“Some men just want to watch the world earn”
Batman and the cultural logic of late capitalism
In Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, the Joker as played by Heath Ledger, tells another character that he is not a planner or a schemer. He simply does things. He says, “I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are”. The bulk of the film's narrative conveys the dichotomy between the Joker's ideology of pure chaos and Batman's adherence to an ideology of justice. Subsequently, one of the main themes of The Dark Knight is the comparison between the Joker's chaotic movements and Batman's specifically ordered and controlled movements. Both the Joker and Batman represent formulations of the postmodern condition as outlined by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in that Batman represents the fantasy of navigating the era of late capitalism while the Joker represents the fantasy of escaping the logic of postmodernism.
The narrative of hero versus villain in comic books have traditionally picked up on anxieties and tensions within society. During the Bronze Age of comics (approximately 1970 to 1985), the anxieties of political radicalism, racial tensions, the Cold War, and the rise of social activism were integrated into the superhero genre, with mixed results. Famously, Green Arrow and Green Lantern asked themselves why they protect the alien species of their galaxy, the purple-skinned, but are unable to protect the black-skinned living on their home planet. Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick, was also famously revealed to be a heroin addict. As with most media, the tensions of the culture are played out in fiction in an attempt to both introduce the topic to those unaware and introduce a possible solution to those who are already aware.
The Modern Age of comic books started in 1985 with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, both of which are claimed to deconstruct the sign of the superhero by portraying them as ideologically confused and politically motivated. Gone were the days of the Silver Age in which the villains were clearly delineated by their simplistic motives of greed or power. The villains and heroes were often portrayed as fighting the same war but on different levels. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, visually speaking an influence on Nolan's The Dark Knight, depicts a future dystopian Gotham City in which the Cold War continues and superheroes have all been forced to retire due to the public's distrust of the ideology of superheroism. Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement in order to wage a war on gangs that have reasserted their power in the absence of Batman. After Batman publicly beats the leader of the main gang into submission, many members form “Sons of the Batman” a gang designed to purge Gotham City of its criminal element. Responding to increasing pressure from the media, the government sends Superman to stop Batman who has become an ambiguous form of vigilante. His methods are extreme and he trains and commands an army of lower class criminals in order to achieve his goals. The superficial meaning of The Dark Knight Returns is clear: superheroics have become an arms race with each side increasing in violence until mutual destruction is inevitable. However, The Dark Knight Returns is indicative of the graying of moral boundaries between the hero and the villains in which they are all ultimately using the same methods to justify their similar ideologies of control in an increasingly complicated era of late capitalism. In Miller's conception of Batman, Bruce Wayne is justified in working against the United States government because he believes it is working against the people's best interests. Miller depicts the tension between vigilante justice and established authority but ultimately concludes on the side of Batman because in the future, the government cannot be trusted.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is clearly influenced by Miller's crypto-libertarian politics by portraying a Gotham City in which no cop cannot be bought and no politician cannot be influenced by the criminal syndicate. However, The Dark Knight was produced in a post 9/11 world in which the distrust of governments and heroes is no longer as simple, or to put it another way, there is mass incredulity to the metanarrative of the government's ability to protect its own subjects, “primary of these post-9/11 fears and tensions is the anxiety of accountability in a world where fear of breeches in safety and national borders by amorphous and virtually anonymous small groups is created, carried, and extended” (Kolenic 1031). In this calibration of superheroes and villains, The Joker is a terrorist, the single individual that the nebulous government is unable to control due to the absolutely oppositional ideology and the fact that it is one individual in a global world. The Joker represents the loss of control by the collective institutions that both provide real and unreal subjectivity to the individual as formulated by Michel Foucault. The consequence of this incredulity to metanarratives as symbolized by The Joker is the dogmatic adherence to the opposite, as symbolized by Harvey Dent, the figurative white knight of Gotham and Batman, the dark knight of Gotham.
In terms of Fredric Jameson's formulation of the postmodern, the Joker represents a example of the breakdown of the signifying chain. In The Dark Knight, the Joker has no clear origin, no real name is revealed, and his appearance in Gotham City is without any context. When referring to his distinct facial scars, the Joker provides two different possibilities: one is that his father cut his face and the other is that they are self-inflicted. At the end of both versions of the story, he repeats the film's tagline, “Why so serious?” The Joker's motives for providing an origin for himself is presumably in order to create fear in his enemies or to further the chaos that he so fully believes in. The Joker's inability to provide a clear narrative for both the characters and the audience of the film is representative of the breakdown of the signifying chain. The Joker is introduced in the film without his famous clown makeup, his garish outfits of purple or green, nor his trademark Conrad Veidt smile. Instead, the audience is denied the traditional signifiers of the Joker and then subsequently is denied the narrative of the Joker's origin in order to contextualize the villain. Previous incarnation of the Joker in comics or film provide a narrative in which the crook Joe Chill or the low level villain the Red Hood go through a transformation in which the Joker is “baptized into chaos” (Kolenic 1027) which provides the audience with a linear explanation for the Joker's insanity. Without any narrative or origin, the Joker is unmoored from the signifying chain, becoming an unstable figure with shifting allegiances and shifting motives. The Joker himself even describes a world in which any narrative is justified or sanctioned if it is presented by the institution of the government in the form of a narrative (1034). After the Joker has received his half of all of the mob's money, he proceeds to burn it, echoing Alfred's words that “some men just want to watch the world burn”. The immolation of the money is a political act, signifying that the Joker is not motivated by greed but by a pursuit of pure chaos. This is totally opposite to the constant enjoinder of “make money, spend money” that the cultural logic of postmodernism is forcing upon the world. He simply does things, like a “dog chasing after cars” and adheres to an ideology of no ideology, in which he “aligns chaos with a brand of fairness, altruism, and purity as an alternative to this institutionality” of postmodernism (Kolenic 1031). The refusal to be motivated by money and the ability to operate complex schemes without money represents a fantasy of escape from the cultural logic of the postmodern just as Batman represents a particular fantasy of mastering the postmodern, similar to James Bond or Jason Bourne.
Many scenes in The Dark Knight provide the audience with the fantasy of being Batman: scenes of Batman fighting with nameless goons, driving the Tumbler (the film's version of the Batmobile), or intimidating people. However, the film challenges the fantasy of being Batman in his very first scene. During a meeting between the Scarecrow and the mob, a man wearing a homemade batsuit interferes, forcing the real Batman to intervene. The fake Batman asks, “what gives you the right? What's the difference between you and me?” and Batman growls, “I'm not wearing hockey pads”. Since Batman has no superhuman abilities, his only “superpower” is the ability to afford complex cutting edge technology that enables him to operate beside the institution of the government, but never under the government. The fantasy is clear: Batman represents the third fundamental moment of capitalism, “the multinational capital” (Jameson 78). His company, Wayne Enterprises, is a huge multinational corporation that does business in the international market as well as provides research and development for the United States military. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, travel to Shanghai for two purposes: ending the merger between LSI Holdings and Wayne Enterprises as well as kidnapping the CEO, Lau, to bring him back to Gotham for prosecution. In this case, the fantasy to twofold: Batman and Bruce Wayne both operate beyond borders and beyond jurisdiction. Gotham is unable to retrieve Lau due to the complicated international law and China's refusal to extradite, but Batman does not operate within the law. Batman's manipulation of technology in the Shanghai scene is a representation of “the whole word system of present-day multinational capitalism” and it is “mesmerizing and fascinating” because it offers a “privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control” (Jameson 79-80). Batman is able to maintain in his head the complex totality of the world system, with its multinational corporations and convoluted legal problems and technological innovations while still exhibiting a mastery of space.
In 2010, writer Grant Morrison created a new series for DC called Batman Inc. in which Bruce Wayne has returned from being lost in time to a Gotham protected by his sidekick Dick Grayson in Batman costume. Rather than take back the cowl, Wayne establishes a multinational version of Batman. He corporatizes the brand of Batman and hires vigilantes from around the world in order to expand his ideology to a global level. Batman Inc. represents a total engagement with the globalization of the world's economy. Batman establishes franchises around the world to colonize the developing vigilantism in various countries without the benefit of Batman's vast corporate assets. If the multinational capital era is expressed in the representation of the machines of reproduction, then Batman becomes a machine of reproduction with Batman Inc becoming a representation of that machine of reproduction just as Jameson pointed to “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction” (Jameson 79). In creating the series, Morrison said that he was inspired by the marketing tools of the Batman films themselves, and how filmmakers use the Batsymbol as a “merchandizing tool”. In Batman Inc. the fantasy of Batman is not just the ability to operate beyond borders, but to operate on a global level, a complete mastery of the ability to move on the global level, just as in the Shanghai scene in The Dark Knight.
The other half of the fantasy of the Shanghai scene is Batman's mastery of space; his escape from the skyscraper is due to advanced military technology called “skyhooking”. In Batman's aforementioned introductory scene, he demonstrates a clear awareness of the public space when he jumps from one level of the parking garage to the ground floor without any injury from the fall. The mutation of built space that Jameson points to in Postmodernism is represented in Gotham City through numerous establishing shots of Chicago, the city used to double for Gotham. Chicago being home of the Chicago School of architecture and the Second Chicago School which emerges from the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the charismatic Master of modernism. However, Chicago also features many buildings of art-deco, Neo-classical, and postmodern. The skyline of downtown Chicago is a mixture of styles, “a kind of aesthetic populism” (Jameson 54). For Jameson, “the natural landscapes, village settings, organic communities, city grids, and colonial outposts of earlier times give way to unrepresentable, bewildering spaces that render experience and the life world unmappable” (Leitch 1). Unlike the real Batman, the Batman in hockey pads is unable to successfully navigate the postmodern hyperspace which is one reason why he ultimately loses his life. The space of Gotham succeeds in “transcending the capacities of the individual body to locate itself” (Jameson 83) as even the police are unable to control the mass of human bodies during the scenes in which the people storm the hospitals on the Joker's urging.
Batman is able to manipulate the mutated space thanks to his multinational corporatized brand. He owns a military-grade vehicle called a Tumbler which is able to catch up to the police convoy transporting Harvey Dent, despite the police closing down the streets. The Tumbler is even able to transform itself in adaptation to the conditions set by the chaos represented by the Joker. As well as vehicles, Batman is able to navigate the urban spaces thanks to technology derived from his corporation, specifically the Bat sonar that relies on the complex network of cellphones. During this sequence, Batman has created a panopticon but without the subjects' knowledge. Every single cellphone transmits data to the bank of computer monitors within Wayne Enterprises giving Batman a total awareness of the urban spaces and the bodies being moved within. The sonar scene is a representation of the opposite of the conspiracy theory narrative as Jameson formulates. Instead of “labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies” there exists only Batman. Instead of a protagonist glimpsing the impossible totality of the contemporary world system, there is one man commanding that very totality of technology and complexity. The distinction between Batman and other people can be seen in Lucius Fox's introduction to the bank of monitors that provide the visual information. Fox immediately experiences the terrifying sublime when confronted with the totality of the system. The spectacle of the sheer scope of the project and infiltration of technology into the everyday causes Fox to experience an ethical dilemma, but this concept of ethics does not apply to Batman as he is the fantasy of dominating postmodernism.
In conclusion, The Dark Knight uses symbols and representations of heroes and villains in order to tell a political story entrenched in the discourse of life after 9/11, in which escalation is the main theme. However, the narrative is also firmly couched in the cultural logic of late capitalism as outlined by Fredric Jameson. Instead of codifying the logic, The Dark Knight provides two different fantasies for the audience. One is the fantasy of escaping the logic of late capitalism as represented by the chaotic urban terrorist called the Joker, and the other is the fantasy of controlling the postmodern as symbolized by Batman. Both are mediated by the trauma that has occurred in their past, but with only with Batman being able to narrativize the trauma into successful navigation and with the Joker simply removing narrative from his very subjectivity. Both are fantasies for the audience but both are impossible to achieve as they are both symbols that are manipulated, as seen in the final scene, in which Batman becomes the villain that Gotham needs as opposed to the hero Gotham deserves.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.
Kolenic, Anthony. "Madness in the Making: Creating and Denying Narratives from Virginia Tech to Gotham City." Journal of Popular Culture. 42.6 (1023): 1039. Print.
Leitch, Vincent B. "Postmodern Culture: The Ambivalence Of Fredric Jameson." College Literature 19.2 (1992): 111. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Writ. Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. Film.