Article written by: Vaisakh Nair
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is a cinematic milestone, which revolutionised the comic book film genre forever. Nolan, by amalgamating realism and comic book heroes, created a universe which was appealing for the mainstream audiences and the comic aficionados alike. It features the superhero Batman and probably the most popular ‘villain’ character, The Joker as the two dualities. Even though Batman is considered as the protagonist of the movie conventionally, it should be understood that the movie still excels if we consider the Joker as the protagonist. It is up to the audience to choose which side to choose from, based on their own ideological agreements. The character of Joker was so visually and ideologically moving that it inspired the Aurora shooting, where a mentally unstable man killed 12 and injured over 70 during the screening of the The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, 2012. Reports suggest that he considered himself as the Joker of The Dark Knight and he set out to seek revenge on the ‘society’. When the character has such strong implications outside the reel, we cannot dismiss the character as a brainless psychopath who didn’t know what he was doing. On the contrary, everything the Joker said and did was nothing less than brilliant.
To fully understand the anarchic traits of Joker, we need to look at how anarchy has been described by people in the past. As we have said before, anarchy has a lot of depth to it than the pop cultural connotations to it, which reduces it to chaos and destruction. Anarchy essentially can be said as a condition where the state is absent. With the absence of the state, it means that the citizens are not bound by any higher authorities in any way. Anarchism can be simplified to mean that all forms of human association, is voluntary, as far as possible. For a society that is purely based on individual liberty, the existence of a state can put it at a state of conflict with the ideas of liberties that have been set on the society. The state will always hamper the individual freedom in one way or another since a society is set up based on rules and regulations. The absence of any rules or regulations can seem like too much of an idealistic idea that can work in theory but is hard to sustain practically. But this idea of anarchism being impractical should be questioned because, for most of history, humans have survived without the existence of a state. Though we do not have any example of any modern civil society without the states, most of the tribal cultures existed without the presence of a higher authority. The main reason why the idea of anarchism seems so frail right now is because the modern society has never been predisposed to an anarchist society and because of the prejudice the modern world have about the tribal cultures. If we study close enough, we should definitely be able to find tribal societies without a ruling body which have survived gracefully through the ages. But the idea of a state has been so reinforced to us that it is hard for us to even think about a society without it. This is a testimony to the extent in which the state has been enforced into our lives that, we consider the presence of a ruling body the normative condition of human beings.
The reason why it is so hard to accept a society with full emphasis on freedom is mainly because of the purported intrinsic nature of man. This is not to say that human nature is corrupt at the core, but it is a general observation based on the fact that rape, murder and violence have always existed whenever there was an absence of a governing body. But the presence of a governing body should not be the solution to these purported intrinsic nature of man, as people who are at the top of governance might also be corruptible. The political philosophy of anarchy is mostly dismissed saying that giving humans complete freedom is not possible because of their corruptible nature. But the government also functions with the same people, that make up the society and it is still possible for the government to be corrupted too. Thus, giving some people power when we cannot be sure about their motives is definitely a bad idea.
Even if we are to assume that anarchism is impractical, this does not mean that the theory by itself is not of any value. Anarchist philosophy is a political philosophy which makes us question the existence of the state. By making us question something that is so ingrained in the modern human society like the state, it serves the same function scepticism has in the theory of knowledge. By questioning the existence of the state, the anarchists have always tried to challenge the legitimacy of the state. Chomsky is of the view that every level of establishment must be challenged until it can prove their legitimacy. Whenever there is a situation of power, it should be challenged. Whoever claims for the legitimacy of authority bears the burden of justifying it; if they cannot justify it, then it should be considered illegitimate and must be dismantled. People who call themselves anarchists have always challenged the legitimacy of the state and this challenge for legitimacy is considered as a threat by the state. This could be why the anarchists always had a negative image associated with them, as they have been considered to be violent and aggressive.
To challenge the state, the anarchists should fight the state, not only ideologically but also physically. The state uses coercive forces like the police to keep the people under control and this is why anarchists always had a problem with the police as the police force is something they employ to curb the liberties of their citizens. As long as the state manages to prove their legitimacy for power, they should be safe. But in most cases, they might not be able to prove their legitimacy as sometimes, the absence of the state is better for the people as the state itself might be corrupted by their officials. This is where Joker’s ideology can be invoked. Joker is in Gotham City, which is described as corrupted in every layer of its governmental infrastructure. When the government becomes corrupt to this level, it becomes important to establish a new order to replace the faulting government. Joker has been referred to as a ‘terrorist’ in multiple instances. Anarchism is often considered as a threat by the people in power. Thus, the police officers considering Joker as a terrorist should come as no surprise. Terrorism can simply be defined as the purposeful use of violence for any kind of ideological gains. It is extremely easy for anarchists to come under the category of terrorists if they are using violence for the materialization of their goals. It should be noted that even though the state considers the Joker to be a terrorist, he never refers to himself as one. Throughout the film, the Joker has tried to be a symbol of anarchy. By covering his face with war paint, he dissociates himself from any kind of individuality. The Joker, in several instances of the film, tries to make others around him believe that he does not have any ulterior motive; but he indeed has one. In his conversation with Harvey Dent, the Joker asks him “ Do I look like a guy with a plan?”. By associating himself with anarchy, we mean to say that he associates with the idea of anarchy that is professed by thinkers like Chomsky, and not the popular idea of anarchy, which refers to chaos. Anarchists, according to Chomsky, believe in highly organised society, just that there should be no presence of the state. The first scene where the Joker is shown is a bank robbery. Banks are establishments set up by the state to regulate and safeguard the wealth of the state. The film opening with the scene of a bank heist gives us a hint about the character of the Joker. At the beginning of the film, we cannot exactly understand what the goals of the Joker are but as the film progresses we understand that he does not care about the money at all. The next scene is when the gangsters are having a video conferencing with Mr. Lau through a television set. The Joker enters their conversation out of nowhere while laughing. The Joker here calls out on the changes the Batman has caused to the gangsters. The Joker addresses the fact that they are having a meeting during the day, instead of the night because they are intimated by the Batman. In this scene, The Joker proposes that he will kill Batman for a price. While he is not taken seriously for most of the scene, the tension in the scene rises when he reveals what he is carrying in within his suit, which is a bunch of explosives. When the gangsters try to go after Joker, the latter threatens to blow up the entire place, including himself. This induces fear among the gangsters and at this point, the Joker obtains the legitimacy he has been demanding from the beginning of the scene. The Joker, at the core, believes that he is smarter than the rest of the people that are surrounding them. He seems to have his own set of strong beliefs and rules in which he executes his plans.
By conducting a heist and demanding money from the gangsters for killing Batman, the Joker can be easily taken as just any other protagonist who is after money. But the Joker is truly done with the system in which he is situated in and this is clearly marked by the scene where he burns his share of the money. By burning all the money that he has obtained, he is clearly demarcating his ideals and beliefs. One of his primary ideals is that the system should be dismantled and he burning all the money he has obtained gives him credibility as someone who is against the system. The audience can doubt his intentions on re-establishing the societal order as he can be just like any other ‘anarchist’ who is focussed on upsetting the system because of their own personal losses within the system. But when the Joker burns all the money he has procured, it tells us that he actually opposes the system that he is living in, even if his situation can get gentrified. Another important aspect about him that we can understand from the act of him burning money is that he is truly above any personal ambitions or goals. The Joker, throughout the film, fights for something that is far greater than himself, which is his ideology and him burning all the money means that he considers his ideology and beliefs more than anything else. By doing this, he truly becomes a symbol, which is untainted by personal greed or ambition. The Joker sets us an example of true resolve through this act and through the entirety of the movie, only Batman is seen showing resolve which can equal or surpass the resolve portrayed by Joker by this scene. The money he procured can associate him with the mob, who are thugs within the system. By burning the money, he is placing himself out of the system as the gangsters have only tried to oppose the system, never to get out of it or destroy it. By burning the money the Joker makes his intentions clear that he never wants to be considered as part of the Mob where people are driven by greed for money. In fact, the Joker wanted no association with the mob in any way. He wanted to be recognized by Gotham and the only way to do that is by replacing the Mob and he managed to do just that. By burning all the money of the Mob, the Joker destroyed everything that they have worked for so far and thus replacing the Mob successfully.
By replacing the Mob, the Joker comes into direct conflict with the Batman as well as the government. The Mob consisted of gangsters who disobeyed the law but still respected enough to not overthrow it. They used their resources within the government to carry out their illegal practices. While Batman, and Harvey Dent the district attorney is trying to keep Gotham under control by trying to enforce law and order, the Joker directly opposes it. It can be argued that Batman and Harvey Dent are forces of the state which tries to fight the anarchy that the Joker is trying to induce. But including Batman as a guardian of the state can be a misnomer because the state did not appoint him to be the guardian. Batman is a self-appointed protector of the government while Harvey Dent acts as the actual protector of the establishment. The Joker wanted to test the ‘legitimacy’ of the state, just like any anarchist would. Joker believes that he is not crazy and claims that he is just ahead of the curve, which he truly is.