The Hero We Create: 9/11 & The Reinvention of Batman

By Joshua C. Feblowitz
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 6/9 |

Thus, Ra’s al Ghul is characterized as a villain who possesses a strong sense of justice but one that is extremist in nature and ultimately flawed due to its reliance on . What separates Ra’s al Ghul from Batman is his willingness to destroy innocent lives in order to achieve his larger goal of justice. Through Batman is closely allied with Ra’s al Ghul early in the , Batman’s training ultimately reveals his unwillingness to kill in the name of justice. The continuous differentiation between the worldview of Ra’s al Ghul and Batman’s supposed moral “weakness” of compassion serves to elucidate the essential characteristic that differentiates Ra’s as a terrorist. Though Ra’s al Ghul’s motives are based on notions of justice and balance, they are ultimately depicted as being founded upon a faulty and extremist moral logic.

In the ultimate redemptive fantasy, Ra’s al Ghul and Batman fight for the fate of Gotham in a dramatic final scene eerily reminiscent of September 11th. A raised monorail races across the city skyline towards Gotham’s tallest skyscraper; Ra’s al Ghul and Batman struggle for the controls of the vehicle. In the end, Batman predictably triumphs and the train plunges to the earth in a ball of fire; Gotham is spared both the destruction of the skyscraper and the terrifying repercussions that destruction would bring. Batman refuses the opportunity to kill Ra’s al Ghul, allowing him instead to perish in the crash. Batman, throughout the film, refuses to let go of his compassion and to actively kill even in the name of justice (though he also fails to save Ra’s, a subtle but vitally important distinction to be explored later). Thus, Batman’s moral superiority is proven, the terrorist is defeated and Gotham is spared the reign of fear and chaos. 

The Joker

In the second post-9/11 Batman film, The Dark Knight, the archetype of that Ra’s Al Ghul personifies is supplanted by a far more terrifying and unpredictable conception of terrorism in the form of the new Joker. The Joker, played by the late Health Ledger who won an Oscar for the role, is a crazed, identity-less, lover of chaos. His face is smeared with clown makeup and disfigured by hideous scars, his dyed hair hangs limp and unwashed and his mannerisms are animal-like and unpredictable. His tag line “Why so serious?” implies his imbalanced nature and the delight he takes in creating anarchy and destruction.

This post-9/11 Joker is explicitly identified as a terrorist: “Should we give in to this terrorist's demands?” Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent asks his audience at a crowded press conference. Likewise, Alfred muses the Batman stands for something more important than the “whims of a terrorist.”60 The original Joker, who debuted in the first issue of Batman in 1941, is, in many ways, just as depraved and criminally insane as his reinvented counterpart, but he is no terrorist. The Joker of the original Batman comic series, beneath the maniacal schemes, chemical concoctions, and ghoulish grin, is simply a jewel thief. Behind his most complex and twisted machinations is an obsessive desire for riches in the form of rubies, diamonds, and emeralds.61 For all his depravity, the early Joker is still a man beholden by Western-capitalist desires for wealth and power.

Later on in the history of Batman, a different sort of Joker was unveiled. In Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the Joker is awarded an identity, and his motivation, instead of riches, is one of revenge. Jack Napier, played by Jack Nicholson, becomes the Joker after a fight with Batman results in his permanent disfigurement. In addition, it is revealed later on that Napier was responsible for the death of Batman’s parents. The Joker of Burton’s Batman, though terrifying and certainly evil, is without mystery. His motives and identity are known, and thus the primary emphasis is on defeating him (rather than on understanding him).62

Contrary to the original Joker and the Joker of Burton’s Batman, Nolan’s Joker lacks both a motivation and an identity. This radically enigmatic presentation of the Joker deprives the audience of a locus of control; with no comprehensible motivations or identity, the character is an impenetrable riddle, desiring only terror and mayhem. The post-9/11 Joker is interested in neither wealth nor power nor revenge. In the ultimate repudiation of the original Joker’s motives, Nolan’s Joker, after returning the mob’s money, immediately sets fire to a pile of several hundred million dollars. This act confirms to the most explicit degree possible that the Joker has no interests in the hallmarks of Western criminality: money and the power it buys. As the Joker himself says, “I’m a guy of simple tastes. I enjoy dynamite, gunpowder and gasoline. And you know the thing that they have in common? They’re cheap.”63

Just as the Joker appears to be without comprehensible motive, financial or otherwise, he is also depicted as “unknowable” with respect to his identity. When Batman craftily unearths the Joker’s fingerprint in an attempt to identify him, it leads only to a trap laid by the Joker himself. Even when the Joker is captured later in the film, police are wholly unable to identify and thus to understand him. Gordon’s frustration is evident as he reports his lack of findings to the mayor: “No matches on prints, DNA, dental, clothing is custom, no labels, nothing in his pockets but knives and lint, no name, no other alias.”64 The new Joker has no identity, no residence, and no origin. He is, in effect, a character adrift, one who defies understanding through his lack of identity.

Like his identity, the Joker’s motives are also characterized as indefinable and unknowable. What makes the new Joker terrifying is not that his plans are despicable but the fact that his motivations are beyond comprehension. As Alfred puts it, “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.”65 Thus, the Joker’s power is derived not from the evil of his acts but from the absence of logical motivation. The Joker describes himself as a lover of chaos with no “plans” or motivations:

Do I really look like a guy with a plan? …The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon's got plans. You know…they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are… Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, then everything becomes…chaos. I'm an agent of chaos.66

Paradoxically, to define the Joker as an indefinable “agent of chaos” represents a simplification that enables the preservation of a dualistic moral universe. To write off the Joker as a nihilist deprives him of nuance. Framing the Joker as an “other,” outside of understanding and society’s moral constructions, the creators of The Dark Knight partially absolve Gotham of complicity. If his motives are unknowable, his moral philosophy based only on the love of chaos and destruction, then no fault lies with the city. His impenetrable nature enables the viewer to dismiss his motivations. This generates a comforting circumscription of the superhero’s moral universe and precludes a nuanced exploration of his character.

The construction of the Joker as a nihilistic character is reinforced by the stories he tells regarding his scars. The Joker delights in recounting the origins of his hideous facial scars, yet his stories, though terrifying, are wholly inconsistent with one another. In the first story, his scars come from an abusive father; in the second, they are self-inflicted. In one version, the disfigurement is done to him and in the other he does it to himself out of a desire to alleviate the suffering of his wife. The fact that these two stories are so divergent casts doubt on their authenticity. While the first seems to initially provide some motivation for his insanity, the second undermines these established motivations. The existence of these two conflicting narratives strips away any understanding the viewer may have gained and reasserts the Joker’s role as a force of nihilistic evil. The stories are thus emptied of meaning, becoming only vehicles of terror that the Joker employs.

In characterizing the Joker as a nihilistic and unpredictable “agent of chaos,” Nolan makes the Joker terrifying by virtue of his inexplicable nature. Yet the unknowable identity and motivations of the Joker distance the audience from the audience just as the known motives and identity of Ra’s al Ghul do so in Batman Begins. Both conceptions of terror posit that the terrorist is intrinsically “other,” intrinsically separate from “us” in a fundamental way. Ra’s al Ghul and Batman are so closely allied at times that it underscores the compassion and refusal to kill that separates Batman from his enemy. The rift between Batman and the Joker is much wider, yet it serves the same purpose. Though it forcefully challenges Batman’s morality, the Joker’s amoral love of chaos only serves to underscore Batman’s powerful (if complex) zeal for justice.

* * * * * * *

The new, post-9/11 Batman re-evaluates and restructures evil within the superhero genre. Yet the representation of terrorism through the characters of the Joker and Ra’s al Ghuls stop short of a true exploration of the mind of a terrorist, one that might consider the terrorists true motives, conceptions of justice, and social context. These villains appropriate both machinations and mannerisms of a modern Islamic extremist. However, the end result is effectively to circumscribe the world of the terrorist, fitting this world into the superhero narrative rather than adapting the superhero narrative to fit it. The terrorist reigns supreme yet his motives are dismissed: Ra’s al Ghul is depicted as an ideologue while the Joker becomes an unpredictable nihilist. By his own account, Osama bin Laden is neither “a nihilist nor a millenarian.”67 Though he believes in using violence to achieve his ends, he does not believe in an imminent return to a harmonious world order like Ra’s nor does he advocate chaos or anarchy like the Joker.

The films offer an opportunity for profound and complex exploration of what motivates a terrorist. Nolan casts these villains as others, outsiders, whose motives can be dismissed because they are either too extreme or too unknowable and thus offers a comforting reassertion of the dialectical struggle between Good vs. Evil that characterizes the superhero genre. The effect of Nolan’s approach is to assert the essential differences between Batman and his nemeses, between the “good guy” and the terrorist. By elevating the terrorist model, positing it as a distinct and potent form of evil and ultimately fantasizing about its defeat, Nolan offers a form of redemptive cultural mythology that celebrates society’s supposed moral superiority and reassures viewers as that Good will triumph over Evil as usual.

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