be Katie Holmes?) that he gave the scars to himself as a sign of love when his wife had her face cut up by the mob. She thought he was hideous, however, and left him.

These two stories are interesting in that they are both probably false, but in what little the Joker we hear about his feelings on identity and experience he displayed, albeit briefly, his troubles and trauma in family and love. And what else is there, really? Therein lies one of his main, ahem, “issues”, and what Nolan has repetitively warned us against: The Joker isn’t searching for anything.

In some maniacal way he has already “embraced himself” and he doesn’t want anything a “logical” villain would want, (money, fame, revenge, pile of naked Swedish chicks) so he can’t be bought, and we get the sense that he feels the world (or at least the world of the film, Gotham City) is now his idle playground. And in his playground he wants to see things burn – one of the best and most telling shots in the film was the Joker standing in front of the huge pile of cash that he had just doused in gasoline and set ablaze. The most dangerous aspect of this psychotically playful lunatic, however, is the lack of the very thing that helps define who the Batman is: the Joker is without limits.

There doesn’t seem to be any act that this guy won’t commit; he’s murdered, robbed, burned, dressed up like a candy striper. This is what makes him so dangerous to the Batman, considering the Batman knows his limits and isn’t willing to cross, them – the reason the Joker remained alive. In the final scene between the two, the Joker even talks about his Yin to the Batman’s Yang, that they needed each other, and even said they would never kill each other; the Batman because of what the Joker calls his sense of “self-righteousness” (what most would probably call honor), and the Joker because he thinks that the Batman is “just too much fun.”

Chasing, but with no desire to catch. And the Ouroboros chews its tail.

Poor Harvey Dent (Aaron Echhart). He, by stepping further than his limits allowed, became the literal and blatant representation of a man’s struggle with both sides of his nature: Two-Face. Dent was trying to fight for Gotham (everything that the Batman does) within the limits and means that he has, under the inevitably flawed system of justice, and along with the rising rate of violent and organized crime in the city, is becoming more and more frustrated with the system for failing him. The first time Dent even dabbles outside the system the Batman is there to stop him, telling him that he has to be the “face” of good in the eyes the city, just as the Batman is the “face” of good in the eyes of the criminals (and just as Bruce Wayne must be the “face” of Batman). Alfred tells Wayne that “not being the hero means something more”, which echoes later, when Dent claims to be the real identity of the Batman. If we’ve learned anything in Nolan’s films, it’s that we should stay true to our own identities. Stepping outside of his limits again, Dent is captured and used as bait for the Batman, both losing the woman he loved and disfiguring himself in the process. He blames the Batman, of course, saying he should have saved Rachel, instead, and refuses to search any deeper for who he is or what he’s meant to do, satisfied with sulking in his loss and the confusion of his identity. “Why should I hide who I am?” he asks. Like the Joker, he is without the luxury of being able to take his mask off, because of the self-deprecating nature of avoiding introspection and the search for self-enlightenment. This is where the two sides of good and evil seem to be drawn, since the Batman hasn’t yet completely become the thing he’s created; he can still remove his mask, due to the principles and limits he sets and keeps for himself. Dent’s life ends with him holding a gun to the head of a child, the ultimate disavowal of limits and morals.

The Batman himself is a very polarizing figure; he does to the city exactly what he does to Bruce Wayne. Some hail him as a hero, others as a criminal. The line between “good guy” and “bad guy” is blurred throughout the film and we (along with the citizens of Gotham) are asked to face the same sort of dilemma that the Batman must face every day in the Ship of Citizens/Ship of Convicts climax. Both ships will explode at midnight, but both ships have the option to trigger the other ship’s explosion early and save themselves. These two groups of people simply have to sit there and stew in their own conscience soup, wondering what their limits are and how far they’re willing to go in order to not only stay alive, but to be able to live with themselves.

According to Commissioner Gordon’s final monologue, the Batman is “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. But we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.”

The Joker seemed to be the main focus of The Dark Knight, not only because of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, but because the character without an identity is such a perplexing and intriguing concept. Like the main character in Nolan’s next film, the Joker literally created his past. He drummed up out of thin air the things that came to define who he is, just as Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCarprio) past consists of fifty years building dreams with his one true love in “Inception”.

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