Agency of Chaos: How The Joker Starts A Wildfire With A Lighter

Can superhero stories, in all of their superfluous imaginings of society, actually portray a semblance of reality within their themes?

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the lore of Batman as a whole due to it being somewhat more plausible (if not realistic) than many other superhero stories.  A crimefighthing martial arts and weapons expert who is a billionaire CEO of a company pried from the dead hands of his parents may be a bit larger than life, but I’ve always found it to be more plausible than aliens coming to Earth with super powers or nuclear waste altering people’s DNA to make them superhuman or that sort of thing.   Nevertheless, my curiosity with realism in The Dark Knight doesn’t lie within the character of Batman but to Joker as an agent of chaos.

I read one post from Jim Emmerson that got me thinking about this theme of chaos when things get just a little out of hand.  He discusses how the villians of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy look down upon the citizens of Gotham, particularly the Joker in The Dark Knight who purports that their “moral code” is “a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble” and “that when chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other”.   At the end of his post, Emmerson claims that “[chaos out of the disruption of the status quo] isn’t really a theme that’s developed in the movies, but like most of the political and social references, it’s something that’s… there.”  I largely believe he is right in saying that.

Think about the chaos that ensued post-Hurricane Sandy.  New York City was declared a disaster zone due to houses destroyed, people killed or left with nothing, gas shortages, the national guard being called in, people hurting and even murdering each other in extreme cases for supplies; all in the wake of Sandy.  Heath Ledger’s character has a point; when things get a little out of whack, people panic and as a result, chaos ensues.  Superheroes and supervillains, as superfluous and larger than life as they may be, can bring some level of actualization into our lives.  What happened when The Joker tried to instill chaos?  Gotham basically went to hell in a hand basket.  While there likely aren’t supervillains running around trying destroy major cities of the world, it’s safe to say that when the scales are tipped in the favor of chaos, the uninitiated who easily panic (Gotham’s citizens in the case of The Dark Knight), will believe it to be the end of the world at the first sign of trouble.

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2 Responses to Agency of Chaos: How The Joker Starts A Wildfire With A Lighter

  1. I took Emerson’s comment to be a criticism (and one that seems to be made more pressing in reactions to The Dark Knight Rises). Is it enough to simply “have” political or social references (like Bush-era interrogation or Occupy Wall Street), or do they need to be “developed” organically within the film? That actually seems to be a bigger question of adaptation–is it enough to have the elements from the source, or what kind of integration is necessary to make it successful?

  2. Raj says:

    I’m not sure in what way a series set in Nolan’s Batman universe can fully develop the role of chaos. Certainly, Batman is a source of order; some have argued that he’s a necessary outlet for the sedate bourgeois: an entity who (physically) takes matters into his own hands rather than operate through established legal channels that both protect and alienate him from physical consequences/exertion. Batman begins as a reaction against chaos, which he will learn throughout the series is insidious, not rampant and widespread. So, I think what Nolan explored in TDK is that while there’s much fear of chaos, there really isn’t much of it in a developed city/society. This is why Ra’s Al Ghul’s mission in BB is too extreme even for a Bruce Wayne who is angry at the corruption and violence in his city. Also why the Joker’s feint at the end of TDK failed. Not to mention that the Joker was only chaotic in the sense that he acted only for his ends–his schemes were the most organized, intricate, and well thought out of all the villans in the series. It took Wayne a while but by the end of TDKR he realizes that Gotham wasn’t at risk from it’s citizens and some sort of lingering chaos, so didn’t need a Dark Knight lurking to maintain order. Anyway I felt Nolan did a fine job in developing certain political/social themes at least in the first two films of the trilogy. The Occupy references in TDKR did seem…lacking.

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