Spoiler Alert—This column contains significant plot details on the The Dark Knight.
It's been easy to become intoxicated by The Dark Knight movement. We've been bingeing on the press and speculation and trailers for months, and for the last three weeks, you could barely encounter a friend, foe or stranger without talking about it. Critics and marketing gurus alike were feeding us heaping spoonfuls of Batman and the Joker to the point where, if you saw Christopher Nolan on the street, you would very seriously consider ambushing, kidnapping and torturing him until he offered you a private screening. And finally, after last week's record-breaking opening and the ensuing acclaim frenzy, we've reached utter catharsis. All of our twittering and tittering and antsy spitting can finally come to rest in inebriated bliss. But I'm afraid we were so drunk with it—myself included—that we failed at first sight to recognize one undeniable flaw, which leads to one debatable outcome: Batman might be the hero, but the Joker is the revolutionary we need.
The enigmatic Joker's one moment of honesty, of exposure—in fact, his most important moment—is when he sits bedside of the wounded Harvey Dent, coaxing him into an existential crisis. He explains that he, the Joker, doesn't have a plan, that he's "a dog chasing cars." He hates plans, he says. "The mob has plans. The cops have plans ... You had plans," he tells Dent, not so subtly implying that the world is run according to a perceived order, where both good and evil subsist on a foundation of rules and an expectation of results. And if the world doesn't operate in accordance with this order, this overriding plan, it folds in on itself, "everyone loses their minds" and chaos ensues.
But the snag there—the film's flaw—is that despite his admission, the Joker did have a plan. From the opening robbery to his overtaking the underworld, one pencil trick and one body bag at a time. In truth, his diatribe about "plans" was the lynchpin of his plans—the coup de grace in a carefully calculated sequence. By forcing the fall of Gotham's archangel, he would destroy the city's hopes, its dreams ... its plans.
What he says about chaos, though, is absolutely true. We don't panic when things go according to plan. But we do lose our minds when our order falls to pieces, if only for a moment. In a real-world narrative, it's the very motivation of terrorism.
So, if that logic holds true, and the Joker had a plan, and his plan didn't come to fruition—as it never could in a world that has to see good prevail—what does that mean for us?
In our world of order, we have criminals, our personification of evil, and we have "upstanding" citizens who, if told that "tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot" then "nobody panics." That's what our plans do for us. They divide us, pit us against each other, place us in classes—rich, poor, blue blood, blue collar, good, bad—who scarcely acknowledge or care about the other.
In the Joker's plan, he counts on that. He took our plan and "turned it on itself." He pits our classes against each other, giving the criminals and the citizens each the choice of who lives and who dies. But things don't go according to his plan. Suddenly, in a moment of truth, a criminal and a yuppie each act in selfless compassion, deciding not to outdo the other with the flip of a switch. And when his lynchpin is never exposed as the Two-Face that he is, Gotham can continue to believe in an idea of hope.
That isn't a world once again falling into order, rather it's the Joker's plans spiraling into chaos. Because you have to imagine, if the Joker never existed, then the city would continue to live out its life in a caste system, where one life has higher value than another, where they can put away all the Maroni's they want, but they still don't look a passing stranger in the eye.
And that's the world that Batman is so persistent about protecting. Certainly, it's an imperfect world, and their order is likely preferable to absolute tyranny, but in preserving that order, Batman insists upon preserving imperfection. But when the Joker enters the fray, when an agent of chaos is making the plans, it's then that the best in people emerges.
So, Batman isn't really the hero for trying to protect Gotham's plans. He's the hero for putting a stop to the Joker's plans. Maybe the means don't justify the end, but the Joker forced Gotham to look outside of itself. It's the Joker who's responsible for change, not Batman.
The world needs Jokers. As much as we think it hurts us, in the long run, we need agents of chaos to remind us of our humanity. Indeed, maybe we do need a new class of criminal.