"It's Time My Enemies Shared My Dread."

Power, Identity, and Madness in The Dark Knight

In Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, Batman has a strict line he will not cross:  he will not kill. His compassion and regard for life is how he separates himself from the criminals of Gotham, it is how he holds on to his humanity in a world that tests him at every turn (Batman Begins, 36:40-36:48). But the Joker does not believe that Batman is truly as incorruptible as he tries to be. Through the latter half of the film, the Joker carries out elaborate schemes to prove that the "good" people of Gotham can be just as much a monster as he is, and he pushes against Batman's moral code with every trick in his book, all in an effort to make Batman break his one rule. Ultimately, the Joker loses, and Batman retains his humanity and his integrity. But is that enough to prove that Batman is, as he claimed, nothing like the Joker? Is whether or not he will kill the only measure of his heroism that matters? Or is it what he does, rather than what he does not, that defines him? With these questions in mind, this text will analyze The Dark Knight and its characters through the lens of philosopher Michel Foucault's theories on power. Specifically, it will explore how Batman and the Joker construct their identities, from where they derive their power, and how these are used with their knowledge to achieve their own separate ends. Ultimately, this analysis will show how the apparent dichotomy between Batman and the Joker, as "good" and "evil" respectively, is false because, despite their opposing motivations, their similar uses of power and knowledge against the institutions of Gotham City reveal two sides of the same madness. 


In order to understand how Batman constructs his identity, it is first necessary to understand his backstory. The first film of Nolan's trilogy, Batman Begins, explores how bats became central to Bruce Wayne's alter-ego:  he fell into an old well as a child and was swarmed by a colony of bats until his father could rescue him. This experience gave him an understandable fear of bats, which later contributed to his parents' murders. Young Bruce, at the opera with his parents, was frightened by actors dressed as monstrous bats and asked his father if they could leave. Once they did, the family was stopped by a mugger who ultimately killed Bruce's parents. Later in the film, when Bruce was creating his Batman costume, his butler Alfred Pennyworth questioned why he chose bats as his symbol. "Bats frighten me," Bruce answered, "it's time my enemies shared my dread" (59:34-59:42). This motive is central to the physical aspect of Batman's identity—his black costume, his cowl with bat-like ears, his cape that looks like a bat's wings as he soars through the night—it is his fear and past trauma that drive him to become a vigilante and wage war against the criminals of Gotham. Everything about his identity is meant not only to make criminals recognize him as their enemy, but to be afraid of him in the same way he is afraid of bats by weaponizing his own fear symbolically through his costume. In taking up this crusade against criminals, Batman carries out his most basic motivation:  "to make the world make sense" (Meggs, 14). This is how Batman moved from being Foucault's subject (the one without power, acted upon by the criminal with a gun) to becoming the opposing force, the one now who exercises his power over others in order to achieve his goals (777-8, 786).


However, there is more to Batman's identity than his costume. His body makes up a significant portion of his identity because he has trained his body to excel in over a dozen martial arts styles ("Powers and Abilities"). His masterful ability to fight is undeniably part of what makes Batman since, without it, he would not be able to be a vigilante in the first place. Add to this his strength, stamina, agility and reflexes, all of which were developed through training and sheer willpower, and his identity evolves into something superhuman. The other aspect of Batman which makes up his identity is his mind. His ability as a strategist, for starters, was shown in The Dark Knight when he kidnapped Lau from Hong Kong and returned him to America to turn state's evidence against the mob. Batman executed a plan requiring perfect timing (the bombs that blew out the windows; the arrival of the sky hook), precision and accuracy (shooting the bombs to the windows from hundreds of feet away; incapacitating bodyguards while under fire to reach his target, Lau), and unflinching determination. A mission which would have required dozens of military and intelligence community members to carry out through the proper institutional channels was accomplished by two men outside of them:  Lucius Fox on reconnaissance and Batman on extraction. These abilities of body and mind lend to his identity by making him more than just a man, by elevating him to the status of legend. 


The last two aspects of Batman's identity, his body and mind, give him the capacity for power as described by Foucault:  "…that which is exerted over things and gives the ability to modify, use, consume, or destroy them—a power which stems from aptitudes directly inherent in the body or relayed by external instruments" (786). It has already been stated that Batman excels in over a dozen martial arts styles. Sticking with Christopher Nolan's version, he mastered these skills in Batman Begins while training with the League of Shadows. He also learned stealth, endurance, and control, which are all body-related aptitudes that enable him to carry out his mission as Batman. Further, some of his mind's abilities were shown in The Dark Knight through his detective skills (tracking down the Joker's next target, the mayor, through lifting a fingerprint from a shattered bullet, for example)—and he is commonly known in the larger canon as "The World's Greatest Detective." If he had only these capacities of his body and mind, he would already be a formidable force against crime in Gotham. But Foucault also mentions power "relayed by external instruments," which Batman has in abundance. Not only is he a billionaire, which gives him a financial advantage over his adversaries, but also his company, Wayne Enterprises, houses a Research and Development department full of military-grade equipment for his personal use. His costume then is not only a part of his identity but an enablement of his power, since it is expensive armor meant to protect a soldier in war. Add to that his James Bond-esque gadgets (the sonar device, the memory cloth cape which can become a type of hang-glider, the Tumbler) and it becomes clear that the deck of power is clearly stacked in Batman's favor. But these physical aspects are only the means by which he exercises his power in the relationship between the criminals of Gotham and himself, who must act before Batman will act against them. By themselves, the elements described above would make him a prepared man, but not necessarily a powerful one. According to Foucault, his actual power is when he uses these elements in response to others' actions (789). 


Further, Batman would not be anything without his knowledge, which serves as the very foundation of his power. In The Dark Knight, he was shown to have an exceptional mind, as discussed earlier. His intelligence enabled him to research, retain, and apply his knowledge at will in any situation where it gave him more power:  he used his knowledge of Harvey Dent to leverage the man's position as District Attorney against the mob, his knowledge of physics to flip the Joker's semi-truck in the street with cables, and his knowledge of the habits of Gotham's criminals to find and interrogate Salvatore Maroni. Where he failed is when he tried to apply his knowledge of the standard criminal mind to the Joker, which was specifically addressed in the film when Batman told Alfred that there was nothing deeper to understand about the clown. "Criminals aren't complicated, Alfred," he said, "we just need to figure out what he's after" (54:08-54:12). This comment reveals part of the reason behind his trouble capturing the Joker—he ascribes the same mentality, desires, and behaviors to the clown as he would to a common thief or white-collar criminal. Fortunately, whenever Batman's own knowledge is insufficient in the Nolan films, he has Alfred's experiences to supplement it in order to regain his power. In this case, Alfred told him about a time he hunted a jewel thief in Burma who had been raiding caravans for the fun of it, and he gave Batman a bit of wisdom he learned:   "…some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn" (55:01-55:12). Armed with this new understanding, Batman refocused his effort to capturing the Joker. And as a final note on Batman's knowledge, there were two institutions on which he relied to enhance his knowledge far beyond what was available to the other characters in The Dark Knight. The first and most obvious was his wealth, which placed him in a social class above every other named character in the film. It is this wealth that allowed him to focus on his vigilantism, to acquire information not available to normal citizens without using the justice system (as seen when he used his company as a cover to look at Lau's financials in order to take down the mob), and to obtain the tools and equipment he used as Batman. The second and less obvious institution was his support system of Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon, who gave Batman their information, experience, and skills throughout the film in order to make him powerful enough to stop the Joker.


Compared to Batman, the Joker appears to be the polar opposite in terms of identity. While Batman has a backstory that clearly explains his motivations, the Joker is an enigma without a name, without an origin that would force him to make sense. There is no apparent cause for why he became the way he is (Kolenic, 1025). In terms of costume, the most striking part of his physical identity is the scars on his face, which give him a grotesque smile. Unlike a regular person who might feel ashamed of their disfigurement or attempt to hide it, the Joker seems to relish in showing off his scars, owning them and using makeup to emphasize them in blood red on stark white. As for the rest of his costume, he wears a parody of manly clothing—a dress shirt, vest, tie, slacks, and an overcoat—that would never draw attention if it were not for the clash of purples and greens that, like his scars, set him apart from ordinary men. The purpose of this outfit could be simply to show off, evidenced when, after murdering a henchman with a pencil, he taunted the mob leaders by saying, "Oh, and by the way, the suit, it wasn't cheap. You oughta know, you bought it" (23:39-23:44). Or it could be a way to further separate him from a normal identity, society, and the institutions to which every man, woman and child are subjected. This was shown in the film when Gordon remarked to the mayor that, even with the Joker in custody, they had no more information about him than when he was running amok. Regarding the suit specifically, it was custom made, leaving no paper trail to follow. And adding to this idea of separation from society was the lack of any records of the Joker's DNA, fingerprints, or dental work. The costume could also be an act of satire against the concepts of wealth and manliness to which the mob themselves are subject, since, aside from the color scheme, his clothes are no different and no less expensive than those mob bosses' own. From this information, the Joker is not simply hiding his alter-ego as Batman is but does not have an alter-ego. He defies any and all attempts at humanizing him and even pokes fun at people's desire to do so with his ever-changing account of how he got his scars. 


Aside from his face, the Joker's body is not a significant part of his identity the way Batman's is to his own. He does not appear to be trained in combat, nor does he accomplish any remarkable feat of strength or agility in the film. It is strictly his mind that marks him with identifiers—anarchist, nihilist, strategist (though he might never admit to making plans), psychopath, and most importantly, manipulator. The Joker successfully manipulated four men at the start of the film to not only rob a mob bank, but also to kill each other off in the process for a cut of the spoils. He manipulated the police officer in the interrogation room into a fight by going after the honor of the man's dead friends. And of course, he twisted Harvey Dent from Gotham's White Knight into the villain Two-Face with one murder and a bedside conversation on philosophy. Even more infamous than these parts of the Joker that can be expected are the parts that cannot, because despite understanding that he is a manipulator, or psychotic, or an anarchist, he can never be counted on to act a certain way. Dennis O'Neil, former editor and writer for DC Comics, explained this quality as follows:  "You don't know what makes him tick. Maybe he won't kill you. Maybe he'll hand you a thousand-dollar bill. He'll probably kill you. But you can't be sure" (Flashback, 1:40-1:49). Like his backstory, the Joker's motivations and actions are mercurial, seeming to others as a chaotic mess of insanity—though in his conversations with Harvey in the hospital and Batman in the interrogation room, there is a logical structure to what he says. There is a method to the Joker's madness. His insidiousness, then, has its foundation in the way those around him, the "normal" people, brush him off as crazy until it is too late and he has either killed them or sunk his hooks into their minds and twisted them in his image. 


As far as the Joker's power is concerned, it comes from his knowledge the same way Batman's does; but unlike his caped counterpart, the Joker does not have specialized knowledge in technology, the sciences, or martial arts. He does not have a support network, a vast fortune, or his own arsenal of military-grade weapons. What he does have is knowledge of the people around him. He knows what motivates and terrifies others, and he exploits this to control them. One example of this from The Dark Knight is when Coleman Reese, a man who worked at Wayne Enterprises, went on TV to reveal Batman's secret identity in hopes the Joker would keep his promise and stop killing people. The Joker called the TV show and announced that he had changed his mind, and he did not want Batman's true identity revealed—however, if Reese was not dead within sixty minutes, the Joker would blow up a hospital. There are two layers to this use of knowledge to exercise his power, the first of which is the Joker's understanding of love. He knew that hundreds if not thousands of Gotham citizens potentially had a loved one in the hospital, and he knew that a threat to those loved ones would make people frantic (as further evidenced when he used the same trick on Batman in the interrogation room and told him that Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent were in danger). The second layer of how the Joker's knowledge in this scene gave him power is his understanding of people's need for a stable datum to bring order to chaos. A stable datum is any single piece of information on which a body of knowledge is built and that keeps things out of confusion (Hubbard, 24). When you take away the stable datum, chaos and confusion follow. The Joker told Harvey exactly this when he said:  "Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan'…Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos" (1:49:52-1:50:36). By threatening to blow up a hospital if Reese was not killed, the Joker took away the citizens' stable datum that their loved ones were safe in the hospital; and he made sure it happened on a city-wide scale because not only did he threaten their safety, but he also never specified which hospital, which resulted in even more confusion in Gotham as hospitals were evacuated and citizens tried to kill Reese. As a result, the Joker had the power to walk unimpeded into Harvey's hospital room and push him over the edge.


This is the factor that marks Batman and the Joker as two sides of the same coin:  their treatment of Harvey Dent. In his text "The Subject and Power," Foucault discusses the forms of resistance and struggles against power relations. He specifically talks about struggles with identity, between being uniquely individual and being forced into an identity one does not want or cannot live up to:  "This form of power…categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches to him his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects" (781). This is the power that both Batman and the Joker used against Harvey and is one of several actions that reveal just how similar they are.


Batman was the first one to exercise this form of power over Harvey, and it started with gathering the knowledge necessary to do it. Early in the film, Batman told Alfred that he had been watching Harvey to judge what type of character the District Attorney had and whether or not he could be trusted. It is not revealed what specific information Batman dug up on Harvey, but it can be inferred, due to his extreme wealth and both the physical and mental tools at his disposal, that it was a significant body of data. Batman also had the knowledge that Rachel Dawes, his love interest and Harvey's current girlfriend, promised to be with Bruce Wayne romantically once Gotham no longer needed Batman to protect it. He chose Harvey to be the hero with a face who could take care of Gotham within the system so Bruce and Rachel could be together—all knowledge that Harvey himself did not have when he first started working with Batman to take down the mob. Later, when the Joker started killing people to force Batman to reveal his identity, Rachel was marked as a target via a name badge worn by Thomas Schiff, a mentally ill man posing as a police officer during the attempt on the mayor's life. Harvey saw this, kidnapped Schiff, and tried interrogating him in hopes of protecting Rachel. This scene clearly shows Foucault's concept of individuality and forcing identity on a person as a means of power and control. Armed with a gun, a frenzied Harvey threatened to shoot Schiff if the man did not give up information about the Joker. Batman found them and stopped Harvey by giving him knowledge—that Schiff was a paranoid schizophrenic who would not have useful information on the Joker. He went on to berate Harvey for his actions and told him if anyone found out what he'd been doing with Schiff, everything they had worked for would be ruined. 


On its surface, it appears to be a wake-up call to Harvey not to stray from the side of good; but in the context of Foucault's text and with the background information on why Batman wants Harvey to take on his mantle, it becomes the form of power described earlier. In the Schiff scene, Harvey experienced a struggle within himself between what he knows is ethical and what must be done. He just witnessed Gordon's apparent death hours before, and still reeling from the loss, he discovered that the woman he loves was targeted by the Joker. He wanted to be good, shown when his threat to Schiff was secretly nullified by a two-headed coin; but he saw the consequences of inaction throughout the film and knew that relying on police and the justice system would not be effective enough against the Joker. In the midst of his grief, fear and internal dilemma of what kind of man he is versus what he may have to do to stop the Joker, Batman stepped in and told him that he had to be the "white knight," he had to do what Batman could not:  protect Gotham in the light of day, within the broken institutions of law and order. He placed this responsibility on Harvey's shoulders without giving him all the knowledge he would need to succeed and made him believe he had no choice. Ultimately, this marked Harvey as a target for the Joker because Batman needed Harvey to be just as incorruptible as he was.  


Afterward, the Joker exerted his own power over Harvey for the same basic purpose, to make Harvey what the Joker wanted him to be. In this case, though, the Joker wanted to break Harvey simply to prove to Batman that he could. His motivation, and therefore the knowledge he had, can best be summed up in his own words to Batman near the end of the film:  "I took Gotham's white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. See, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push" (2:14:54-2:15:22). As part of his game with Batman, and as a direct action against the Batman's earlier actions with Harvey, the Joker used his knowledge (of people, of love, of stability) to break Harvey. He orchestrated Rachel's murder and Harvey's disfigurement, actions that on their own were enough to destroy Harvey's concept of his own identity and his status in society as the "White Knight" of Gotham. But then he took his power a step further and gave Harvey a new identity similar to his own, the anarchist Two-Face. And just as Harvey did not know that Batman's motivation was to be with Rachel when he joined forces with the vigilante, he did not know that the Joker's motivation was to use Harvey as "an ace in the hole" in his battle against Batman for Gotham's soul (2:14:35-2:14:51). 


These factors, the powers exerted on Harvey and the knowledge withheld from him throughout The Dark Knight, are why he could never have power himself. In forcing identities on him and making him accept those identities whether he wanted to or not, Batman and the Joker ensured Harvey would stay the subject, forever exploited by their powers. But even more than this, the actions the Joker and Batman took throughout the film—against the institutions, against the citizens, and against each other—are evidence to the assertion that Batman and the Joker were cast in the same mold. The earlier analysis of these characters can be summarized comparatively for further proof:  Batman experienced a trauma as a child and turned it into motivation to force the world around him to conform to his ideals, to "make sense" (Meggs, 14). Judging from his scars, the Joker presumably experienced a trauma as well and, while Nolan never explicitly shows that this is his motivation, the backstories the Joker gave in The Dark Knight lend credence to the idea that the trauma influenced the Joker's worldview. He is motivated by his nihilistic beliefs and a desire to prove that anyone can be corrupted, that justice and goodness are meaningless and the mores society lives by are a bad joke (Flashback, 5:34-6:15). Batman and the Joker both use theatricality with their costumes, one to strike fear in criminals' hearts and the other to satirize the concepts of wealth and manliness, both to send a message. They both have knowledge that others do not, which they use powerfully against Gotham because no one can stop them. Batman acts against the institution of crime, against the criminals who seek to control the innocent and corrupt all levels of Gotham's justice system to make themselves more powerful. The Joker acts against the institution of justice itself, attacking the very ideas inherent in civilized society that "good" and "evil" are clearly defined and that anyone is truly innocent. Neither one of them is a "normal" man by societal standards; and even though Batman in the film adamantly disagrees that he is a freak like the Joker, the similarities between them insist the lady doth protest too much. 


While it is true that Batman uses his power with the basic intent to make Gotham a better place for its inhabitants and the Joker uses his to create chaos and instability, their similarities should not be ignored just because one is "good" and the other is "evil." The only reason Batman is deemed good and sane is because he works for the institutions—outside them, yes, but ultimately aligned with their purposes. Because of this, it is possible that the only reason the Joker is considered evil and insane is that he works against the institutions. The Joker warned Batman of this in the interrogation scene when he said that as soon as the people of Gotham did not need their Dark Knight anymore, they would turn on him. This came to pass by the end of the film. Batman took the fall for Two-Face's murders, he let Gotham believe that he had acted against the institutions of law and order, and he was branded just as evil and insane as the Joker. For that reason alone, they hunted him like a criminal, even though technically he had been one since the first film of the trilogy. And that is the one fact even Batman cannot deny—he is a criminal, just like the Joker. Some may argue that Batman is sane and the Joker is the mad one, which is what makes one good and the other evil. But madness is not inherently evil, and "insane" is not a catch-all term for people who do things with which others disagree. Legally, the Joker is just as sane as Batman:  they are both aware of the world around them, they are capable of taking care of themselves, and they are not ruled by uncontrollable impulses (Howes). But they are mad. Batman may be a hero, but he is a hero who, unable to escape the trauma of loss, decided to dress up as a bat and become a vigilante. He is a hero who inflicts on criminals the same fear he was made to feel as a child. Whatever their purposes, Batman and the Joker are inextricably linked:  The Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime, the unstoppable force and the immovable object, two sides of the same madness.

References


Batman Begins. Directed by Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc,, 2005.


Flashback FilmMaking. "The Psychology of The Joker 'The Dark Knight' Behind The Scenes." YouTube, 29 November 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G1f1soWXyo.


Foucault, Michel. "The Subject and Power." Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 777-795, www.jstor.org/stable/1343197.


Howes, Ryan. "The Definition of Insanity." Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers LLC., 27 July 2009, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-therapy/200907/the-definition-insanity.


Hubbard, L. Ron. "The Problems of Work." Bridge Publications Inc., 1957, pp. 22-24.


Kolenic, Anthony J. "Madness in the Making: Creating and Denying Narratives from Virginia Tech to Gotham City." The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 42, No. 6, Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 2009, pp. 1023-1039. 


Meggs, Dylan Fort. "Why not rule the world? Nietzsche, the Ubermensch, and Contemporary superheroes." University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects, 24 April 2009, trace.tennessee.edu/utk_chanhonoproj/1296.


"Powers and Abilities." Batman Wiki, Fandom Inc., batman.fandom.com/wiki/Batman# Powers_and_Abilities.


The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2008.


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