Did the Joker Defeat Batman?
I’ve watched The Dark Knight countless times. Often I like being around people without talking to them. Putting on a movie that I’ve already seen while I do something else can be a substitute.
The Joker does so many large scale actions and is such an intriguing character it’s easy to lose track of the big picture in The Dark Knight. One of the ways Christopher Nolan gets away with making such complex movies is by also making them very explicit and therefore accessible to a general audience. For example, foreshadowing is obvious when Bruce activates the flying dagger things on the bat-suit when checking it out. Additionally, the motivations and internal world of the characters are made explicit and fairly transparent. Of course we don’t get the backstories of every character but their motivations are clear. We know why Bruce fights crime, we know Harvey’s goal and views on corruption. And we find out what the Joker’s motivations are. Even with this explicitness there’s significant complexity that is thought-provoking.
In the The Dark Knight, the Joker is the primary antagonist to Batman. If you watch The Dark Knight thinking that the Joker is a villain, then the ending is clear. The Joker’s plans were foiled by Batman and the citizens and convicts on the boats and Batman caught the Joker. However, I’m not sure if the joker should be classified as a villain. I think he should be classified as a mad scientist. Villain is a type of antagonist but I’m not sure if mad scientist is a sub-type of villain or not. Two types of mad-scientist characters should exist. One, a mad-scientist villain, that uses science with the purpose of harming humans, and two, a mad-scientist of the form that unintentionally harms humans. (Side note: I have never seen a character ontology, and if one doesn’t exist maybe I should build it). One thing I know about people, is that intention is very important to most people. I could write an essay about that.
The Joker is a mad-scientist, but he’s not the trope of a mad-scientist. The trope uses advanced technology, often with a dangerously limited understanding of it, to gain power and/or to harm people. The joker is a mad-scientist because he runs experiments. He runs experiments with disregard to human suffering. But he doesn’t use advanced technology. Everything else is just steps he’s taking in order to continue his research. The Joker explains his hypothesis clearly.
“You see (citizens of Gotham), 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.”
But he also has another hypothesis in the movie that is a bit more subtle, though not especially hidden. He believes batman is capable of breaking his personal code. He believes that batman’s spirit can be broken.
Experiment one is quite genius, because the experiment is designed to gather evidence to support two hypotheses at once. Will the people of Gotham kill an innocent man? Will Batman reveal his identity?
Experiment two is an ad hoc one. Will Batman hit him with the motorcycle or not? The Joker even says, “I want you to do it.” Batman does not intentionally kill criminals, so if Batman kills the the Joker that would prove the Joker’s hypothesis about Batman correct.
Experiment three is the experiment the Joker runs to see who Batman will go to save, Harvey Dent or Rachel. He wants to see if Batman allows his personal interests to conflict with his hero role. Again, this experiment has duel purposes. By lying about which person is at which location, the Joker also starts to crush Batman’s spirit.
Experiment four, on the boats, is a test of the city’s humanity and moral code. Will the people on the boats take lives to save their own?
“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist-fight with you?”
Experiment five, the final experiment that completes at the end of the movie, is the result of a random variable experiment, by introducing Harvey Dent after influenced by the Joker. At the end of the movie Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent’s death in order to prevent the details of Harvey’s recent actions becoming public knowledge. This provides a lot of evidence that the Joker’s hypothesis may be correct. Here’s some dialog from the final scene.
GORDON (cont’d): All of Harvey’s prosecutions, everything he fought for…undone. Whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope.
BATMAN: No. But the Joker cannot win.
So from Experiment three and five we can conclude the following.
- The people of Gotham can’t accept the dark truths of the world, the adversity of having criminals released because of Harvey’s actions, and still maintain a functioning society. This is not known definitively, but Gordon and Batman think this is true.
- Batman is not morally incorruptible. Well it depends what moral code you test his behavior against. Should he have intentionally gone after Rachel? Should he have taken the fall? Interestingly, in contrast to the The Dark Knight, In the Dark Knight Rises arguments are made that this was not the morally correct thing to do.
- Batman’s spirit can be broken. However, we don’t see that until the Dark Knight Rises.
However, based the results of Experiment 4 we can conclude the following:
- The people of Gotham are ‘better’ than the Joker thinks.
So did the Joker defeat Batman? Depends what context/game you consider, and how you consider primary goals and perspective. If you think Batman’s primary goal is to keep the city physically safe and maintain order in society, the Joker does not defeat Batman. But is that the Joker’s primary goal? I think it’s a subgoal. I think his primary goal is to prove his hypothesis which is in the philosophical domain, about human nature. It is difficult to determine, because the Joker often lies (lies to the syndicate about wanting to kill Batman, lies about wanting half the money, lies about the location of Harvey and Rachel, and he lies about the scars on his face). At one point he tells Harvey, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?” Well clearly he is capable at complex ‘planning’, but when you look at his plans, again, I propose they are experiments. We cannot trust what the Joker says, but we can follow his behavior. What I conclude from his behavior is that he is extremely intelligent and has little interest in the material world (he burns the money from the syndicate), even his own physical safety (He puts serious skin in the game during the bank robbery in the first scene of the movie). Therefore, I think his primary goal is in the philosophical domain.
Maybe a better question would be, does Batman defeat the Joker? In the context of winning a philosophical argument, though deserving more discussion, I’m going to go with yes, or neither win. The people of Gotham are not as bad as the Joker proposes, but not as good as Batman may think in the beginning of the movie. Another piece of evidence that the primary battle is a philosophical one is that Batman uses a Noble lie <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_lie> at the end of the film, again suggesting a weakness of human nature. BUT only from the perspective of the viewer. And that’s what’s a little disturbing. Batman thinks he won.
The quote “No. But the Joker cannot win.” above shows why batman struggles against the Joker. The Joker is not playing zero-sum games. He is not playing against Batman. The Joker is running experiments and Batman is one of the subjects. And his hypotheses are not disproved. You could also say there are two null hypotheses. One null hypothesis is that the people of Gotham are fundamentally good. Another null hypothesis is that Batman is incorruptible. The Joker is working to find evidence to reject these two null hypotheses.
When the Joker presents his offer to kill batman to the criminal syndicate, he’s called crazy. “I’m not. No, I’m not.” By the end of the movie even the casual viewer may conclude that the Joker is not ‘crazy’. His behavior is consistent with his motivations. He is able to effectively operate in the world to further his ambitions. Many of his beliefs are proved correct.
But Batman? That guy might be a little crazy.
Revised on Aug 4, 2018 after discussion with Kenny and Zed.