Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Killing Knight

OK, I couldn't think of a better way to combine Moore and Bolland's The Killing Joke (1988) with the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight (2008). This will have to do.

The two stories are only vaguely alike. Sure, Batman, the Joker, and Jim Gordon appear in both works, but that's where the similarity ends. Certainly how the Joker is portrayed in each production is radically different, but wait! There's an underlying similarity. Both Jokers are trying to prove the same point.

The graphic novel's Joker is trying to prove that you can push anyone, no matter how stable and well rounded, into insanity (the Joker's version of craziness) if you just damage their lives enough. To get to that point, he shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon, strips her nude, photographs her body, then runs her Dad through a sick carnival ride where these photos are the feature attraction.

The Joker in this story seems obsessed with nudity, because he strips Jim Gordon down to his skin, too, but then, we all feel especially vulnerable when we're in public nude.

The story's counterpoint is the Joker's origin story (or one possible story bouncing around inside the Joker's rat's maze of a brain) in which a seemingly nice guy with bad judgment, gets mixed up in a crime in order to try to make enough money to support his pregnant wife. Hours before the crime was to be committed, he learns that his wife and unborn child were killed in a freak accident. Comic book criminals are not known for their compassion, and they expect the unnamed fellow to keep up his end of the deal. During the commission of the crime, this guy jumps into some chemical soup (yeah, you've seen this story a million times) to escape Batman and comes out the Joker.

In Nolan's the Dark Knight, the Joker has pretty much the same goal: to show society that, when push comes to shove, they'll eat their own young just to survive. He does lots of horrible and scary stuff and finally wires two ferry boats with high explosives and puts the detonators to each on the other boat. "If you don't blow the other guy up by midnight, I'll do you both. If one of you does blow up the other guy, I'll let the survivors keep on living".

In the end, both Joker's fail to prove their point. Despite the fact that the Joker dragged Gordon through the psychological sewer, including shooting and seriously injuring his only daughter, Gordon not only doesn't crack, but he urges Batman to bring the Joker in "by the book". Also, despite the fact that Batman has every reason to beat the Joker to a pulp and maybe even kill him (Batman admits that their conflict will eventually become mortal), he stops at just capturing the Joker who becomes almost incomprehensibly docile in the end. Not the "homicidal-full-of-surprises-kill-till-you-drop" Joker that I know.

Same result in the Dark Knight. In one of my favorite scenes in the entire film, a huge prisoner takes the detonator from the head guard/warden/whatever, and instead of pushing the button as we all expect, he tosses the thing out of the window and presumably into the water, then sits back down and awaits the end. The annoying little button down jerk on the other ferry eventually realizes it's one thing to talk big and quite another to actually, deliberately kill a bunch of other people, even convicted felons. Human nature says that the populations on each ferry should kill each other in order to survive, but in the film's reality, they don't.

Tough luck, Joker.

The moral of the story is that there is a difference between good and bad people; between sane and insane people. It seems to say that the comic book Joker went crazy, not just because bad things happened in his life, but that because on some level, he decided to go crazy. Jim Gordon decided to both stay sane and maintain his values and morals, when he had every reason to demand the Joker's head on a platter.

Batman seems to be the split between the Joker and Gordon. He's crazy enough to dress up like a bat and hunt criminals by night, but still sane enough to know he's Bruce Wayne and sane enough not to kill. He still knows where to draw the line.

The film Joker didn't make things quite so personal, at least for Gordon. He did with Harvey Dent and it worked like a charm. The Joker puts both Dent and his fiancee (well, they were engaged for about five minutes) Rachel Dawes in mortal danger in separate locations. Only one could be saved (well, if Gordon had left five minutes earlier, both could have been saved). Batman saves Dent and Dawes gets blown into a million pieces. As a bonus, Dent is disfigured, like the original Joker, both physically and psychologically.

When Dent has the chance to blow the Joker away, he instead focuses his anger and blame on Batman and Jim Gordon, going so far as to attempt to murder Gordon's son for revenge. In Dent's case, the Joker does prove his point, but that's an isolated occurence. We see earlier in the film that Dent has an unstable and violent side, at least as far as protecting Rachel is concerned. Something inside makes it almost certain that when he's pushed, he'll fall all the way.

What does that mean for us? I'm not sure. These are both works of fiction in which the basic assumption is that most people are stable and good. I say "assumption" because the vast body of recorded human history seems to indicate that people aren't particularly good. If humanity has been progressing from less to more evolved; from less to more moral, then we should be in fantastic shape by now, at least compared to say, the abuses of the Roman empire. Have a look at the latest news. Are we?

I think both of these stories are saying we have to believe we are basically good. I think these stories are saying, if we don't believe people are basically good and can get better, what's the point of living, right?

Fiction, if it works right, is supposed to connect to the audience across a bridge of relatable experience. No, we're not put in mortal peril every day by a madman painted to look like a playing card, but we do make moral decisions every day and occasionally, we make really big moral decisions.

Both stories, and especially Jim Gordon's story from The Killing Joke, says that we make those decisions ahead of time. If Gordon's basic values and morals hadn't been cemented into place decades before and re-enforced by the numerous moral decisions he's had to make as a police officer, he might have cracked under the pressure, but he had already decided who he was and what he was going to do. Someone not as stable, say like Harvey Dent in the Dark Knight film, hadn't gotten that far. Maybe he never would have. When the big moment came when his values, morals, and maybe his soul were on the line, he caved.

If we can take anything from these works of fiction, and let's assume that people are, more or less, as these stories portray, then we can make lots and lots of small moral decisions in our lives, using them as the cement to glue down our personalities and our behavior patterns. So when the "big one" comes along and we maybe have to make a life or death decision, based on this cement, we can be true to what we say we believe in, even when we have every reason to toss it all away and demand the head of the "Joker" on a platter.

Both stories are violent. Both stories are disturbing. Both Jokers are unpredictable and scary, even as we realize they're fictional. But violent, disturbring, unpredictable, and scary things happen every day. One day it might even happen to you. What will you decide to do when your finger's on the button or on the trigger?

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