I want anyone who’s going to be a great filmmaker or screenwriter to be that version of themselves as soon as possible. In doing everything in my power to help you get there, enjoy my words on how you can use a movie– your screenwriting, to create truly original artwork that reflects who you are and asserts your deepest convictions in an entertaining fashion. Today I discuss Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and illustrate how he used the Jokers evil appeal to further his own philosophical thesis.
Me – Ahead of my Curve
I’ve always had issues with authority. Recently, I wrote the screenplay that was to exist to correct the devastating imbalances of justice I suffered throughout my life. Knowing I had to unite the previously marginalized through our common pain, I gave my soul words to create this theatrical exorcism of suffering, poignancy, and irrefutable truth. I wrote my script also using the evil appeal to entertainingly share my philosophy with the world. Throughout the two-hour historical thriller, I put down the words on women, metaphysics, politics, spirituality, men, ego structures, friendship, will to power, abuse, history, money, manipulation, fame, values, justice, order and chaos, meaning and absurdity, good and evil and how everything boils down to The personal responsibility of choice.
That script is not only my first masterpiece but also my thesis aggressively asserting a very deep philosophical argument that my internal tension seems to generate.
Nolan (and his brother – but I’m going to refer to just one Nolan here for ease) asserts LOTS of existential philosophical arguments in his movies through the expression of his characters. This is what we do as writers.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan gifts us a savagely witty Joker as the embodiment of a philosophical argument taken to violent extremes.
It’s clear in his body of work this is a man who thinks; look at Memento or Inception (a personal favorite!); His explorations of existentialism are crystal clear after you watch his movies again and again and again and again. In TDK he neatly inserted this philosophical argument between Batman and the Joker. Bale proves to be a perfectly immovable Bruce Wayne and a believably idealistic Batman. That idealism had to hold up against the Joker’s point in order to make their trauma-bond real and their push and pull believably fascinating. They both shine under Nolan’s direction thus gifting us with a truly historic and valuable piece of film history forever. Ten years on and the film holds up like it’s still new. That’s a masterpiece!
Now, let’s take a look at how he might have done it and how you can take what’s important to you and put it in your scripts.
The Dark Knight
Existentialist themes are the poetic bedrock upon which the entire plot stands. I outline briefly a few key definitions to make it easy.
Existentialism: Asserts the total absence of rules, morals, and codes except the ones we make up in our heads to feel better about being alive. Existentialists embrace an idea of a universe without any preordained values. In effect, through exploration and conscious deliberation they choose what has value and meaning in life, for themselves.
Nihilism: Rejects all religious and moral principles. Often in the belief that life is meaningless anyway. It’s pretty extreme skepticism.
Übermensch: An individual who overcomes the fear and dread of a potentially meaningless life. An individual able to define their own values, assign meaning to things, people, and ideas themselves, and carefully choose their own purpose. An Übermensch is a true individual who embraces their will to power and chooses their own fate and therefore writes their own ticket, remaining uninfluenced by anything but their own wise counsel. We never betray the integrity we have with ourselves.
Will to Power: The driving force. “I embrace my will to power and drive it to change the world around me for the better” is a positive übermensch statement. The Joker embraced his will to power and drove it to create chaos. The Batman struggled personally with his own will to power throughout TDK.
Illusory Superiority: the cognitive bias in all of us that causes us to think too highly of our own positive qualities and far too little of our own negative ones.
Batman and the Joker engage in an epically fierce philosophical battle over the course of three glorious hours.
Because Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in the 1600’s, the entirety of Western Civilization is organized on the belief that without government structure people will rape, pillage, and murder each other like primal animals without any sense of natural justice, self-control, or morality. Everyone feared this immoral chaos, so therefore, government, law, and order were “an absolute necessity” and we’ve been living under their control ever since. I have thoughts on this since politically I’m a 19th century anarchist reformist. Did I just make you feel weird or mad for a second there? GOOD. You have a perspective on this too. Write. It. Down. Argue with me in your head and write. It. DOWN.
Just like you and I, Batman and the Joker have different opinions on civilization…
Joker’s Philosophical Position
“Everyone is as Evil as I am! No one is really better than me, no one is really ‘nice’. These people are really savages who are faking it and I’m going to prove it, just watch! I’m going to push Gotham to destructive anarchy, force civilians to kill each other, free the bad guys and burn 30 million dollars in front of them, make the Batman break his one rule, destroy Harvey Dent’s belief in Justice by killing Rachel, AND THEN YOU’LL SEE!“
I disagree with Alfred, who tells Bruce that some people just like to watch the world burn and that the Joker is one such person. Alfred is right about those types of maniacs, but that’s not who the Joker is. No one in TDK understands him. The Joker has a philosophical point to prove, remember? So do YOU, as a screenwriter. Corrupting the “incorruptible” is his objective and how he needs to prove his philosophical point to the Batman. If it’s that simple then he’s not really chaotic is he? He’s actually a Mastermind, not at all a “dog chasing cars”. It just looks like anarchy because SCHEMERS can’t understand him.
He only tells Dent that in the hospital to exploit Dent’s pain at the arbitrariness of the Jokers’ cruelty against Rachel as his tipping point beyond objective justice to fully become Two Face… He definitely has a plan, as true masterminds always do… like you do too. Tell me, do you ever add the liberating element of randomness to your carefully constructed little plans? Or are you a hard-core “Schemer”?
Batman’s Philosophical Position
“People are Good! Some are like you, defected. But for the most part, people just want to live a good life and not be harassed by broken miserable criminals. I’m going to save Rachel, save Harvey, save Gotham’s citizens, protect my true identity, restore faith in Gotham’s justice system, and then retire to have lots of sex and babies in my multiplied wealth and prove you wrong AND THEN YOU’LL SEE”
Batman is an Übermensch who drives his will to power to correct injustice in an unlimited, unsanctioned and illegal way. He struggles with his own internal tension and is baffled at the apparent absurdist nature of the Joker.
He tries to know his man, figure out what he’s after. When the Joker doesn’t work that way, burning millions of dollars and annoying him with darkly augmented philosophical witticisms, Batman is forced to learn through the experiences the Joker puts him through.
This is his mistake the whole movie… he doubts his will to power and struggles with internal tension that makes it difficult for him to be honest with himself about his own character defects and blind spots that prevented him from seeing the Joker for who he really is.
Each übermensch tries to prove their point through not only their own actions, words, and interactions with and against each other…. But through the actions, results, and responses of Rachel, Harvey, and Gotham’s citizens in response to the stimuli fed to them by both Joker and Batman. Those who already have a little pleasure in hurting people won’t take much to be nudged to destructive anarchy. Those who want to believe in the best don’t take much to openly support Batman’s idealized justice.
If Batman embraced his will to power and drove it to accurately assess his own defects and see the Joker clearly for who he really was, he wouldn’t have played his game and he would have been able to save both Rachel and Harvey. Thinking clearly would’ve allowed him to outwit the Joker. But he couldn’t see it and played right into the Jokers hands. He thus paid the highest price for his own Illusory Superiority. He lost Rachel.
Even so. When the night is darkest just before the dawn…. even after losing the only person who could ever understand him, know him, and truly love him with a kind of devotional love men dream of…. he proves himself to be truly incorruptible. He never breaks his One Rule.
Batman stands by his values and never betrays the integrity he honors in himself as a knight and thus truly achieves Übermensch status.
Harvey Dent was Gotham’s White Knight, full of authentic integrity, a real passion for unobstructed and impartial justice, and a paragon of Fairness. This point was an easy score for the Joker. All he had to do was kill Rachel. (We’ve all suffered errors in judgement in selecting mates so I’m not judging I’m elucidating: Rachel chose Harvey over Bruce which was a mistake. Harvey wasn’t a real übermensch because he proved corruptible, Bruce was the better man… )
We then saw him swing to the alarming nihilistic extreme… killing five people, “two of ’em cops!” and reducing their fates to the arbitrariness of chance. His fucked up two-headed coin whose one side got toasty when Rachel got toasted.
Acting the complete opposite of due course in a functioning justice system he strived his whole life up to that point to actualize. Flipping a coin to determine human life, Harvey’s spiritual regression proves the Joker’s philosophy correct and his mission successful in disrupting society’s sense of Illusory Superiority.
The “schemers” who try so hard to control everything, right? The fake “civilized” people who care about money and cars who think they’re “better than”…. Yeah, the Joker humbled Gotham by bringing them back down to their primal savage origins through Harvey’s soul degradation.
Batman did everything he could to try and save both the love of his life and the city’s paragon of hope…. In the end even going so far as to absorb the blame for Dent’s injustices so that the people may still believe in Goodness. The way those citizens on the boats showed Batman and Joker goodness can still triumph. This is how he becomes The Dark Knight.
Because Gotham’s citizens not only proved the Joker wrong. They proved his philosophy wrong to themselves and each other. Whatever anyone thought about society and civilization when they boarded those boats, they know after that ordeal where the city stands with itself. Gotham effectively broke up with their abusive boyfriend who was deploying a logical fallacy to present two alternative states as the only options (blow up the other boat or die) when in fact more possibilities exist (like doing the right thing and believing in the best in the other boat to do the same) by refusing to play his game.
Batman wouldn’t let the Joker take what Harvey stood for from the people… He saw a tipping point for his beloved city when his citizens proved him right on the boats. He learned from them.
So he runs… he runs to give Gotham “a little push” in the direction of goodness… hoping they too will run with it.
This is what makes me cry at the end.
Harvey Dent is the hero Gotham needs but doesn’t deserve…
Batman is the hero Gotham deserves… but doesn’t need…
Argh! Nolan sure knows how to make sapiosexuals swoon. Nolan Nolan Nolan, Nolan gives us this Cinegasm to vicariously live through and experience for ourselves.
It is about sending a message, what do you have to say as a writer?
Our idealistic hopes for our own lives and the future of humanity stick to Christian Bales face for three hours, making him handsomer over time as we watch him overcome each moralistic blow dealt by the Joker and stick to his integrity.
Our Jungian shadow-side shamelessly indulges in anarchistic delight in step with Heath as we watch him humble authority figures by obliterating their illusory superiority, outwitting them, and killing them in funny ways.
We laugh with him and delight in the true freedom in which he acts, like letting Rachel’s hand go when he’s instructed to “Let her go.” – wouldn’t that have occurred to you as well, and wouldn’t it be hilarious? Teeheehee!
The freedom criminality appears to offer when one disregards all other life in totality is something Heath Ledger masterfully exorcises with visceral control over his effect that is spellbinding, perfectly illustrating the appeal of evil.
In the end… they both win. This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
They are bonded forever, meant to use each other to advance or regress spiritually and inspire the world to do the same in a lifelong philosophical battle until one of them dies.
Now that you understand a work of genius more intimately, it’s your turn to go write something legendary.
Let me know how it goes: Natalee@NataleeArteaga.com