Order and Chaos in The Dark Knight

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

5. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)

“Each of you has a remote to blow up the other boat.”

I’m writing this the morning after James Gunn was (wrongfully, in my opinion) fired by Disney, and this morning it feels like the resolution to the moral quandary The Joker puts the people of Gotham in at the end of The Dark Knight is the most fantastical part of the movie. We live in chaotic times and seem to be taking increasingly extreme measures to attempt to maintain what we consider control. The media, and even our institutions which are ostensibly supposed to give us a sense of command, are actively providing scapegoats for us to direct our confusion at, and they are often each other. We’ve been given the remotes, so to speak, and have been promised that using them will return society to “order”. And that’s not a miscalculation – whether we want the law and order the sitting President is promising right now or a society where order means true equality, as I personally want, we are all seeking order. Order as an antidote for chaos.

I’d like to posit that this is one of the reasons Christopher Nolan’s watershed superhero movie continues to resonate 10 years later – this is a movie about ideas more than a movie about characters. That’s not to say the characters aren’t interesting, but it’s certainly why you hire the incredible cast Nolan assembled here. On the page, each character is a cypher for a specific viewpoint that the actors are imbuing with actual personhood. I think that’s such an interesting way to make a movie, and smart on Nolan’s part (or more specifically his casting directors) to recognize that about this project and tailor every choice to the ideas. Ideas that, like it or not, seem to be infinitely universal.

In Nolan’s construction of Gotham, chaos is ever-present. The Joker never arrives in Gotham; in the opening shots of the movie we find that he’s already there. And the Joker never leaves Gotham; the last time we see The Joker, he’s hanging upside down outside of a building, defeated only temporarily. Chaos doesn’t just surround Gotham, it lives inside it, forever embroiling the citizens in fear. Nolan uses a classic Hollywood set-up to investigate potential solutions to this chaos – he gives us three men with distinctly different philosophies who have to work together to try and solve the same problem. In Gordon we have the pragmatist, a man willing to fake his own death and traumatize his family to gain footing over The Joker. Early in the movie he tells Dent that he doesn’t have the luxury of ideals, he has to work with what he’s got. Whereas in Dent we do have the idealist, who truly believes in his cause and the lawful means he uses, but also idolizes Batman for being able to fight dirty, something he’s comfortable with as long as it lines up with his ideals. And in Batman we have a man bound by a code of ethics that he believes justify his means – as long as he sticks to his code, any action he takes is justifiable. And it’s interesting to note that he idolizes Dent, a man able to do the work he’s doing by the books, and without a mask. That is actually Batman’s ideal, but one that was taken from him as a viable solution with his parents.

In re-watching The Dark Knight, I was surprised to find that Nolan seems to have criticisms of each of these philosophies. It’s Dent’s idealism that makes him vulnerable. The fact that he is willing to work with Batman means his idealism knows no bounds and can be used against him, to corrupt him. It’s Gordon’s pragmatism that keeps him two steps behind The Joker at every turn. By it’s very definition, there is no way to outwit chaos, especially if you’re only looking at what’s directly in front of you, rather than the bigger picture and the consequences that will come with your actions. And while you could argue that Batman’s code, which prevents him from forcefully removing chaos and creating order, is thusly a bad thing, it’s actually his belief that anything else he does is justifiable, including surveillance of the entire population of Gotham, that makes him just as dangerous as The Joker. His code ultimately makes him corruptible, as it’s the only thing holding him back from becoming a different form of chaos – order by rule of fear.

And I think that’s ultimately where Nolan is going with this movie. We live in fear of the chaos that’s just outside our front door. We have come to the conclusion that order is the only way to keep that fear at bay and control the chaos as much as possible. This is not a bad philosophy in and of itself. But what should that order look like? Do we actually believe in it or are we playing a mind game with ourselves so we’re not ruled by our crushing fear? And if we turn ourselves over to that order as a means to replace the fear, are we not still ruled by an outside force that we have little control over? I’m not sure Nolan has answers for the questions he’s asking. He certainly has criticisms of the various ways we try to force order into our lives. If anything, the movie seems to put its faith in people, asking us to stop fearing one another. After all, it’s not Gordon that stops The Joker. It’s not Dent. And it’s not even Batman. It’s the citizens of Gotham who choose to not be ruled by their fear that stop The Joker’s plan from working.

If anything, I think we can agree that’s an aspirational worldview that makes more sense than any of the individual philosophies of our protagonists. As far as how we get there, that’s the work we have to do. But beyond the incredible car chase that ends in an actual semi-trailer truck being flipped over, above Ledger’s legendary performance as The Joker, outside of the neo-noir spin that Nolan brings to the superhero genre, I think the reason this movie was such a massive hit and continues to be one of the most well-regarded superhero movies is that it truly is a movie about us and our world. Yes there’s a man dressed as a bat that beats up no less than half a dozen dogs in this movie (seriously, Batman beats the shit out of like, A LOT of dogs in this movie), but it is recognizably our world, filled with our problems and our fears, and it is asking us to dig into our varying ideas about how to bring control to our lives. Blind idealism, blind pragmatism, blind ethics – these are all corruptible philosophies. If we’re unwilling to self-criticize and look inward when we lose a battle, we have little chance of winning the war. And maybe having a little more faith in each other, rather than the institutions that promise order in the face of chaos, will help us overcome the crippling fear that has us tearing each other apart in the first place.

Or maybe it’s just that we like believing a muscley dude in a halloween costume that beats up dogs is all it would take to solve our problems. This is an escapist genre after all, isn’t it?

Author: Garrett Smith

Garrett is a writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia that spends too much time debating the difference between kinetic and frenetic filmmaking. He likes cheese, in both food and movies. Check him out on twitter and letterboxd and give his podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, a listen.

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