Dick Cheney interprets our time as a state of exception, which justifies any means in response to criminality.
The prison in Guantanamo Bay is the end result of the logic of exceptionality. Batman’s strategy risks leading to this conclusion.
Dent’s destruction reveals the ultimate failure of all ethical positions with a basis in scheming.
Immanuel Kant developed a moral philosophy that specifically eschewed calculation of interest. This aligns him theoretically with the Joker.
As an agent of chaos, the Joker reveals to the citizens of Gotham the futility of their calculating versions of morality.
The Joker displays indifference to money because he rejects a philosophy focused on ends. He is not looking to buy anything.
The burning money horrifies the other criminals who, unlike the Joker, have ends that they are trying to realize.
Kant defines diabolical evil as evil for its own sake, and he doesnít believe it can exist. Nolan tries to incarnate it in the figure of the Joker.
The Joker has no concern for ends. That extends even to his own death.
The film shows the ethical priority of evil in relation to good. The Joker teaches an ethical lesson to the citizens of Gotham.
The smeared make-up indicates that it doesn’t hide the Joker’s identity but rather expresses it.
The Jokerís immunity to threats derives from his lack of investment in what he might accumulate or gain.
The Joker offers his first explanation of the scars, which seems credible when we first hear it.
The second explanation of the scars reveals the falsity of the first. There is no secret that motivates the Joker.
The boat armed with explosives presents the passengers with an ethical dilemma that engages their concerns with end results.
Blowing up the boat with the criminals seems to be the proper choice from a utilitarian perspective.
The vote leads to a decision to kill. Here, Nolan makes clear the ethical failure of democracy.
The prisoner takes charge and seems ready to blow up the other boat. The guard allows him to do so out of a desire to live.
The ethical act involves refusing the choice altogether, and it is the prisoner who performs it.
The civilian volunteers to blow up the other ship and then lacks the courage to go through with it. This contrasts with the explicitly ethical decision of the criminal.
The logic of the War on Terror waged by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney derives entirely from the idea that they rule in a state of emergency where the normal rule of law will be insufficient for safeguarding the U.S. populace. One must thus carve out an exceptional position outside the law. One of the ramifications of this idea is the legitimization of torture as a normal practice during the interrogation of anyone suspected of having a link with a terrorist organization. But the other ramification touches directly on the actions of Batman in The Dark Knight. The War on Terror, as conceived by Bush and Cheney, is being fought with increased surveillance more than with additional weapons. The nature of the emergency calls for exceptional measures of surveillance, including eavesdropping on telephone calls, spying on emails, and using satellites to track movements, all without court authorization. When Batman uses the device that Fox builds for him, the film's hero elevates himself to an exception in the Bush and Cheney sense of the term. This is one of the points of resonance that led conservative writer Andrew Klavan to link Batman and Bush. But there is nonetheless a fundamental distinction between the two figures and between Batman’s relation to exceptionality and that displayed by Bush.
One might assume that the difference lies in Batman’s readiness to abandon the system of total surveillance after he catches the Joker and the emergency ends. Batman arranges for the system to self-destruct after Lucius Fox has finished using it, and as he walks away from the exploding system, Fox smiles to himself, cheered by Batman’s ethical commitment to abandoning the power Batman had amassed for himself. This image does certainly seem to contrast with the image of the system of surveillance established during the War on Terror, which increases rather than self-destructs as the September 11th attacks move further and further into history. Neither President Bush nor his successor will call an end to the War on Terror or revoke all of the aspects of the Patriot Act. But Klavan can nonetheless see a parallel between Batman’s restoration of full civil rights and Bush’s intention to do so after the emergency ends. The difference between Bush’s version of the state of exception and Batman’s — between the conservative and the leftist — does not ultimately reside in the fact that it is temporary for Batman and permanent for Bush. Both figures view it as temporary, but what separates Batman is the attitude that he takes toward this violation of the law: he accepts that his willingness to embrace this type of exceptionality constitutes him as a criminal. Because he views it as a criminal act, Batman is quick to eliminate it. But this is precisely what Bush would be loath to accept and why he views the War on Terror as a quasi-eternal struggle.
The superhero film has emerged as a popular genre when the problem of the state of exception has moved to the foreground historically. That is not to say, of course, that superhero films owe their popularity to George W. Bush, but that they attract an audience when the relationship between exceptionality and the law has increasingly come into question. As Agamben notes,
The state of exception, for Agamben, is the path by which democracy falls into fascism. The exception becomes confounded with the rule and soon takes its place. From that point forward, a total authority emerges who exercises control over the people with their own security as this authority’s justification. Because the heroic exception is written into the generic requirements, the superhero film exists within this political context.
Most superhero films simply affirm our need for the heroic exception and don’t call the status of this exception into question. This is true for John Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008), to name just two films released around the same time as The Dark Knight. As a result, even when they have some critical content about the ruling ideology — as with the (albeit limited) critique of the military-industrial complex in Iron Man — their form employing the heroic exception vitiates this content and ends up justifying the conservative direction of contemporary politics. In these films, even if the heroic exception causes certain problems, it is fundamentally necessary for the cause of justice, which would simply be overpowered without it.
The hero’s relation to heroic exceptionality forms the basis of what constitutes authentic heroism. If the hero adopts the position of exception as a difficult duty that one must perform for the sake of a greater good (the position of Iron Man, President Bush, Superman, and most exceptional heroes), then exceptionality becomes an unlimited end in itself that will never cease to be required. If, however, the hero adopts the position of exception as a criminal duty, as a necessity that removes him from the realm of heroism altogether, then exceptionality can realize itself in justice rather than in the production of an increasing amount of injustice. Nolan’s film shows us that authentic heroism necessarily appears in the form of evil.
Ethics is a joke
Justice requires an exception because our adherence to the law is always compromised from the outset. Many theorists who have tackled the question of the subject’s relation to the law have run up against the same problem. The inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, for one, contends that the basis of our acquiescence to the law lies in envy, envy of others’ satisfaction, and that this inevitably distorts all social arrangements. Similarly, German philosopher Immanuel Kant posits that our devotion to the law is never devotion to the law for its sake but for some attendant pathological motivation. This becomes the central moral problem that Kant tries to work out in his 1788 Critique of Practical Reason. Kant sees that even if we initially and instinctively obey the law, we do not do so for the right reasons.
According to Kant, when we emerge as subjects, we do so as beings of radical evil, that is, beings who do good for evil reasons. We help our neighbor for the recognition we gain; we volunteer to help with the school dance in order to spend time with a potential romantic interest; we give money for disaster relief in order to feel comfortable about our level of material comfort; and so on. For Kant, this is the fundamental problem that morality confronts and the most difficult type of evil to extirpate. He explains,
Though Kant believes that we have the capacity to turn from beings of radical evil to moral beings, we cannot escape a certain originary radical evil that leads us to place our incentives of self-love above the law and that prevents us from adhering to the law for its own sake.
Our first inclination always involves the thought of what we will gain from not lying rather than the importance of telling the truth. Even when we do tell the truth, we do so out of prudence or convenience rather than out of duty. This is why Kant contends that most obedience to the moral law is in fact radical evil — obedience for the wrong reasons. The presence of radical evil at the heart of obedience to the law taints this obedience and gives criminality the upper hand over the law.
There is always a fundamental imbalance between law and criminality. Criminality is inscribed into the law itself in the form of misdirected obedience, and no law can free itself from its reliance on the evil of such obedience. A consequentialist ethics develops as a compromise with this radical evil at the heart of the law. Consequentialism is an ethics that sees value only in the end — obedience — and it disregards whatever evil means that the subject uses to arrive at that obedience. If people obey the law, the consequentialist thinks, it doesn’t matter why they do so. Those who take up this or some other compromise with radical evil predominate within society, and they constitute the behavioral norm. They obey the law when necessary, but they do so in order to satisfy some incentive of self-love. Theirs is a morality of calculation in which acts have value in terms of the ultimate good that they produce or the interest that they serve. Anyone who obeys the law for its own sake becomes exceptional.
Both Batman and the Joker exist outside the calculating morality that predominates among the police, the law-abiding citizens, and the criminal underworld in Gotham. Both have the status of an exception because they adhere to a code that cuts against their incentives for self-love and violates any consequentialist morality or morality concerned solely with results. Though Batman tries to save Gotham and the Joker tries to destroy it, though Batman commits himself to justice and the Joker commits himself to injustice, they share a position that transcends the inadequate and calculated ethics authorized by the law itself. Their differences mask a similar relationship to Kantian morality. Through the parallel between them, Christopher Nolan makes clear the role that evil must play in authentic heroism.
It is the Joker, not Batman, who gives the most eloquent account of the ethical position that they occupy together. He sets himself up against the consequentialist and utilitarian ethic that rules Gotham, and he tries to analyze this ethic in order to understand what motivates it. As the Joker sees it, despite their apparent differences, all of the different groups in Gotham indulge in an ethics of what he calls scheming. That is to say, they act not on the basis of the rightness or wrongness of the act itself but in order to achieve some ultimate object. In doing so, they inherently degrade their acts and deprive them of their basis in freedom. Scheming enslaves one to the object of one’s scheme.
For the Joker, the problem with scheming is not so much moral as it is aesthetic. When one thinks of an action in terms of the end it will produce, one robs the action of its independence. When he talks to Dent after the latter’s disfigurement, he explains,
The Joker explicitly denies seeking any object in his criminal activity, which separates him decisively from the other criminals in the film. This provides him a freedom that no one else, save Batman, can enjoy. He can burn piles of money or put his life at risk because he doesn’t think of his acts in terms of the ends that they will accomplish for him. He breaks out of what Kant calls heteronomy in order to achieve autonomy.
For Kant, adherence to the law designed to procure some object or some ultimate good leaves one inevitably bereft of freedom. As he points out in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,
Though Kant would not hold up the Joker as an exemplar of his morality, the latter does avoid, unlike the law-abiding citizens in the film, elevating an object above the law. The Joker’s law, however, is one that Kant would not recognize. He values doing evil for its own sake, being “a wrench in the gears,” which marks out an ethical position that Kant believes cannot exist, that of the diabolically evil subject.
The Joker and Batman have an exceptional status in the film because they refuse the heteronomy that results from acting according to a calculus of ends. Both are figures who devote themselves to an ethical principle and follow it to its endpoint. For Batman, this is fighting injustice, and for the Joker, it is creating chaos. Even when this principle causes them harm or threatens their happiness, they nonetheless adhere to it. On several occasions in the film, the Joker welcomes his own death as part of his effort to unleash chaos, and Batman endures not only the physical pain that stems from his fight against injustice but also the absence of any recognition for what he does. Not only must he avoid revealing that Batman is really Bruce Wayne, but at the end of the film, he must also accept being an outcast and criminal figure as Batman himself. Even the one outsider who knows his true identity, Rachel, cannot properly love him because the singularity of his devotion to fighting injustice renders him incapable of existing in a love relationship. Both Batman and the Joker are completely isolated because they exist on a different ethical plane.
Though the Joker and Batman occupy the same terrain of the exception, Nolan shows the ethical priority of the figure of evil. The Joker goes further than Batman in his pursuit of an ethical position that privileges the act over its consequences. Unlike Batman, the Joker does not hold onto a symbolic identity that he hides beneath his make-up. In this sense, the film creates a clear contrast between make-up and a mask. If one removed Batman’s mask, one would discover his true identity. The Joker’s make-up does not hide his true identity, but instead it attests to the absence of one. All he is is located in his appearance. This is why he never seems to worry about his make-up when it starts to come off.
The status of the Joker’s make-up throughout the film reveals that its function is not one of hiding a true identity. Even when we first see him in the midst of robbing a bank, the white make-up that covers his face is not complete. The wrinkles on his forehead mark gaps through which his bare skin becomes visible. Later, during his interrogation at the police station, more gaps appear in the white make-up, and the black color around his eyes is smeared over his forehead. Though it distorts his appearance, the gradual disintegration of the Joker’s make-up never bothers him nor threatens to reveal his identity.
The Joker’s lack of attention to his make-up raises the question of why he puts it on in the first place. He does not attempt to deceive in the traditional way, but instead his make-up hides the fact that he has nothing to hide. He deceives characters in the film because they attribute motives behind his actions while these actions actually serve as their own motivation. That is, the Joker acts for the sake of acting, not in response to some grievance or in order to gain some object. This complete investment in the act itself creates a freedom for him that no other characters in the film — not even Batman — are able to share in. As Batman interrogates him, he can say with complete believability, “You have nothing to threaten me with.” The Joker acts without concern for his object and without a basis in an identity that someone might exploit.
The identity (or lack of identity) of the Joker bespeaks his commitment to the act itself. Unlike the other characters in the film (including Batman), he has no identity that the film reveals. Nolan leaves the character of the Joker — his origins, his motivations, his real name — a complete mystery for the spectator, but it is not a mystery that one might figure out. The mystery is its own solution. Even after the police take him into custody, they can discover no information about him. Responding to the mayor’s question concerning what they know about the Joker, Gordon says,
This complete absence of identifying information is not an indication that the Joker has successfully hidden who he really is but that he has no identity to hide.
The film further shows that even biographical information about the Joker has the status of pure appearance. On two occasions, he provides an account of how his face became disfigured. When we hear the first account, it appears to be a plausible description of a childhood trauma. As he prepares to kill the gangster Gambol (Michael Jai White), he explains,
Nolan films this explanation in a series of close-ups alternating between the Joker and Gambol, and the intensity visible on the Joker’s face gives a sense of authenticity to this story. When he kills Gambol immediately afterward by slicing his face, the act appears to have its ultimate motivation in the violence done to the Joker when he was a child.
But later, the Joker provides a conflicting account, and this second version reveals to the film’s spectators that they know nothing about the Joker’s past or about the trauma that disfigured his face. When he invades the fundraiser for Dent, he seizes Rachel and tells her,
In contrast to the first scene where the Joker relates the origins of scars in a series of close-ups, in this one the explanation occurs while a 360 degree tracking shot circles the Joker and Rachel. The formal shift in the depiction of the Joker’s explanation helps to transform the spectator’s response to the Joker.
The Joker’s first account of extreme child abuse at the hands of his father plays into contemporary explanations for violent criminality and thus provides a plausible, if not entirely justifying, reason for the Joker’s activity. The form of the film during this first account further authenticates it. The close-ups of the Joker and his victim Gambol register the seriousness of what he says. But when he repeats the history of his scars with new content, the lack of seriousness of the history becomes apparent. The 360 degree tracking shot creates disequilibrium in the spectator appropriate to the revelation that the Joker is not really telling the history of his scars. We move from the close-ups, which provide a direct and seemingly veridical account of his history, to the 360 degree tracking shot, which enacts the circumlocution evident as we hear the story a second time with its content changed. The film offers us no way of adjudicating between the conflicting accounts (or discerning another) but instead suggests that the truth of the origin of the scars is unimportant. The Joker uses the story of their origin to shock and to create terror rather than to offer an explanation for his criminal acts. His acts cannot be reduced to what motivates them, and he attempts to promulgate the proper respect for the act throughout the film.
Because the Joker detests and wants to destroy the morality of scheming or consequentialism, he sets up a series of tests that challenge the capacity of this morality. He forces Batman to choose between saving Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes. He threatens to blow up a hospital if no one murders within an hour the man who threatens to reveal Batman’s identity. And he gives two boats fleeing Gotham Island a detonator for explosives on the other boat, promising to blow up both boats unless one blows up the other before midnight. This last test actually paves the way for citizens of Gotham to transcend the morality of calculation in the way that the Joker himself does. The problem of the two boats seems to provide a simple moral dilemma. If one thinks in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number — if one adopts the position of the schemer — it is clear that one boat must blow up the other in order that the people on both boats don’t perish. And since one boat is filled with criminals being transferred and the other is filled with ordinary citizens, the ethical dilemma that the Joker offers seems easy to solve. But Nolan depicts an abandonment of the morality of the schemer that at first appears to represent the typical kind of narrative cheating that one finds in the typical Hollywood film.