Batman and Girard, Part 2---Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn

Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

The Joker: [giggling] I don't, I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You... you... complete me.

Batman: You're garbage who kills for money.

The Joker: Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.

You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!

--The Joker

All you care about is money. This city deserves a better class of criminal. And I'm gonna give it to them.

--The Joker

Because 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.


When I was younger--basically through college--I had a sense that the world was basically stable.  Things changed, certainly--I grew up, for one thing--but the basic structure of the world did not and would not change.  Things would be basically the way things are now, or at least some comprehensible variation on a theme.

I have lost that sense over time.  9/11 was probably the first crack in the wall, as it introduced the idea that the structure of life could change radically in an instant.  Almost 15 years later, as I stare into the abyss that is the 2016 Presidential election campaign in the United States, I have a pervasive sense of the fragility of all of our structures and institutions.  Everything could fall down, and we could find ourselves in a very different--and probably darker and worse--place.  Once that seemed like a movie plot, something interesting to watch, but not a realistic possibility.  Now it seems very much like a possibility.

I believe, and I think Girard would agree, that we are hard-wired to fear this chaos.  Chaos leads to the undifferentiated War of All Against All, and we have a kind of genetic memory of what that would be like.  This fact would seem to explain why Heath Ledger's version of the Joker in The Dark Knight is so effective.  After all, he tells us that he is "an agent of chaos," and agents of chaos should be terrifying.  But the Joker is much more complex and nuanced than simply bringing chaos.  He also teaches us what chaos is like, and, perhaps more importantly, he teaches us how chaos is bound tightly to the concept of law.

Let's talk first about chaos.
In the previous post, I mentioned that Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows don't really have any clear set of objectives.  Neither does the Joker.  The things the Joker does are not really "crime" in the traditional sense, if one defines crime as illegal activities undertaken for economic benefit.  Indeed, his response to stealing an enormous pile of money is to burn it, and declare that Gotham City needs "a better class of criminal."  Nor can it really be but into the category of "terrorism," a term that we have heard so much about in the last 15 years.  Terrorists do what they do in the name of some political or social objective; the Joker has no such objective.  As Alfred says, some men just want to watch the world burn.

As with Batman Begins, I would argue that the Joker's seeming lack of purpose is in service of a profoundly Girardian point.  If Ra's al Ghul is speaking a truth about all of those who would use violence to impose order, the Joker speaks a truth about the legion of criminals and terrorists who believe that their crimes and terrors serve some larger purpose.  Perhaps the most iconic of the criminal figures is Vito and Michael Corleone from the Godfather movies, who have convinced themselves that they are "a better class of criminal" as compared to common street thugs, upholding some set of social values.  And yet the lesson of the Godfather films is that all Vito and Michael are able to accomplish is death and heartbreak for those around them.  Same with terrorism--the 9/11 hijackers killed 4000 people, and set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands more and the ruin of large swaths of the Middle East.  Have they advanced the "cause" of Islam in any appreciable way, even by their own criteria?        

The Joker is a "better class of criminal" because he is more honest about his profession.  He doesn't pretend that he is about anything other than chaos and destruction.  The violence and nihilism of the Joker exposes the fact that violence and nihilism is at the heart of what all of these folks are doing.  The only difference between the Joker and Michael Corleone is that the Joker understands and accepts the nature of what he is doing.  Because, in the end, the methods and the outcomes of both are the same.  It's the same lesson that we get from the Hebrew Scriptures--mindless brutality is a form of truth-telling.

In fact, truth-telling is a theme of the Joker.  He tells everyone what he is going to do.  He doesn't pretend that he is not responsible for his actions.  In a movie where all of the "good guys"--Batman/Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon--lie constantly in the service of being the "good guys," you have to look very hard to find any lies the Joker tells.  In fact, the only thing he can be argued to lie about is his origin, since he gives multiple conflicting accounts of how he got his scars.  [As an aside, I interpret that as a nod to the archetypal nature of the Joker--all of those accounts are in some respect true, since he is less a person and more an elemental force.  Like Satan].

This truth-telling applies in a particular way to the relationship between what he does and "the law."  The speech he gives to Two-Face in the car toward the end of the movie (quoted above) is packed full of Girardian insight.  Because we fear chaos so instinctively,  we are willing to accept terrible violence so long as it is "according to the plan."  From January 1, 2015 to the present, 4,464 people have been shot in the City of Chicago, a city of about 2.7 million people.  We barely notice that, because all of it is "according to the plan."  We used to say that mass shootings, like Columbine, were not according to the plan as compared to the "random" street violence in places like Chicago, but those too have been integrated successfully into the plan.  Our ability to tolerate violence as part of the plan is far, far greater than we are willing to admit to ourselves.

The Joker's stunts are designed to puncture the comforting bubble of the plan.  But the genius of the Joker is not just that he shows us chaos, but he shows us the chaos at the heart of the plan and its defenders.  The plan is predicated on the notion that there is a bright line between the chaos of the criminal and the order of the law.  That line, as the Joker shows us, is entirely illusory.  It's not simply that respectable people (like the cops on the boat) are willing to do terrible things if they are under stress, it that stress reveals the terrible things they have been doing all along.  The Joker doesn't change people as much as he pushes them to reveal who they really are.  The Joker forces them (and, by extension, us) to ask themselves how different they actually are from him.

That's why the Joker is not so much opposed to Batman and folks like Harvey Dent as he is in a dance with them.  As he tells Batman in the interrogation scene, the Joker needs Batman, and people like Batman need the Joker, because they are ultimately two sides of the same coin.  Again, we want to believe there is a clear dichotomy between chaos and order, between the "good guys" and the "bad guys."  The Joker's truth-telling is about showing the mutual dependence and inter-relationship between the two.  Whatever "side" you may identify with, you are immersed in the same dance.   

Heath Ledger's Joker is not terrifying because he wears clown makeup.  He is not terrifying because he uses magic tricks.  He is not terrifying because he kills people or engages in mayhem.  And he is certainly not terrifying because he deceives people.  No, the Joker is terrifying because we are afraid he is telling the truth, and that we are the liars.  We are afraid that we are the monsters, and he is just ahead of the curve.


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