Everyone knew that guy in college — the philosophy major who made you tear your hair out as he proclaimed the futility of morality, while simultaneously lamenting the inherent evil of man.
He was the guy who stayed up until three in the morning posing ridiculous “lifeboat scenarios” as examples of real-life ethical dilemmas, challenging anyone’s claim to knowledge or efficacy, and giggling at the understandable frustration of his more rational peers.
Ever wonder what he’s doing now? Apparently, he’s found work terrorizing the innocent citizens of Gotham as the Clown Prince of Crime.
The late Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing portrayal of the classic Batman foe, The Joker, in Warner Brothers’ The Dark Knight, replaces Ellsworth Toohey as my pick for greatest literary villain.
The Joker, whose unforgettable dialogue was
written by director Christopher Nolan and his brother, combines an anti-life
premise with a consequential hatred of morality.
His transparent, though not explicit, view of himself as evil manifests itself in his ultimate goal of proving that all people are, deep down, as evil as he is.
The Joker, as stated before, does not value life, especially not his own. He murders people indiscriminately, with the prime motive of destroying, not specific lives, but rather morality and any respect for life, in general. His disrespect for values can be heard resonating through Ledger’s chilling articulation of the Joker’s tagline: “Why so serious?”
As logic would have it, he also shows a clear understanding of his power of volition, mocking those with a mystical mindset through the use of a two-headed coin and the heart-swelling statement, “I make my own luck.” Playing Dent, Aaron Eckhart of Thank You For Smoking fame exudes confidence and certainty in his actions.
Caught in the middle is Batman, played by the versatile Christian Bale, who finds himself having to question how far he would go to defend goodness. Like the irritating college philosophy major, The Joker delights in creating artificial, unanswerable ethical dilemmas, such as threatening to kill people until Batman reveals himself.
Batman is then forced to choose between continuing to protect the innocent or stopping his crusade and hopefully saving those the Joker might otherwise murder. Whereas in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego are the main focus of the story, in The Dark Knight, Batman is more of a vehicle for responding to the Joker’s evil.
Overall, the movie could be classified as an optimistic tragedy. In true Romantic fashion, the tragedy is not one of a fatal flaw inherent in a character, but rather the logical extension of a conscious choice.
The tragedy comes in the form of Dent, who,
after suffering a terrible loss and physical trauma, allows the Joker to
convince him that life is chaotic and unknowable, and that the only reward for
goodness is pain.
Dent’s conversation with the Joker, laden with dialogue so honest and powerful that it evokes memories of Toohey’s final monologue in front of Peter Keating in The Fountainhead, might be the most suspenseful scene in the film, even in the absence of any martial arts or explosions.
Dent eventually takes the Joker’s words to heart, seeking revenge for his loss, and leaving all his decisions up to the flip of his coin, now charred on one side. Dent’s fall, tragic yet volitional, leaves Batman to uphold virtue alone.
The Joker reveals the true motive for his actions, citing Dent as proof that men are a product of their circumstances, and that all it takes is the right circumstances to turn a man to evil. It is made painfully clear in this final altercation that The Joker is concerned, not with achieving any value, but in destroying value in its purest form.
Even when faced with death, he laughs, as life is of no importance, and his own demise would only fuel his thirst for destruction. In a delectable line, Michael Caine as the butler, Alfred, sums up this death-worshipping mentality: “Some men aren’t interested in anything logical, like money. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Ayn Rand wrote in The Romantic Manifesto that “Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.” The Dark Knight not only recognizes this principle, it incorporates it into its theme and characterization. Harvey Dent is a walking concretization of the decision to forsake one’s free will. Batman is left to make the tough decisions after Dent’s abdication, and he rises to the call.
Still, the villain steals the show, which is a prevalent problem among modern Romantic stories, unfortunately. The dark tone is the one major drawback of the film — but with the Batman storyline, this might have been unavoidable.
Even so, the brilliance of Ledger’s performance easily assuages any misgivings about The Joker’s prominence against the other characters. The Dark Knight is an insightful look into the nature of evil, and how the good responds to it.
As such, its villain, a cackling demon devoted to destroying the good for being the good, takes center stage, with the forces of good playing catch-up through most of the film.Rather than presenting us with the ideal man, as Rand did, The Dark Knight shows us a true villain. The Joker challenges Batman, and by extension the viewer, to be good enough to defeat an evil as pure as his. The Dark Knight, both the character and the film, achieve this goal.
Ryan Krause is a senior at Indiana University majoring in finance and public policy analysis. He plans to pursue an intellectual career, incorporating Objectivism into the teaching and researching of business practices.