What Do You Do with a Problem Like the Joker: Bringing Order to Gotham City

Joker on a Joy Ride
Joker on a Joy Ride
If you’ve seen the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, then you might already be in a debate about whether or not TDK was commenting on the War on Terror. See the NYT post here:
Batman and the War on Terror

I’m finding the discussion interesting. I’m not sure that I agree that Batman and Co. are supporting a Bush doctrine of the Need for wiretapping, or taking away rights for the good of the city. At least they restore the rights to the people after Joker is caught. But I think there’s a nice cross-section of theories on how to restore Order in the movie—or what to do with chaos.

Gotham is overrun with crime, and in TDK, it seems that you can’t trust anyone. But Gotham needs Order and obviously Batman is not providing it completely—witness the opening sequence where there are pseudo-Batmans and other criminals afoot. The problem of Order is complicated by each group out-robbing each other and all of our assets are about to go to China. There is a semblance of order before the Joker shows up: Druglords and Mafia, who keep each other in check through greed and force. But Joker fights against all order–he is the Chaos Bringer–so he’s bad news for anyone hoping to install order–good and bad alike.

There are four ways to bring order to Gotham presented in the film, and each method gets weighed by the audience:

1. A strong police force, or Rule of Enforcement, represented by Lieutenant, later Commissioner, Gordon and his police. For all his police force, the problem is individual cops–and they can be manipulated through bribes, blackmail, or threats. One leak and the baddies always know where the cops will be. Just to enforce laws does nothing to prevent them from being broken if the enforcers can be corrupted. And, in this movie, cops can be corrupted, and cops can also be empowered to the point that they are the problem.

2. A strong vigilante, or Rule of the Individual, represented by Batman. Batman can only do so much as one man. The problem, as TDK shows, is that vigilanteism promotes more vigilantes who are outside the law (or who take the law into their own hands). Vigilantes do not stop crime in the end. Because they have no legal restraints, as cops do, and because they are often “unnamed heroes” they have the potential to be both hired guns and loose cannons–causing as much damage as they seek to stop, or promoting themselves and their own code over the rule of law. Batman has a strong sense of justice, but Joker is able to chip away at this by pointing out that Batman is as much “outside” the society as he is, and likely to remain that way. The public, Joker implies, can be turned against him. Vigilantes can be turned easily–and Batman shows us that he is often one step away from legitimizing killing as a way to stop the chaos.

3. A strong Judicial system represented by Harvey Dent, or Rule of Law. This is the movie’s strongest case, really, about how to make order from chaos. Bring those responsible under the rule of law and laws will decide their fate. Laws take the morality or culpability of individual decisions away, and make them corporate decisions. So a death penalty is dictated by law, not by a vigilante or a cop, and therefore the decision has no human face. Why is this important? In giving order to chaos, order has to be corporately decided because each individual’s order is wildly different. And laws can’t be corrupted–they can’t be bribed. They can be twisted a bit, but there are ways to untwist them. For Dent, good people can reshape society. They can create order where once there was chaos. They become the superheroes. The problem that the Joker offers in the movie is that every road to order comes through a person eventually–and people can be corrupted. Dent’s idealism blinds him to his own possible corruption. By taking down Harvey Dent, Joker proves that order is, yeah, human-led and therefore fallible, never a constant, and always subject to human variables. Good can reshape society—as long as those good people shaping it are happy. Make Dent crazy, and craziness will reshape society. Joker destroys the hope of Order through Rule of Law. Batman and Gordon know this, which leads to their pact in the end to lie. If Rule of Law is proven to be corruptible– through Dent, then people’s faith will be lost.

4. Chance is the only order, represented by Two-Face. Two Face believes order is decided by an outside force. We don’t affect our reality (not as Harvey Dent believed we could–that good people could actually be in control of reshaping society). Chance and fate affect our reality and one must succumb to their rule. Well, that’s one step up from Chaos, maybe. At least you can hope that the outside force is good. What’s interesting is that Dent had always used a two-headed coin and then lied to other people when he flipped it, making them think it had two sides. In reality, Dent always got what he wanted by making other people believe the coin had a fair chance of landing either way. The accident, scarring the coin, actually makes the coin a real game for Dent because he can’t control the outcome anymore. Unfortunately, there is no controlling an outside force like God, or Fate. So, this method only works if you’re mad. Even God allows for police and rule of law.

The Joker has no Order, but he rightly believes that Order is constructed by people. He delights in proving that every person is corruptible, that at their heart there is disorder. He uses human compassion to manipulate the cops, the crowds, Batman–turning human compassion into favoritism or elitism–making us choose who we love, who is worthy to live. We don’t want to see that side of ourselves and the Joker lives to make us confront that clown in the mirror. Personally I love the message the movie gives in regards to the two barges, one full of Gothamites, one full of prisoners–that no one is worthy to destroy. Not even, in the end, the Joker.

What then brings Order to Gotham City?

A scapegoat, and an illusion of Rule of Law prevailing. Now that’s interesting. To reboot the Rule of Law, Batman has to absorb all the negative attention and criticism for the way things are in the city, and the cops have to chase him, declare war on him. And the corrupt Harvey Dent must be forgiven, and polished up to serve as Batman’s opposite; he must absorb all the heroism. (Dead, Dent can’t argue the point.) Illusion then is what brings some order, hopefully, to the chaos of Gotham—illusion that Dent caught the Joker, illusion that Batman is a villain, illusion that Rule of Law is stable and secure. This will calm the public.

It isn’t, then, CRIME we’re after, nor is it CRIMINALS. It is the PUBLIC who needs to be assured that things are safe–and the criminals afraid–to establish order, it seems. As in the first movie, Nolan talks about FEAR and how it drives us to “become” criminals. Fear causes men and women to kill or be killed in the Haunted Gotham that the Scarecrow sets up in Batman Begins. And Fear nearly takes its toll here, though the impulse for changing people seems to be more about corruption–about our moral compasses–and how we feel about each other. Joker exploits that. But giving people the illusion of Justice served, and of a criminal to chase (the Batman) who is responsible for everything bad, gives an illusion of safety and security from which order can come–since individuals will find less need to become criminals.

It’s the illusion of established order–that there is now a good and a bad– that re-establishes order.

Well, these are my thoughts. What are yours?

2 thoughts on “What Do You Do with a Problem Like the Joker: Bringing Order to Gotham City

  1. David Wesley July 25, 2008 / 9:59

    Excellent post!

    One definition of order from dictionary.com is:

    “conformity or obedience to law or established authority; absence of disturbance, riot, revolt, unruliness, etc.: A police officer was there to maintain order.”

    I think this is usually what people mean when they talk about order, but I get the sense that you are working with another definition from the same source:

    “a condition in which each thing is properly disposed with reference to other things and to its purpose; methodical or harmonious arrangement: You must try to give order to your life.”

    Our definition of what constitutes good order in our society changes constantly as we look for that “harmonious arrangement” which balances our desires for freedom and the pursuit of happiness which may conflict against the same desires of others. The ends of the spectrum are anarchy on one end (exemplified by the Joker) and totalitarianism on the other (exemplified by Batman’s foray into the world of “Big Brother”)

    We form groups to watch each other and stay somewhere between those extremes. The group establishes rules and consequences of breaking those rules. So the people of Gotham had Laws, and Police and Courts, but the criminal groups had there own rules and enforcers and method of judgement. So, it becomes a struggle between two groups for control of the society.

    So, the story question becomes: “What will you do to protect your group, in the face of anhillation from another group?” The people of Gotham encouraged Batman to step in from outside to save them because they saw their own institutions failing them in the struggle. The criminal groups then allowed the Joker to step in on their side to compete against Batman.

    So, what’s the point of the storyline with Dent? I think the message they are trying to push is that we shouldn’t rely on an external savior, but rather we should save ourselves. We should not let fear of the “other group” prevent us from straying from the path of righteousness. If we hold to our principles and root out the corrupt among us, we will win.

    And for some reason Batman seems to believe this as well, in spite of his personal experience to the contrary. He’s reluctant to work above the law, but knows he’s the only thing keeping chaos from reigning. He’s there to keep the wolves at bay until the townspeople can get their collective acts together. And he’s willing to take on the role of villain if it means the people’s moral outrage will propel them to getting back on the right path.

  2. jstueart July 30, 2008 / 9:59

    External Saviors! Wow, very cool post, Dave! Interesting idea about “saving your group” as we see some of that played out in the two ships that pass (but don’t blow up) in the night. But I like your idea that Batman is an unwilling vigilante, an unwilling savior. Certainly he makes that case in the movie–that he wants to give up the suit and the crimefighting since Dent does it better, and more legally….

    In the end, Batman has to become both the hero he doesn’t want to be and the villain he isn’t to keep the city from chaos.

    Thanks for reading and posting!

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