Let’s talk about one of my favourite movies: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. I vividly remember seeing it for the first time after getting screen preview tickets for myself and my best friend. She still considers this one of the best birthday presents she ever got! But I’m not here to talk about memories rather I am here to reflect upon my prior studies and discuss the various implementations that create meaning in this narrative. I aim to do this by going a little deeper into the rabbit hole then most would and exploring the sociological aspects and influences. This piece will discuss the creation of meaning assisted by the filmmaker and their tool belt of narrative devices, how discourse is created by the audience’s interpretation of representations and how the philosophical element of popular culture still perpetuates cultural hegemony using The Dark Knight as the specimen of the focus.
Nolan was the first to show Batman as a darker philosophical presence and the most similar incarnation to Frank Miller’s graphic novel imagining. Along with a dark tone, Nolan also added profound themes, like those in previous his films Memento and The Prestige. This evolved his ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’ films from the usual superhero commodity flick to a poignant and thought-provoking experience for the audience. His critiques of the Gotham universe are explored but ultimately left unanswered, forcing the audience to derive their own conclusions.
Narrative, as defined by O’Shaughnessy and Stalder (2008, pp.266), is a cultural experience common across all societies and at its core is the understanding of our experiences. Characters are central to a narrative. The audience sees and feels their point of view, which creates an empathetic association with the characters in the film (O’Shaughnessy & Stalder, 2008, pp.275). Stereotypes originate in the real world and are shortcuts to meanings of social constructs. They can be translated into the fictive world where they are no longer simply social constructs, but become naturally aesthetic (Lacey, 2009, pp.154-55). For the narrative analysis, I will look at characters as stereotypes compared to archetypes and how this influences their social construct.
Branston and Stafford (cited in Matheson 2005, pp.87) describes the eight character archetypes found in Propp’s heroic wondertales that are the basis of all character structures, with Nolan’s The Dark Knight being no exception. Nolan uses these known character types to help his audience understand their roles within the film, to leverage whose perspective the audience sees and allows them to unconsciously and instantaneously position the characters themselves.
|Batman/Bruce Wayne||Hero||Masculine, Good|
|The Joker||Villain||Evil, Disruptor|
|Harvey Dent/ Two-Face||False Hero||Potential to be good, “either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”|
|Lucius Fox||Donor||Wise, old, male, provider of wealth and power|
|Jim Gordon||Dispatcher||Authority figure, weaker than the hero, calls for action, gives hero the mission|
|Alfred||Helper||Ally, weaker than the hero, provides aide|
|Father||Older than the hero, protective|
|Rachel||Princess||Helpless, damsel in distress, love interest for the hero, object of desire, fought over, prize|
Binary oppositions are an important structural factor when analysing the social impact of The Dark Knight. They have been defined as: “A means of cultural classification that splits the world into sets of dualistic opposing categories.” (O’Shaughnessy & Stalder, 2008 pp.290) In essence they are opposing factors that relate and react to one another found on opposite ends of a set spectrum. Usually, one of the binaries will be privileged over the other. (O’Shaughnessy & Stalder, 2008 pp.290)
Many may mistake this film as having the cliché binary opposition of good vs evil but, in context, this is too simple. Nevertheless, Nolan has taken a slightly different approach to this trope pitting justice vs chaos. Justice is Batman’s attempts to follow moral and ethical codes to maintain order in Gotham whereas chaos is The Joker’s way of disrupting the norm and challenging the system. Justice in this case is calculated but reactive and chaos is spontaneous and proactive.
Another present binary opposition is that of strong vs weak which acts as the originating point for many others. An observable example, is present at the start of the film where the mobs of Gotham are strong and powerful while police are seen as weak and incapable of stopping organised crime. However, by the end, due to The Joker’s intervention, these positions are swapped. Another scene at the start of the film shows two men dressed up as Batman copycats taking on a crime group where they ultimately fail but Batman is able to defeat the group solo. This moment signifies Batman as strong and the civilians of Gotham as weak in the fight against crime. This example is expanded upon when the civilians of Gotham turns against a man because The Joker threatens to blow up a major hospital if they do not kill said man. The Joker has preyed on the emotional weaknesses of man even turning a police officer against his duty to protect his civilians. This can be interpreted as violence, or the threat of, as strong and emotions as weak – yet another binary opposition establishing underlying meaning in the film.
Sadly, Nolan fails to challenge the traditional tropes of females in his film (though this could be a perceived as a bigger problem in the comic book genre). He assigns the role of Rachel as a love interest and a plot device for the eventual demise of Dent into the villain Two-Face. Furthermore, during her integration with Lau, she is not taken seriously by him. This lack of respect could interpreted by the shear fact that she is a woman or that her shirt is suggestively unbuttoned . She may be a lawyer and make her own decisions – indications of a strong character – but she is still made to be a stereotyped, clichéd and sexualised damsel in distress. The remaining women in the film are either sexualised, like the ballerinas, or killed off early like Judge Surillo, or corrupt like Officer Ramirez – aforementioned as weak. In contrast, men unquestionably fall on the privileged side of the binary opposition in this film. The men in this film all have a part to play in the power struggles of Gotham: Batman, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, Commissioner Loeb, Mayor Garcia, the mobsters and The Joker. This binary opposition of men vs women is very stereotypical in design and, as aforementioned, may be an easy way to convey meaning but at what cost?
Cause and Effect
Most narratives, film and television included, use cause and effect to provide coherency where plots are generally structured around the disruption of an equilibrium that is then resolved, but not the same as the beginning, by the conclusion. (Todorov cited in O’Shaughnessy & Stalder, 2008 pp.267) The basic structure of the film starts with stability in Gotham, a steady fight against crime, where Batman is given vigilante freedom by Gotham Police. The Joker is the disruption to this world. He does what Gotham’s police force and Batman could never do: he takes down organised crime in Gotham through unethical acts. The Joker also does away with corruption in Gotham’s authority. This raises narrative questions about how crime should be handled: with laws, vigilantes or violence. O’Shaughnessy and Stalder (2008 pp.268) term the narrative question as the hook that draws an audience into the story. The film ends at a new equilibrium where Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, dies perceived as a hero and not the villain he became. Meanwhile, Batman is outcast by accepting the blame for Two-Face’s murders. Gotham is left with no more organised crime, no vigilantes and puts the power and faith back with the new Gotham police force. However, the earlier narrative questions about how crime should be handled are left open despite power being restored to the law.
Nolan has become famous for his open structure narratives that leave the ending ultimately unresolved and The Dark Knight is no exception from his style. An open or unsolved ending passes on the responsibility to the audience to take action and determine their own positioning and philosophies. (O’Shaughnessy & Stalder, 2008 pp.285) While Nolan does answer some questions caused by the disruption, the film ends with Batman being hunted by the police; taking the fall for the greater good. “He’s the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now.” (The Dark Knight, 2008) This reflective quote makes his audience question those that we vilify and what their true nature is. It even makes one ponder to whether or not The Joker is really as evil as we give for him credit for. Nolan is challenging his audience to take it upon themselves to answer these dilemmas and create their own critical meanings of his film.
The Sociological Imagination
The sociological imagination is a key aspect to creating meaning from media. It is the dynamic result of individuals, social groups, institutions and culture influencing one another in a struggle of power. (Mills, 1959) Power is the influence of social actor(s) upon another to exercise acts skewed towards their values. (Castell, 2013 pp.31) The identity of the film and meanings that go along with it are created from the interpretation of the audience and, as the sociological imagination infers, by the power of social environments. The Dark Knight has been identified and used as a metaphor for Bush’s war on terror and associated with the WikiLeaks’ scandal by its audience.
“Sociological Imagination” Mills, 1959
Macnab (2008) links the success of The Dark Knight partly due to its incorporation of the real world issues of terrorism. When media can associate itself with ideals about reality then it can be considered a political piece. (Matheson, 2005 pp.84) The film’s post 9/11 influence means that to some viewers it is comparable to Bush’s approach to terrorism and, like Batman, challenges the fortified morals society believe in. Throughout the film, the audience witnesses Batman’s struggles to abide by his moral compass and the law. For example, Batman crosses the lines of the law to obtain Lau from Hong Kong – similar to Bush’s invasion of foreign soil – and the choice to infiltrate the privacy of people by hacking their phones has elements familiar with the Patriot Act of 2001. This parallel between the need for heroic exception to the legal order is the key reason why people have interpreted The Dark Knight as a representation of Bush and his execution of the Iraq War. (McGowan, 2009) His philosophical questioning of morals and order throughout the film makes one question their own trust of world. (D’Olimpio, 2014) Nolan demonstrates that there are violent acts behind all ethical acts. Zizek (2011) also compares the WikiLeaks scandal to The Dark Knight calling Julian Assange the agent of chaos: The Joker. Assange’s acts have been vilified and considered treason but like The Joker, he has caused a disruption to a corrupt system that ultimately returns the balance of power.
Voice from the Depths of the Cultural Coil, 2008
Despite these discourses being generated, Nolan insists in an interview with Carnevale (n.d.) that himself as co-writer, co-producer and director was not consciously manipulated by the real world when creating his film. This demonstrates the importance of the sociological imagination and social factors. For Nolan’s film to be identified with such public discourses –in particular Bush’s war on terror – then himself, his team and audience had to be unconsciously influenced by external forces. In the same interview, Nolan contends that it is his duty to make the most entertaining movie based on genre and audience. He also mentions that his team writes about things that move, excite and frighten them – could these be unconscious social factors? I believe so. Quart and Usher (2002) argue that if a film can reach a mass audience that it must connect with parts of the conscious and unconscious experiences of the public. Therefore, The Dark Knight represents the social and cultural values of the time whether Nolan acknowledges it or not.
While Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight, does challenge the thoughts of the reader’s morals in a philosophical way; it still falls into the hegemonic trap of men controlling the world. Hegemony is its simplest form is the notion that things are just naturally the way they are or simpler yet: common sense. (Croteau & Hoynes, 2014 pp.159) The sexism that exists in the real world is based around the assumption that women are suited for certain tasks. One of those tasks in films is to be a supporting character or plot device. As Baker-Whitelaw (2014) points out, The Dark Knight fails the Bechdel Test and has a population of 80% males. The Bechdel Test is a simple test to analyse the use of women in film with three very basic criteria: Two named female characters, who talk to each other and about something other than a man. The film does not challenge our reality but rather, as discussed earlier, reflects the real world back towards its audience in a narrow view. That is not to say that there are not any popular films that challenge cultural hegemony. The power of the media is the power to represent the capitalist order in a way that makes it appear universal, natural and coterminous with reality itself (McCullagh, 2002 pp.39) Avatar (2008) by James Cameron contests the capitalist order of the military, invasion of foreign land, colonialism and destruction of land for capital gains. (Xie, 2015)
I contend that Nolan has used narrative devices in The Dark Knight to give his film meaning and raises philosophical questions for his audience. While Nolan denies being actively aware of real world events, it is evident that he has unconsciously subscribed to cultural hegemony and drawn from his own sociological imagination in finding the things that move, excite and frightens him. Nolan may test his audience on a moral and philosophical level but does not challenge the dominant views of society. Perhaps by making the conscious decision to defy society’s stereotypes, Nolan may discover something that moves, excited and frightens him, and his audience, more.
NOTE: Originally written April 29, 2016 for Deakin University: Sociology of the Media and Pop Culture. Repurposed for blog: dylanhornsby.com
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