The Psychology of the Shadow, Part 2: The Dark Knight

This is part 2 of an essay-series about Christopher Nolan’s highly acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy. The following is a standalone-article that can be read without the context of the other parts. For the sake of the best understanding of the matter, I strongly suggest you read part 1 about Batman Begins first.

After Batman Begins redefined the perception of what levels of quality and depth a comic-adaptation can achieve, its sequel, The Dark Knight, made it into the lofty ranks of top-notch movie history. This is not only due to Heath Ledger’s stellar portrayal of the movie’s antagonist, the Joker – nor is it merely owed to the actor’s unexpected and untimely passing right after finishing the movie. The Dark Knight stuns us with an awe-striking depth of experiencing the darkness of the human soul.

Of course, this journey into the abyss of chaos is carried by the character of Heath Ledger’s Joker. His dominance in the movie is so overwhelming that he even reduces the actual protagonist, Bruce Wayne respectively Batman (Christian Bale), into a passive figure. The Joker’s influence on the movie is so strong that Batman can rarely do more than react or reply to the villain’s actions. Actually, the latter’s overwhelming force brings Batman to his limits. Throughout the story, he is barely able to keep up with the chaos and mayhem the Joker throws at him.

Thus, the whole story of The Dark Knight stands and falls with the Joker. So does its understanding. Let’s take a proper look at him.

Who is the Joker?

The story does not reveal a name nor a verified biography of the Joker. We only see his actions on the screen and are left with the challenge of figuring out what they reveal about him. But we don’t know his past, and we don’t know exactly why he has become the way he is.

And yet, he gives us some clues throughout the movie. Although the factual details of these hints may not be relied upon as historically accurate, they might yet reveal enough to yield a general idea of what made him the villain he has become.

The first occasion on which he talks about himself occurs when he is about to kill the mobster Gambol. His pretext to talk about himself is to narrate how he came to receive the scars in his face. His trademark clown-make-up is his characteristic visual trait. But in truth it is, for lack of a better word, a circumscription of these scars, as the red make-up around his mouth is shaped exactly around them. This means that his make-up follows the scars. And since the make-up is what makes him the Joker, his scars are the defining force of his identity.

To Gambol, he tells the story of how his father, who was “a drinker, and a fiend,” beat up his mother. Seeing the scared child, the Joker narrates, the father turns towards him with the kitchen knife the mother had used to protect herself. He sticks the blade inside the child’s mouth, inflicting the scars we now see him wear.

There are two reasons why we should take this narration of the Joker’s defining moment with a pinch of salt. The first reason is that, while he narrates, his look wanders up and to the side. This is a somewhat subtle, but yet very clear hint that he is imagining and fantasizing the scene. For when we remember, we turn inwards, and our look goes down. The look we see him make is clearly the one we have when we imagine or invent a story. The second reason why we must doubt his narration is that in a later scene, where he is publicly threatening Rachel Dawes at knife-point, he tells a different story about how he got his scars.

In this scene, the story he tells is that his wife he once had, “gambles and gets in deep with the sharks”. One day, as some kind of retaliation, they cut her face, and she cannot get over the disfiguration. So, to please her, and as a sign of his devotion, the Joker puts a razor in his mouth, inflicting the same scars to himself like hers. But his well-meant action has the opposite result of what he expected. She is disgusted of his disfiguration and leaves him.

This story is very different from the one we heard with Gambol. Both versions are related to an important person in his life, his father and his wife. In the first version, the father inflicts the scars upon him. In the second version, he inflicts them on himself. The first version is an act of aggression. The second is, at least in the Joker’s understanding, an act of love, even of sacrifice. In both cases he experiences the trauma of rejection. In the loss of his wife’s love the rejection is obvious. But having his own father hurt him in this manner is, although probably more hidden, a yet more hurtful kind of abandonment. In the story he tells Rachel, he is already troubled. She says he worries too much. Also, the mere fact that he got into a marriage with a woman who is “in deep with the sharks” reveals that he already must have been broken. Hence, we can infer that the events in the first version were the more defining trauma. The trauma from the second narration is a follow-up and a consequence of his first trauma. But his first trauma is, as far as we can reconstruct from his narration, caused by his encounter with malevolence by the hands of his evil father.

Obviously, both stories cannot factually be true. The second story even suggests that he didn’t have the scars yet until he inflicted them on himself. But we can assume that in a symbolic sense, both episodes scarred him psychologically as to make him become the Joker. Yet, the factual origin of his scars remains unrevealed.

There is a third version he starts telling – in the final fight, when he believes to have defeated Batman. But Batman interrupts his narration with an attack of his armblades. The fact that there IS a third version is very intriguing. We would very much have liked to hear it.

What Does the Joker Want?, Part 1

This is as much as we can gather from the Joker’s own biographical accounts. The profile that results from these clues is that of a sociopath, i.e. a person who became pathologically cruel and violent through the impact of outer traumatic events – in this case, his encounter with his father’s malevolence. Respectively, a psychopath is born as a cruel and consciousless person. He requires no outer impact to become evil. Sociopaths, opposedly, are made. The Joker became a sociopath by his encounter with malevolence. But the impact is even stronger, as the malevolence entered his life in shape of his father. The father, as we know, is the crucial shaping element of an individual’s world-view. We’ve mentioned this in regards of Dostoevskij’s Brothers Karamazov in our essay about Top Gun.

We now understand that the Joker has suffered heavy psychological trauma in his earlier life. Now let’s take a look at how this trauma impacts his actions in The Dark Knight, and in how far they are motivated by it.

What exactly does the Joker want? He doesn’t care about money. Quite the opposite. After his plan to retrieve the mobsters’ money succeeds, he burns millions of dollars in front of one of the mobsters, claiming that “All you care about is money. This town deserves a better class of criminal. And I’m gonna give it to ’em.” So what is this “better class of criminal”? In what sense is the Joker a “better” criminal than those who care about money? We receive a second hint about this question in the same scene, when he follows up with the words: “It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message.”

“Sending the message” is an expression we’ve already heard from Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. Let’s remember, The League of Shadows don’t perceive themselves as criminals, but as bringers of justice – which, in their own thinking, justifies their use of cruelty and violence. Their goal is to fight criminals. The Joker also wants to send a message. But his message seems to be completely opposed to the message of the League of Shadows’. The Joker wants not to fight criminals, he wants to give the world “a better class of criminal”. This means he wants to elevate the quality of crime beyond the mere chase for money.

Understanding the Criminal Mind

I want to bring your attention to the conversation between Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) right after the Joker’s attacks on Police Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb, Judge Surrillo (who was appointed to watch over the mob trials), and the ambitious District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

In this scene, Bruce tells Alfred that the Joker “crossed a line”. Alfred makes him understand that he, Bruce, crossed the line first, by creating Batman and bringing the mobsters to the brink of desperation. And in this desperation, Alfred continues to explain, “they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce laconically replies: “Criminals aren’t complicated.” This is a thought he apprehended from Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. But Alfred makes him understand that this is an oversimplification, and that the Joker’s motives are complex beyond Bruce’s or anyone else’s comprehension. So he tells Bruce the anecdote about his time in Birma, where a bandit raided caravans for no obvious reason, since he was not interested in the gems that were used to bribe the tribal leaders in the area. The lesson he’s trying to teach Bruce is that “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.”

Chaos and Method

So is the Joker being a criminal for crime’s sake? That, too, would be an oversimplification. Because the question we’d have to ask is still: What does he gain from it? He doesn’t seek redemption like the League of Shadows. Furthermore, he’s not naturally sadistic, for he’s no psychopath. He is sadistic, but not by nature. Something made him become that way. That’s why he is a sociopath.

Throughout the whole movie, we see the Joker wreaking havoc. He does it in a way that nobody seems to be able to figure out what he wants. It looks like he’s after creating chaos. And he supports this impression with his own words: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? […] I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with them, if I caught them. You know, I just do things […] I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

But on the other hand, especially in the opening bank robbery scene, we see something entirely different. The Joker had secretly promised every robber a higher share if they killed their companions. In the end, his plan turns out so accurately that the school bus, with which the money has to be transported, crashes into the building exactly in the very moment the last robber turns his gun against the Joker, with the bus killing the robber. And finally, when the Joker leaves the bank in the school bus, it inserts itself perfectly into a convoy of other school busses, just like a zipper. The Joker had planned the whole robbery through and through. And the same is true for all of his other havoc: Everything is planned with pinpoint accuracy. It looks like chaos, but in truth his actions are highly calculated. Everything works out in his favor: his plot to get the mobsters’ money, but also his scheme of letting himself get caught so he can set up the trap for Batman, and breaking Harvey Dent.

Hence, we know that the Joker’s “dog chasing cars”-fairy tale is just another lie to make his plans work. We have to ask the question again: What does the Joker actually want?

What Does the Joker Want?, Part 2

The answer to this question will be found in the endgoal of all his actions. In the initial bank robbery scene, his plan relies on his premise that every robber would be greedy enough to kill his companion for money. Similarly, he exploits the mobsters’ greed to undermine their power and destroy them. He uses detectives Anna Ramirez’ and Michael Wuertz’ fear to corrupt them into serving his cause. Then, he plans Rachel’s death to turn Harvey Dent into a vengeful maniac.

The way he spreads chaos in Gotham is by aiming at the weaknesses of his victims, to unleash their lowest instincts. His point is to prove that everybody is “only as good as the world allows them to be.” Because he is broken by his trauma, he wants to justify his own brokenness by proving that everybody else will also commit evil if exposed to enough outer pressure. That’s why he rigs the two ferries with explosives, promising to spare the ferry whose passengers decide to blow up the other one – which is nothing but blackmailing both parties into killing the people on the other ferry. He bets not merely on the selfishness of the people on either ferry. He bets on the natural human instinct to murder for the sake of securing the own survival.

After Batman defeats him, the Joker says: “That’s what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible.” He refers to himself as the unstoppable force that corrupts everybody, and to Batman as the incorruptible, immovable object. The Joker understands that the potential for evil is in every human being: “Because madness, as you know, is like gravity: All it takes is a little push.” His motivation for spreading violence and chaos is his feeling of victimhood by the hands of malevolence. He basically spreads trauma like an infection. We all know the saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” In The Dark Knight, we can more accurately say: “Traumatized people traumatize people.”

Malevolence and Victimization

Let’s remember that our task at hand is to trace the various types and forms of evil presented in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Where is the Joker located in the broader context of the trilogy up to this point?

The first types of evil we encountered in Batman Begins are contingency, fear, and hubris, which at its core is self-deceit. In The Dark Knight, we encounter two more types of evil: malevolence and victimization. Malevolence is a fundamental source of evil. Just like contingency and fear, malevolence is primal. They are just there, as a fundament of the world. Hubris, self-deceit and victimization are, strictly speaking, secondary. They stem from reflection. They are created by intention, by the individual that chooses to react in this or that way to a primal evil.

It is one thing to encounter malevolence, or unjustified evil. But the consequences of this encounter are defined by how we respond to it. Do we withstand if forthrightly, or do we succumb to it? It makes a difference whether we maintain our integrity in the face of adversity, or whether we succumb to it and blame the heaviness of the burden for our inability to deal with it properly.

Victimization is a cunning way of dealing with adversity, because it shifts the responsibility to deal with our issues properly to others. Who is the Joker shifting his responsibility to? Not his father, that’s for sure. We don’t get a proper answer to this. Maybe we would’ve gotten one, if Batman let the Joker narrate his third version about how he got his scars. A speculation could be the following: the protective element of a child is the mother. We don’t hear a lot about the Joker’s mother, except that she got “the kitchen knife to protect herself.” Thus, the story behind his wife could hint at a co-dependent dynamic in which he expected her to be more bearing with his troubledness.

But this is, as I openly admit, pure speculation. The movie doesn’t yield any more clues on this topic. The fact remains though, that the Joker blames the world for being a world in which malevolence broke him. And because it broke him, he keeps perpetuating evil, as a means to gain revenge on life.

Tragically, he succeeds with his efforts. Although he gets arrested and the criminal world got wiped out (which, ironicallly, the League of Shadows didn’t manage to achieve), he left something worse behind: desperation. As we will see in the third part of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce is a broken man who can’t get over the loss of his childhood love Rachel. After The Dark Knight ends in a state of desperation, the final sequel will show us a way out.

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