The following column was pitched to, commissioned by, and written for Flickering Myth
Henry Bevan on The Dark Knight and what happens to heroism when you realise The Joker wins…
I was the kid with the Batman lunchbox. I was the British kid whose parents brought back a Batman umbrella from New York. I was the kid who loved his Batman and Robin money box where George Clooney says “Ice to meet you, Freeze” every time I deposited a penny.
If it wasn’t clear from this, I’m a Batman fan and only Spider-Man has fought against the Dark Knight for my affections. The fact The Dark Knight is my favourite superhero film should be unsurprising. It is one of those films where I’d prioritise the Netflix over the chill. It is my generation’s Star Wars or Jurassic Park. It is the film future filmmakers will say made them want to be filmmakers. It is a film you can watch multiple times — every viewing reveals something new.
At least it did. I’ve watched it so many times I eventually stopped watching it. I stopped getting meaning from the movie. Then, I put it into my DVD player the other day and pressed play. I realised something about the film for the first time in years, and what I learnt changed how I perceived the film and made me question heroism. I realised the Joker won.
The film may finish with Batman putting the Joker in “padded cell, forever” but physically losing is something Heath Ledger’s Joker expects. He says so himself, stating he wouldn’t “risk the battle for the soul of Gotham in a fist fight” with Batman. In the interrogation scene, he reveals his aim is to make the caped crusader “break his one rule” and prove he can be corrupted. The Joker succeeds on both counts.
Batman kills Harvey Dent. It may have been an accident, and it may have happened in a stressful situation but Batman tackles Two-Face over the edge knowing he probably couldn’t save him. He is physically responsible for Dent’s death.
The corruption comes when the Dark Knight takes the blame for all the third-act murders. Batman the man remains uncorrupted, but like his antagonist, Nolan isn’t interested in the physical. He’s interested in the theological. His entire trilogy is about Batman being more than flesh and blood. It is about him being a symbol, and the symbol is corrupted. At the beginning of the film, Batman is a symbol of hope. People dress up like him. At the end of the film, Batman is a symbol of fear. The public, not the criminals, fear him because he is now a serial killer. The physical representation of Batman’s hope, the Bat-symbol, is physically destroyed by the people of Gotham via their surrogate, Jim Gordon.
That is why the Joker wins. He achieves his aims. He corrupts Batman. You can probably imagine what this does to someone who was used to seeing their hero win week in week out on the animated series. What is a hero if they can be beaten? What is a hero if they can’t save everyone?
The Joker winning throws everything off balance. It might be 8 years too late, but I’ve finally got Nolan’s message — our heroes are who we want them to be. They do not have to dress like bats, spiders or flags. They do not have to have catchphrases or pose like Christ. A hero can be a parent, a partner or a colleague. The realisation that Batman loses proved to me our heroes are not always going to be there for us and that one day, we’ll have to pick up where they left off.