copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

The exceptional darkness of
The Dark Knight

by Todd McGowan

The exceptional superhero

The superhero film and its comic book source contend that the law alone is not a sufficient condition for justice. From the time of Superman’s emergence in the first superhero comic book in 1938, the law's inadequacy has been the genre’s central concern, and this theme has remained constant through the proliferation of superhero films in the 1990s and 2000s. Under even the most benign historical circumstances, injustice is more powerful than justice, and as a result, justice requires an exceptional figure who operates outside or on the periphery of the law. This figure, the superhero, goes where the law can’t go and accomplishes what it can’t accomplish. According to the scripts' logic, superheroes earn their exceptional status by dint of some extra-human ability or some special skill that others lack. Endowed with this ability or skill, the superhero acquires an exceptional relation to the law. By skirting or even violating particular laws in order to sustain the order of law, the superhero provides the extra-legal supplement that the law requires in order to deliver justice.

The mask that superheroes wear indicates their complex relation to the law. Ordinary police officers can avow their identity publicly, and this is what separates them from criminals, who would be in jail if they publicly avowed their criminality. Even undercover police officers cease hiding their identity after each assignment, and those who can’t effectively become criminals. Being a figure of the law includes implicitly the public avowal of one’s status.[1][open endnotes in new window] Superheroes, however, are a different type of figure. While they struggle against criminals who break the law, superheroes cannot openly identify themselves with law's public nature. They represent instead the underside of public law, the dimension of private support that it requires in order to function effectively as a public institution.[2]

Even the most ethical superheroes occupy a position outside of the order of law simply by virtue of their heightened powers. Critics usually see Superman as one of the least engaging superheroes precisely because of his probity and absence of any dark side to his character.[3] Unlike other superheroes, Superman almost never violates the law — except perhaps with indecent exposure in phone booths — in order to uphold the legal order. But he does, as in Richard Donner’s original Superman: The Movie (1978), violate the laws of the universe, causing the earth to spin backwards and time to reverse itself in order to save Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Donner's film presents this act as a moment of ethical crisis because it reveals Superman’s exceptional relation to law and the way that his superpowers placs him at odds with the law's limited and limiting nature. The uneasiness of the superhero’s — and, in fact, that of the hero as such — coexistence with the law prompts German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel to see them as antithetical.

Hegel lived through the French Revolution and his thought was shaped by it. Through the experience of revolution, he saw that modernity possessed the capacity for radical change but lacked the philosophical space for thinking of a hero as the agent of that change. As a result, though the philosopher was unacquainted with Superman, Hegel thought a great deal about the phenomenon that Superman represents. In Hegel's aesthetic philosophy, he distinguishes between a heroic age and the era of legal order. In the latter era of legal order, ethical activity is realized through the laws of the state rather than through individual action. Though laws can be unjust and we may have to change them, our ethical activity occurs within the law rather than outside it once a legal order has been established. The legal order thus leaves no room for the hero, the figure who acts outside of the law’s constraint. Heroism is antithetical to law because it always serves to constitute its own law even if it doesn’t mean to do so. For the hero, as Hegel puts it,

“Individuality is a law unto itself, without being subjected to an independently subsisting law, judgement, and tribunal.”[4]

In the context of legal order, the hero’s activity would become criminality, and there would be no way to differentiate it from evil. This is why Hegel rejects the idea of a modern hero. Such a figure fails to see how the private morality that it proffers as an alternative or as a supplement to the legal order is already included within that order. As a result of its structural incompatibility, the hero’s activity will have the effect of undermining the law even if it is done to supplement the law. But a problem remains: Left to itself the law cannot arrive at justice, and the persistence of injustice within the legal order leads to a demand for the hero and for an heroic exception to the law.[5]

Using Batman, not Superman, as the protagonist, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) takes this problem posed by the hero and the hero’s exceptional status in relation to the law as its overriding concern. The title for the film (though not the plot) derives from Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and it provides a less idealizing portrait of Batman than those developed previously. The film is not simply, however, a critique of heroic exceptionality. The film's universe makes clear the need for an exception to the law. Without Batman (Christian Bale) providing extra-legal assistance to Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the crime lords that menace Gotham would render the city uninhabitable. Even with Batman’s help, the film’s ominous and brooding mise-en-scène reveals the extent to which criminality sets the tone for life there. Unlike Nolan’s earlier film Batman Begins (2005), in which Gotham appears as a futuristic city despite its crime problem, here crime shapes the look and feel of the city as grim. Buildings stand in disrepair; people’s dress is generally disheveled; and even daytime scenes occur under dark skies.

Given the film’s appreciation of the need for heroic exception to the legal order, it is easy to understand why a right-wing political commentator, after viewing the film, might regard it as a tribute to George W. Bush and his prosecution of the Iraq War. In his Wall Street Journal article, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,” Andrew Klavan contends in this vein,

“There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.”[6]

The similarity between Bush and Batman consists in their joint recognition that an exceptional threat to the legal order requires an extra-legal exception in order to quell the threat. Though Klavan has to read the film creatively in order to arrive at the thesis that it constitutes “a conservative movie about the war on terror,” he does rightly grasp the film’s fundamental contention that we need a figure of exception.[7]

The problem with accepting and celebrating the hero’s exceptionality is not simply that such acceptance produces conservative misreadings but that this exceptionality has an inherent tendency to multiply itself exponentially. In Dark Knight, this kind of proliferation occurs early in the film when copycat vigilantes place both themselves and others at risk. In the United States during the War on Terror, exceptionality takes the form of an ever-increasing extension of surveillance and security. Once we grant the necessity of the position of the exception, the law can no longer define those who will occupy this position nor restrain their activity. Once we violate rights of non-citizens, we will soon be violating the rights of citizens as well, and finally we will end up with a society in which rights as such cease to exist. The exception necessarily exists beyond the limits of the law, and if the law could contain its magnitude, it would cease to be exceptional. This is the dilemma that shapes The Dark Knight. The film’s incredible popularity attests not simply to Nolan’s skill as a filmmaker or to a successful marketing campaign by Warner Brothers but also to the contemporary urgency of the question it addresses.

The film begins with Batman’s grasp of the problem, as it depicts his attempt to relinquish his exceptional status and to allow the legal order to operate on its own. In order to do this, a different form of heroism is required, and the quest that constitutes The Dark Knight is Batman’s attempt to find the proper public face for heroism. He is drawn to Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) because Dent seems to embody the possibility of a heroism that would be consistent with public law and that could consequently function without the need for disguise. After the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Dent’s own serious facial burn transforms him from a defender of the law into the criminal figure Two-Face, Batman sees the impossibility of doing away with the hero’s mask. Dent, the would-be hero without a mask, quickly becomes a criminal himself when he experiences traumatic loss. This turn of events reveals that the hero must remain an exception, but it also shows that the heroism of the hero must pass itself off as its opposite.

Just as the truth that Leonard (Guy Pearce) discovers at the end of Nolan’s Memento (2000) is a constitutive lie, the conclusion of The Dark Knight illustrates that the true form of appearance of heroism is evil. The film concludes with Batman voluntarily taking responsibility for the murders that Dent/Two-Face committed. By doing so, Batman allows Dent to die as a hero in the public mind, but he also — and more importantly — changes the public perception of his own exceptional status. When he agrees to appear as a criminal at the end of the film, Batman avows simultaneously the need for the heroic exception and the need for this exception to appear as criminality. If the heroic exception is not to multiply itself in a way that threatens any possibility for justice, then its appearance must become indistinguishable from criminality.

The heroic gesture, as The Dark Knight conceives it, does not consist in any of the particular crime-fighting or life-saving activities that Batman performs throughout the film. It lies rather in his embrace of the appearance of criminality that concludes the film. Gordon’s voiceover panegyric to Batman that punctuates the film affirms that this is the truly heroic act. This act privileges and necessitates its own misrecognition: it is only through misrecognition that one sees it correctly. If the people of Gotham were to see through Batman’s form of appearance and recognition his real heroism, the heroism would be instantly lost. As the film portrays it, the form of appearance of authentic heroism must be that of evil. Only in this way does the heroic exceptionality that the superhero embodies avoid placing us on the road to fascist rule.

From Batman to Guantanamo

The nearest cousin to the superhero film is the western. Both genres address the problem of exceptional violence that resides outside the legal order and yet is necessary for the existence of that order. However, the western concerns the initial violence that founds the law, what Walter Benjamin labels “lawmaking violence.”[8] In George Stevens’ Shane (1953), for instance, the violence of Shane (Alan Ladd) helps to establish a democratic and agrarian society that will replace the ranchers' lawless reigne. Shane acts violently in defense of the Starrett family and their farm, but his violence has no legal authorization because it occurs before the law has been firmly constituted. In order for the social order that his violence founds to function as a legal entity, Shane must leave at the end of the film. His violence has a purely exceptional status, and his departure confirms that the exception can disappear after the new social order comes into existence.

There is no such recourse for exceptionality in the superhero film. This type of film confronts not the necessity of lawmaking violence but that of a certain necessary violence that exists outside the law.[9] The law evokes this violence in extreme situations that merely legal violence cannot properly address. In The Dark Knight, the extreme situation is the rampant criminality of the various gangs that control Gotham. Responding to each outburst of excessive criminal activity that the police themselves cannot handle, Lieutenant Gordon shines the Bat Signal in the night sky and thus announces the decree of a temporary state of exception in which Batman will employ violence to supplement the police.

Unlike Shane, Batman does not ultimately leave the society that he sustains with his violence. Once the western hero violently carves out the place for a modern society, he must abandon that society in order to avoid contaminating it with his violence. But Batman remains as a persistent exception that the law cannot do without, and as a result, the superhero film confronts a more imposing dilemma than the western does. A western can simply end with the departure of the hero (or his domesticization, as in the conclusion of Howard Hawks’ Red River, 1948), but the superhero film has no such recourse. For the sake of the possibility of justice, the superhero must remain. But his presence as an exception is problematic, calling into question the legality of the law. By their very presence, superheroes expose the law’s inherent insufficiency and inspire everyone to doubt its efficacy. The heroic exception constantly works to undermine the law that it supplements.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the great danger inherent in the exception. It leads not just to abuses of civil rights but to large-scale horrors like the Holocaust, which functions as a major point of reference for Agamben’s thought. Exceptionality, for Agamben, launches a legal civil war and thereby plays the key role in the transition from democracy to fascist authoritarianism. The declaration of the state of exception attempts

“to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.”[10]

The problem is that the exceptional time never comes to an end, and the disappearance of the distinction between an emergency and everyday life pushes the society toward a state of civil war that the very exception itself was supposed to quell. Rather than acting as a temporary stopgap for a society on the brink of self-annihilation, the state of exception actually pushes the society further down the path to this annihilation by undermining the distinction between law and criminality and thereby helping to foster a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which every act of sovereign power becomes justified in the name of order.

The Dark Knight begins with a focus on the problem engendered by the state of exception embodied by Batman. He is a figure outside the law on whom the law relies to respond to the most recalcitrant criminal elements in Gotham. But Batman’s very success at fighting crime outside the law has, when the film opens, spawned numerous imitators — vigilantes who dress like Batman and spend their nights fighting crime. The result is an increased degree of lawlessness and insecurity in the city. Through these copycat vigilantes, the film begins by making clear the danger of the sanctioned exception that exists outside the law. Once one embraces the exception, the need for exceptionality will constantly expand insofar as the exception augments the very problem that it is created to fight against.

The fake Batmen question Batman directly on the monopoly he attempts to hold on exceptionality. After Batman rescues them from their botched effort to interrupt a drug deal, he warns them against this type of activity:

One says, “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”
Batman responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”

While amusing, this quip is actually wholly inadequate as an argument. Batman has no inherent right to guard exceptionality for himself, and as long as he occupies this position, others will be drawn to it. And a self-multiplying exceptionality portends the destruction of the social order.

The state of exception justifies any type of action — any encroachment on civil liberties — in order to realize the justice that ordinary law is incapable of realizing. The Dark Knight explicitly links the heroic exception embodied by Batman with the violation of civil liberties associated with the official declaration of a state of emergency (in the current War on Terror, for instance). Batman acts exceptionally not just by wearing a mask and breaking a few traffic laws but by creating a system of surveillance that completely erases the idea of private space within Gotham. When Batman commissions his technical designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to create a device that will allow him to map the location of everyone within the entire city of Gotham, Fox balks at the violation of civil liberties that this entails. He agrees to help to catch the Joker (Heath Ledger) but promises to resign immediately afterward. As Fox changes from fully supporting Batman and his exceptionality, his outrage signifies that Batman has crossed a line beyond heroic exceptionality where one can no longer differentiate the heroic masked man from the criminals that he pursues. But in order to apprehend the Joker and disrupt his criminal plans, the film makes clear that Batman must cross this line. It places him fully on the terrain of contemporary politics and in the company of conservative political figures.

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 tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics. This transformation of a provisional and exceptional measure into a technique of government threatens radically to alter — in fact, has already palpably altered — the structure and meaning of the traditional distinction between constitutional forms.”[11]

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,

“The human being (even the best) is evil only because he reverses the moral order of his incentives in incorporating them into his maxims. He indeed incorporates the moral law into those maxims, together with the law of self-love; since, however, he realizes that the two cannot stand on an equal footing, but one must be subordinated to the other as its supreme condition, he makes the incentives of self-love and their inclinations the condition of compliance with the moral law — whereas it is this latter that, as the supreme condition of the satisfaction of the former, should have been incorporated into the universal maxim of the power of choice as the sole incentive.”[12]

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.[13]

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.[14] 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,

“I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So when I say that what happened to you and your girlfriend wasn’t personal, you know I’m telling the truth.”

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.[15]

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,

“If the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness of its maxims for its own giving of universal law — consequently if, in going beyond itself, it seeks this law in a property of any of its objects — heteronomy always results. The will in that case does not give itself the law; instead the object, by means of its relation to the will, gives the law to it.”[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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,

“Nothing. No DNA, no fingerprints. Clothing is custom, no tags or brand labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.”

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,

“Want to know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not — one — bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it, turns to me, and he says, ‘Why so serious?’ Comes at me with the knife. ‘Why so serious?’ He sticks the blade in my mouth. ‘Let’s put a smile on that face.’”

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,

“So I had a wife, beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. Look at me! One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So I stick a razor in my mouth and do this to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me. She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling.”

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.[19] 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.

The two ethical acts that culminate the film seem to mark a turn away from the critical edge that the film displays earlier and a capitulation to sentimental morality that sees the underlying goodness of humanity. One could view the end of The Dark Knight as a new version of the conclusion of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where a mass eruption of compassion comes to rescue George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from financial ruin. In The Dark Knight, the people on both boats decide to accept their own deaths rather than take responsibility for killing the people on the other boat. But in contrast to Capra, Nolan complicates the ethical dimension of the acts. He begins by showing the utter immorality of traditional consequentialist or utilitarian moral claims. The civilians on the first boat begin by insisting on their moral right to destroy the group of criminals on the second boat. One argues for blowing up the other boat by claiming, “They had their chance.” If one group must die in order to save the other — this is the ground rule that the Joker establishes — then it is clear which group should live and which should perish. No one on the civilian boat argues for not blowing up the other boat, and it is clear that their arguments have nothing to do with morality and everything to do with their own survival.

What’s more, the film reveals the completely antithetical relation between the institutions of democracy and ethical action. The authorities on the civilian boat decide — prompted by an outspoken passenger and due presumably to their devotion to the ideology of democracy — to vote on whether or not to destroy the other boat. As the film shows it, the simple act of voting on a question such as this underscores its inappropriateness. But when the authorities count the votes and a large majority (396-140) votes to blow up the criminal boat, we see baldly that democratic procedures (such as the popular vote) have no ethical status at all. In fact, the secret ballot allows each subject to retreat from the trauma of the ethical decision rather than confronting it directly. The film shows one passenger writing out his vote and handing it in with great determination, while a shot of another reveals his emotional struggle with the difficulties of the moral issue. But the way that Nolan films these two passengers — and his entire treatment of the vote — is replete with irony. Both of these attitudes toward the vote serve only to illustrate the absurdity of voting on the decision to blow up a boatful of other people. The vote is an inadequate mechanism for approaching a decision of this magnitude.

The ethical act occurs not through the hastily put together franchise on the civilian boat but through the revolutionary seizure of power on the prisoners’ boat. During the crisis, Nolan focuses several shots on a group of large prisoners huddled together, appearing to conspire to take the detonator from the authorities on the boat who have it. The way that the prisoners are depicted accentuates their menace: they stare ominously at the authorities; they whisper to each other while staring; they maintain a determined grimacing expression. These visual clues, added to the fact that the film establishes them as dangerous criminals, suggest that they are planning to seize the detonator and blow up the civilian ship in order to save their own lives. But the film turns the tables on the spectator’s expectation.

The leader of this group of prisoners approaches the authority holding the detonator and confronts him. A shot of the frightened look on the guard’s face shows how the prisoner intimidates him, not because the guard fears being overpowered but because he believes that the prisoner will force him to do what he wants to do anyway — that is, blow up the other boat. The prisoner upbraids the guard, “You don’t want to die, but you don’t know how to take a life.” After the prisoner says this, Nolan cuts back to the other boat, where a civilian proclaims, “Those men on that boat. They made their choices.” This crosscutting sequence appears to establish a kind of moral equivalency: though the prisoner is more straightforward about his willingness to kill in order to survive, the civilian partakes in exactly the same attitude. When the film cuts back to the prisoner’s boat, the prisoner makes his final argument before taking the detonator. He says,

“Give it to me. You can tell them I took it by force. Give it to me, and I’ll do what you should have done 10 minutes ago.”

These words put the final touch on the conviction that the prisoner plans to blow up the other boat, but instead we see him take the detonator and throw it out the window into the water, apparently destroying his own chance at survival. In a subsequent close-up, the civilian who had volunteered to press the detonator softly lays it back in its box.

Both the prisoners and the civilians act in a way that violates not only their self-interest (risking death by refusing to kill someone else) but in a way that defies all rational calculation. According to the rules of the game that the Joker established, if neither boat uses the detonator, both boats will be destroyed. Rejecting this wager requires rejecting the morality of calculation because according to any calculation of good ends, it will be preferable that one boat survives rather than both being destroyed. Here, Nolan reveals that a group of anonymous people are capable of a great ethical act, but what saves this depiction from becoming Capraesque — and thus perpetuating an ideological fantasy allowing the spectator to leave the film assured of intrinsic human goodness — is where he locates the source of the ethical act and what factors militate against it.

The source of the ethical act is not the popular vote (which goes 396-140 against acting ethically), nor is it the good mother trying to protect her child (who argues for blowing up the prisoners), nor is it the figures of authority (who come across as feckless, unable to decide one way or the other). Instead, it is the prisoner, the figure of criminality, who is able to make the ethical gesture. And ultimately the Joker himself acts as the source for the display of ethics that we see at the end of the film. By setting up an abhorrent ethical situation where he expects people to act in a calculating fashion, the Joker provides an opportunity for them to break out of calculation. He confronts them with the logic of their scheming taken to its endpoint, and this creates the possibility for a recoil from scheming, which is what occurs.

The Joker is the ethical center of The Dark Knight because he manages to challenge the hegemony of calculation that controls Gotham and to show that another world, a world where ethical acts are not part of a scheming calculation, is possible. Of course, the Joker does horrible things: he stabs a pencil through a man’s eye; he blows up a hospital; he kills countless people; and so on. By placing the Joker at the ethical center of the film, Nolan does not exculpate him for these deeds nor celebrate them. He shows rather that there is a certain necessary violence behind all ethical acts. They must violently wipe away the predominating world of calculation that underlies and pathologizes all obedience to the law. Though he is himself a figure of evil in the film, the violence of the Joker takes aim at the radical evil present in typical obedience to the law — the fact that we obey the law, as Kant notes, for reasons other than the law itself. The Joker’s evil provides the basis for any ethical heroism because it highlights and strives to eliminate the evil of calculation that defines the subject’s original relation to the law. He thereby constitutes the ground on which the ethical act can emerge.

The hero's public face

Just as The Dark Knight illustrates the inextricable relation between heroism and evil, it also undermines the idea of the hero who can appear as heroic. From early in the film, Batman proclaims his desire to step aside in order to cede his position to someone who can be heroic without wearing a mask. He sees this possibility in the figure of Harvey Dent. But the film shows that there is no hero without a mask — and, more specifically, without a mask of evil. As Slavoj Žižek puts it,

“The properly human good, the good elevated above the natural good, the infinite spiritual good, is ultimately the mask of evil.”[20]

Without the mask of evil, good cannot emerge and remains stuck the calculation of interest; without the mask of evil, good remains scheming. This is precisely what Harvey Dent evinces, despite the promise that Batman sees in him for the perfect form of heroism.

Throughout the beginning part of the film, Harvey Dent seems like a figure of pure good. The purity of his goodness allows him to never be nonplused. Even when a mobster tries to shoot him in open court, he calmly grabs the gun from the mobster’s hand and punches the mobster in the face. After the punch, we see Dent’s expression of total equanimity, even in the midst of an attempted assassination. This coolness stems from his absolute certainty that events will ultimately follow according to his plans. The rapidity with which Nolan edits together the threat from the mobster and Dent’s response minimizes the spectator’s sense of danger. The threat against Dent’s life disappears almost before we can experience it as such, which suggests that it lacks a quality of realness, both for Dent and for the spectator. The court scene establishes him as a hero whom one cannot harm. Ironically, the superhero in the film, Batman, shows himself to be vulnerable when he first appears in the film, as dogs bite him through his protective armor. This distinction between Dent and Batman’s vulnerability explains why the former cannot be an authentic hero.

In contrast to Batman, Dent’s heroism does not involve the experience of loss and is based on a repudiation of the very possibility of losing. Bruce Wayne adopted the identity of Batman after the trauma of being dropped in a cave full of bats and the loss of his parents, but no such traumatic loss animates the heroism of Dent. He is heroic through an immediate identification with the good, which enables him to have a purity that Batman doesn’t have. No rupture and subsequent return animates his commitment to justice. He can publicly avow his heroic actions because he performs them in a pure way, without resorting to the guise of evil. But the falsity of this immediate identification with the good becomes apparent in Dent’s disavowal of loss, which Nolan locates in the tic that marks Dent’s character — his proclivity for flipping a coin to resolve dilemmas.

On several occasions, he flips the coin that his father had given him in order to introduce the possibility of loss into his activities. By flipping a coin, one admits that events might not go according to plan, that the other might win, and that loss is an ever-present possibility. Though the coin flip represents an attempt to master loss by rendering it random rather than necessary or constitutive, it nonetheless ipso facto accedes to the fact that one might lose. Dent first flips the coin when he is late to examine a key witness in court, and the coin flip will determine whether he or his assistant Rachel will do the questioning. When Rachel wonders how he could leave something so important to chance, Dent replies, “I make my own luck.” It is just after this that the mobster tries and fails to shoot Dent, further suggesting his invulnerability.

Dent wins this and subsequent coin flips in the first part of the film because he uses a loaded coin, a coin with two heads. When it comes to the coin flip, Dent does make his own luck by eliminating the element of chance. The coin that he uses ensures that he will avoid the possibility of losing. The coin with two heads is certainly a clever device, but it also stands as the objective correlative for Dent’s lack of authentic heroism. The immediacy of his heroism cannot survive any mediation. Once loss is introduced into Dent’s world, his heroism disappears, and he becomes a figure of criminality.

The transformation of Harvey Dent after his disfigurement is so precipitous that it strains credulity. One day he is the pure defender of absolute justice, and the next he is on a homicidal warpath willing to shoot innocent children. One could chalk up this rapid change to sloppy filmmaking on Christopher Nolan’s part, to an eagerness to move too quickly to the film’s concluding moments of tension. But the rapidity of the transformation signifies all the more because it seems so forced and jarring. It allows us to retroactively examine Harvey Dent’s relationship to the law earlier in the film.

Dent becomes Two-Face after his injury, but in doing so he merely takes up the identity that police department had adopted for him when he was working for the Internal Affairs division. As an investigator of other officers, Dent earned this nickname by insisting on absolute purity and by targeting any sign of police corruption. Even Gordon, an officer who is not corrupt, complains to Dent of the paralyzing effects on the department of these tactics. On the one hand, an insistence on purity seems to be a consistently noncalculating ethical position. One can imagine this insistence obstructing the longterm goal of better law enforcement (which is why Gordon objects to it). On the other hand, however, the demand for purity always anticipates its own failure. The pure hero quickly becomes the criminal when an experience of loss disrupts this purity.

This first occurs when Gordon is apparently killed at the police commissioner’s funeral. In response to this blatant display of public criminality, Dent abuses a suspect from the shooting and even threatens to kill him, using his trick coin as a device for mental torture. Even though Dent has no intention of actually shooting the suspect, Batman nonetheless scolds Dent for his methods when he interrupts the private interrogation. This scene offers the first insight into what Dent will become later in the film, but it also shows the implications of his form of heroism. Dent resorts to torture because his form of heroism has no ontological space for loss. When it occurs, his heroism becomes completely derailed.

Rachel's death and his own disfigurement introduce traumatic loss into Dent’s existence. Nolan shows the ramifications of this change through the transformation that his coin undergoes during the explosion that kills Rachel. The explosion chars one side of Dent’s two-headed coin (which he had earlier flipped to Rachel as he was taken away to jail), so that it becomes, through being submitted to a traumatic force, a coin with two different sides. The film indicates here how trauma introduces loss into the world and how this introduction of loss removes all subjective certainty.

When Dent as Two-Face flips the newly marked coin, the act takes on an entirely new significance. Unlike earlier, he is no longer certain about the result of the flip. He flips to decide whether he will kill the Joker in the hospital room, whether he will kill Detective Wuertz (Ron Dean) in a bar, or whether he will kill Detective Ramirez (Monique Curnen) in an alley. Of the three, only Wuertz ends up dead, but Dent also kills another officer and the criminal boss Maroni, along with some of his men. This rampage ends with Dent holding Gordon’s family hostage and threatening to kill the one whom Gordon holds most dear. Dent becomes a killer in order to inflict his own experience of loss on others: he tells Gordon that he wants to kill what is most precious to him so that Gordon will feel what he felt. Dent can so quickly take up this attitude because his heroism has no place for loss. When it occurs, the heroism becomes completely undone.

After Dent’s death, the film ends with Batman accepting responsibility for the killings performed by Dent in order to salvage Dent’s public reputation and thereby sustain the image of the public hero. Gordon and Batman believe that this gesture is necessary for saving the city and keeping its hope for justice alive. When Gordon says, “Gotham needs its true hero,” we see a shot of him turning Dent’s face over, obscuring the burned side and exposing the human side. In death, Dent will begin to wear the mask that he would never wear in life. A mask of heroism will cover his criminality. As the film conceives it, this lie — that purity is possible — represents the sine qua non of social being. Without it, without the idea that one can sustain an ethical position, calculation of interest would have nothing to offset it, and the city would become identified with criminality.

But the real interest of the film’s conclusion lies with Batman and the form of appearance that his heroism takes. It is as if Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s act not to save Dent’s face but to stain his own image irrevocably with evil. He remains the heroic exception, but his status changes radically. In order to guarantee that Dent dies as a hero, Batman must take responsibility for the murders that Dent committed. With this gesture, he truly adopts the mask of evil. In the closing montage sequence, we see the police hunting him down, Gordon smashing the Bat Signal, and finally Batman driving away into the night on his motorcycle. As this sequence concludes, we hear Gordon’s voiceover say,

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector ... a dark knight.”

As Gordon pronounces the final word, the film cuts to black from the image of Batman on his motorcycle. The melodrama of this voiceover elevates Batman's heroism, but it does so precisely because he agrees to appear as evil. This gesture, even more than any of his physical acts of courage, is the gesture of the true hero because it leaves him without any recognition for his heroism. For the hero who appears in the form of evil, heroic exceptionality must be an end in itself without any hope for a greater reward. When the exception takes this form, it loses the danger that adheres to the typical hero. The mask of evil allows the exception to persist without multiplying itself. By adopting this position at the end of the film, Batman reveals that he has taken up the lesson of the Joker and grasped the importance of the break from calculation. Dent, the hero who wants to appear heroic, descends into murderous evil. But Batman, the hero who accepts evil as his form of appearance, sustains the only possible path for heroic exceptionality.

In an epoch when the law's inadequacy is evident, the need for the heroic exception becomes ever more pronounced, but the danger of the exception has also never been more apparent. Declarations of exceptionality abound in the contemporary world, and they allow us to see the negative ramifications that follow from the exception, no matter how heroic its intent. Audiences flock to superhero movies in search of a heroic exception that they can embrace, an exception that would work toward justice without simultaneously adding to injustice in the manner of today’s real world exceptions. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan offers a viable image of heroic exceptionality. As he sees, its form of appearance must be its opposite if it to avoid implicating itself in the injustice that it fights. The lesson for our real world exceptions is thus a difficult one. Rather than being celebrated as the liberator of Iraq and the savoir of U.S. freedom, George W. Bush would have to act behind the scenes to encourage charges being brought against him as a war criminal at the World Court, and then he would have to flee to the streets of The Hague as the authorities pursue him there. In the eyes of the public, true heroes must identify themselves with the evil that we fight.


1. The necessarily public dimension of the police officer’s identity follows from the public nature of the law itself. A law that was not publicized would cease to be a law, and a state that operated with hidden laws would cease to be a state in the proper sense of the term.

2. Film noir represents the aesthetic rendering of what occurs when private interest overruns public law. While public law provides a bond between subjects, the noir universe shows how the triumph of private interest shatters this bond. As a result, one cannot extend trust to anyone in this universe. As Hugh Manon notes, “The view of noir is invited to contemplate the objects, people, and events of ordinary daily life in a sinister light.” Hugh Manon, “X-Ray Visions: Radiography, Chiaroscuro, and the Fantasy of Unsuspicion in Film Noir,” Film Criticism 32, no. 2 (2007): 8.

3. Zack Snyder, director of 300 (2006), turned down the opportunity to direct a Superman film because of his lack of moral complexity. Snyder explains, “He’s the king daddy of all comic-book heroes, but I’m just not sure how you sell that kind of earnestness to a sophisticated audience anymore.” Qtd. in Scott Bowles, “Are Superheroes Done For?,” USA Today (28 July 2008): 2D.

4. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 185.

5. Hegel understands the insufficiency of the legal order and the need for an exception, but he locates the exception not in the hero but in the sovereign. He insists on preserving the monarch even in modernity because he grasps the necessity of sustaining the exceptional position outside the law. See G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).

6. Andrew Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,” The Wall Street Journal (25 July 2008):
After this article appeared, leftist bloggers (such as Christopher Orr) almost immediately pointed out the central problems with Klavan’s thesis — namely that Batman follows an ethic that doesn’t allow him to kill anyone no matter how evil the person may be, that Bush has not re-established the boundaries of civil rights as Batman does, and that Klavan wants Bush’s heroism to be recognized when the film insists that true heroism can’t be — but there is nonetheless some aspect of the film that invites Klavan’s analysis. With its defense of the need for the figure of exception, The Dark Knight grants a fundamental premise of conservative (and even fascist) politics.

7. Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,”

8. According to Benjamin, the presence of lawmaking violence in a social order does not disappear with the cessation of the violent act itself and the founding of the law. The social order relies on the idea of this violence in order to sustain its functioning. Benjamin notes, “When the consciousness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay.” Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume I, 1913-1926 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996), 244.

9. The question, for the superhero film, is the precise status of the superhero’s violence in Benjamin’s terms. Is it merely law-preserving violence, a supplement to the violence of the police? Or is it divine violence, the kind of violence outside the law that renders an infinite justice that goes beyond the balancing of accounts? It is according to this opposition that we must judge each act of exceptional violence.

10. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 22.

11. Agabmen, State of Exception, 2.

12. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans. and eds. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 59.

13. As Kant puts it, “Whatever his state in the acquisition of a good disposition, and, indeed, however steadfastly a human being may have persevered in such a disposition in a life conduct conformable to it, he nevertheless started from evil, and this is a debt which is impossible for him to wipe out.” Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 88.

14. The Joker’s aesthetic critique of the morality that rules the other characters echoes Nietzsche’s condemnation of what he calls a slave morality. Nolan makes the link between the Joker and Nietzsche explicit during the bank robbery that opens the film. As he places a grenade in the mouth of the bank manager, the Joker paraphrases Nietzsche, proclaiming, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you … stranger.”

15. The autonomy of the Joker renders him difficult to understand, even for Batman. At first, he interprets the Joker as just another criminal seeking to enrich himself, but Alfred (Michael Caine) points out the possibility that this interpretation fails to capture what motivates someone like the Joker. Through a story from his own past, Alfred suggests that the Joker acts for the sake of acting rather than for a goal like money. He tells Bruce Wayne, Alfred: “When I was in Burma, a long time ago, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders, bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. We were asked to take care of the problem, so we started looking for the stones. But after six months, we couldn’t find anyone who had traded with him. One day I found a child playing with a ruby as big as a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.” Wayne asks in response, “Then why steal them?” Alfred says, “Because he thought it was good sport. Because 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.”

16. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 89.

17. As Alenka Zupancic notes, tracing out Kant’s own logic leads to the conclusion that diabolical evil has the exact same structure as adherence to the moral law. Kant’s rejection of the possibility of diabolical evil — evil for its own sake — stems, according to Zupancic, from his unconscious recognition of this underlying sameness. She says, “diabolical evil, the highest evil, is indistinguishable from the highest good, and that they are nothing other than the definitions of an accomplished (ethical) act. In other words, at the level of the structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At this level, evil is formally indistinguishable from good.” Alenka Zupancic, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (New York: Verso, 2000), 92.

18. The bond between Batman and the Joker becomes evident on several occasions. When Batman interrogates the Joker in the jail cell, the Joker tells him, quoting literally the famous expression of romantic love from Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), “You complete me.”

19. The most relentless advocate of utilitarian ethics in contemporary culture is the television program 24, where federal agent Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) confronts a series of ethical dilemmas and consistently reduces them to quantitative problems in order to arrive at the proper ethical decision. To put it in the Joker’s terms, Jack is a schemer.

20. Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 66.

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