When in 2012 the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, arrived on the landscape, it suggested a conclusion to a series which defied convention. Batman doesn’t simply defeat the villain and live to protect Gotham City another day. He has to die (or at the least the symbol of him has to die) in order to save his city, only not from a conventional villain we are often used to in comic-book cinema. Batman ‘dies’ to thwart a revolutionary.
The character of Bane, so memorably essayed by Tom Hardy, was as unprecedented an antagonist as Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is the iconic Joker in the recent film of the same name. Bane had appeared previously, in 1997’s camp, rubbery Batman & Robin, but as a brainless henchman who could do little more than bellow his own name; part of a movie which epitomised the pre-Nolan, indeed pre-Marvel, excess of a cinematic sub-genre which was considered as tacky and disposable as comic-books long were themselves – with a few notable exceptions, such as Tim Burton’s original Batman or Richard Donner’s iconic Superman. Yet even those films, as skilled as they are, were married to convention. DC Comics’ tortured or incognito superheroes would protect their cities from a villain bent on world domination or destruction, not to mention on unmasking their secret identities.
Nolan’s Batman films entirely changed that paradigm. They played off the success of particularly the X-Men franchise, which deigned to take seriously its spandex-clad meta-humans and wrap their colourful, science-fiction worlds with real social and political undertones. From Batman Begins, in which Nolan re-conceptualises Bruce Wayne’s origin story without breaking from canon, through to The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan charts a clear and definable arc not just for Batman but for Gotham City itself. Each of the trilogy has the hero, the villain, the supporting players and the other major character – the city. Gotham. A representation and microcosm of our world today. Nolan’s chief interest in Batman was not simply recapturing Joel Schumacher’s cod-60’s derring-do, but using the Caped Crusader and his world as a framework to show the corruption and self-destruction of modern capitalist democracy.
While a film lacking the breadth, scope and grandeur of The Dark Knight trilogy, Todd Phillips’ Joker picks up the gauntlet Nolan laid down in this respect. It feels like the natural yet grotesque culmination of Nolan’s revolutionary thesis.
Batman Begins presents Bruce Wayne with a central betrayal. He learns that his mentor, his other assumptive father figure outside of loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth, is not the noble, skilled Henri Ducard but rather (possibly immortal) elegant revolutionary terrorist Ra’s al-Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows.
Wonderfully portrayed by Liam Neeson, in full Bond villain mode, Ra’s wants to achieve the same aim that Bane—who picks up where Batman finishes him off—eventually almost succeeds in doing two films later: the physical and psychological destruction of Gotham City. He does this by engineering and exploiting Bruce Wayne in order to try and create the very symbol he can tear down, and taps into Bruce’s personal anguish to do so. “I know the rage that drives you. That impossible anger strangling the grief, until the memory of your loved one is just… poison in your veins. And one day, you catch yourself wishing the person you loved had never existed, so you would be spared your pain.” Rage. The key denominator that later fuels Arthur Fleck in Joker and his own followers, contained within the very hero who historically would be designed to bring him down. Batman stands out, still, as one of the most potent superhero figures, because he is driven by vengeance. He is just able to channel that rage into seeking justice.
Ra’s, however, wants more than to simply create a monster. He sees himself almost in deified terms in his sense of justice, in how he seeks to purge the same filth and ugliness that drives Batman to vigilantism, and ultimately drives Arthur into mania. “Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens… such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself… and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job.” Ra’s shadowy forces in some sense are a little bit like SPECTRE from the Bond franchise (further extending Ra’s parallel with those larger than life villains), dipping their tentacles into the highest reaches of power to exploit and manipulate, to try and turn a city inward and allow it to destroy itself through greed and avarice.
In the end, the only monster Ra’s creates is the symbol that can destroy him, the Dark Knight. He prevents Ra’s from tearing Gotham down but he fails to appreciate the divide, socially and politically, which then come back to haunt the city when Bane (and Ra’s daughter Talia) arrive years later to finish the job. Bruce Wayne doesn’t at this stage understand a key truth that mob boss Carmine Falcone points out. “People from your world have so *much* to lose. Now, you think because your mommy and your daddy got shot, you know about the ugly side of life, but you don’t. You’ve never tasted desperate. You’re, uh, you’re Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham; you’d have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn’t know your name. So, don’t-don’t come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you’ll never understand. And you always fear what you don’t understand. Alright.”
The previous incarnation of the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger (quite brilliantly), begins to show Bruce Wayne how true Falcone’s words were. The Dark Knight is a film far more about the destruction of Batman as a symbol rather than Gotham as a city, but Ledger’s Joker is without doubt the latter-stage formation of Arthur Fleck’s nascent Crown Prince of Crime. Joker may present a clear, established backstory for Fleck’s Joker, but this could easily have ended up morphed, twisted and outright embellished by the time he becomes Ledger’s Joker. The Dark Knight’s villain is less of a theatrical menace and more of a sociological terrorist, cutting through the narrative in order to stoke Gotham’s broiling fire, test the limits of Harvey Dent’s police force, provide ethical dilemmas to challenge Batman – to create anarchy from order. “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
In this sense, what Nolan is exploring with this trilogy feels ahead of the curve too. The Dark Knight was released in 2008, the same year Barack Obama would be elected as President to usher in what was considered a progressive, Democrat-led age for American and maybe even world politics. Iraq had been dealt with. Bin Laden was on the run. Daesh had not yet risen. For a while, we could have been turning a corner away from the monstrous darkness lurking beneath society, or so it appeared. Even the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent global recession did not necessarily have an immediate effect on Western democracy. Obama won a second term in the same year as The Dark Knight Rises was released. Maybe the Joker’s final words in that film didn’t have to be prophetic. “You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!”.
Nolan still could feel the writing on the wall, could sense a storm coming, and The Dark Knight Rises epitomises the social, political and cultural implosion that the previous two films suggested and fashioned. Bane seizes upon a Gotham reaping the fruits of ‘peacetime’, following the collapse of Batman as an icon, but one which has been fully encompassed by corporate greed and control in the form of men such as John Daggett. Commissioner Jim Gordon, who knows the ugly truth behind Gotham’s path, helps to sell a delusion. “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence.” He reads there from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a 19th century text set during the late 18th century French Revolution, in which the impoverished, starving masses rebelled and rose up against the powerful and mighty.
It is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle who warns the ailing Bruce Wayne, listless having long ago surrendered Batman for the good of Gotham’s soul, about the coming social storm. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” This same storm, in Joker, ends up swallowing and destroying the similarly gilded Thomas Wayne, shot dead in that film’s 1981 Gotham reality by presumably a Joe Chill part of the Joker ‘movement’ of masked men in clowns spreading anarchy. This is noticeably different from how Bruce’s parents are murdered in many retellings of the Batman myth, gunned down by a petty crook who epitomises Gotham’s lawlessness. Thomas Wayne here lies victim to a revolution, if a twisted, nightmarish one.
That revolution is different in The Dark Knight Rises. If Ra’s in Batman Begins wanted Gotham’s rich and powerful to destroy themselves through their own avarice, Bane is the force that, as the Joker stated, gives the city a little push. He is not just a formidable physical adversary, a hulking mercenary terrorist, but he is also a classical psychological tormentor. He promises Bruce such a reckoning. “As I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to “stay in the sun.” You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham.” Bane presents himself as a sociological saviour, rescuing Gotham from tyranny by providing them with one simple thing Bruce, Harvey and even Gordon have kept from them: truth.
Bane’s revelation that Harvey Dent was not a victim of Batman but rather the symbol of Batman was a victim of his own madness sees him utilise not just the media but the power of rhetoric which evokes the populist leaders and movements we have seen on the rise since the fulcrum point of 2016, with the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum as chief Western democratic markers. Bane appeals to the underclass, the dispossessed, that same ‘desperate’ Falcone warned about, by promising to help them take back control (a key phrase of the Brexit Leave campaign) of their city. “We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you… the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please.” Bane at the same time utilises the criminal element of Gotham as soldiers enlisted to enforce his coup of the city, isolating it from US government control, while presenting it as a social revolution. “Step forward those who would serve. For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city… it will endure. Gotham will survive!”
In the end, Bane’s ‘alternative truth’ about Gotham is quelled by Bruce’s return as Batman, leading the police and citizens to revolt *against* Bane’s proxy revolution, which disguises a terrorist attack ultimately built on vengeance. Nolan didn’t quite believe Gotham was beyond saving and while the saviour himself had to be sacrificed, the Dark Knight would rise again. John Blake prepares to take on that mantle at the end of the film. The symbol of hope endures. Yet by presenting a Gotham open to corruption, to manipulation of truth, to powerful rhetoric and near self-destruction, Nolan voices a level of anxiety about world politics that had not yet truly been felt. Recession was in full swing by 2012. Banks had closed. Conservative governments engaging in austerity were on the rise. The European Union faced economic shocks such as the collapse of the Greek economy. Things were changing.
Joker exists in a world both reeling from that change yet also beyond it. While Phillips may set the film in 1981, Joker is about our world today. The movement Arthur Fleck unwittingly creates after murdering wealthy Gotham citizens is one driven by rage, the rage principally of men. Intimations can be drawn between Joker and the alt-right or the incel movement but ultimately Phillips’ film, through the psychological degradation of a mentally ill fantasist, is commenting on the victims of austerity, of the divide between rich and poor, and the growing anger which fuels the nationalist policies and regressive actions of populists, and is driving an angry, idealistic wedge between people in Western democracies. If Nolan feared a population could be manipulated into destroying itself, Joker fears that process has already begun. The revolution has started. The mask has fallen and we are discovering who we really are, underneath. As Arthur says, as a warning. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!”
Most tellingly, Joker lacks a hero, a saviour, who can provide us hope. There is no Batman in this future. There is no symbol. Maybe that’s what we deserve.