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Cannibalized Chaos: Iago, The Joker and the “Good Sport” of Postmodernism

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By Richmond B. Adams.

During a conversation approximately one-third of the way through The Dark Knight (2008), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) expresses to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) his view concerning the escalating rampages of The Joker (Heath Ledger) across Gotham City.[1] Wayne states that “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. We just need to figure out what he’s after.” Alfred, having just indicated how Wayne’s anti-crime crusade as Batman has led the local mob to hire The Joker without “fully understand[ing]” him, responds to his young charge by saying, “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand either.”

Alfred continues by drawing an analogy between The Joker and a Burmese bandit he had encountered during (probably) World War II. Alfred relates how the bandit had been stealing and discarding diamonds which were originally given as bribes in an effort to “buy the loyalty of tribal leaders.” At the conclusion of Alfred’s story, Bruce asks the quite reasonable question, “So why steal them?” It is Alfred’s final response that will serve as the means to examine a larger set of issues portrayed in The Dark Knight. Namely, the present effort will seek to examine, through connecting Nolan’s film to Shakespeare’s Othello, issues of violence and human motivation, while further exploring an underlying link to the logical outcomes of postmodernism as a cultural construct. Alfred explains that, perhaps, the bandit “thought it was good sport. 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.” As the scene ends, director Christopher Nolan presents the grim image of Bruce Wayne staring into his televised recorder, watching as The Joker cackles uproariously while killing Brian Douglas (Andy Luther), a Batman imitator, and promising to escalate his murderous frenzy throughout Gotham over the coming days.

MC2Despite Wayne’s staring at the new type of criminal, it is both Alfred’s use of “good sport,” coupled with The Joker’s unclear motives that opens The Dark Knight onto the realm of Shakespearean moral complexity. For it is, of course, in Othello that Shakespeare provides the issues of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “motiveless malignancy” as portrayed by the play’s great villain, Iago (qtd. from Rosenbaum 2006: 283). After already placing himself in a category of malevolence breathtaking even by Shakespearean standards, Iago states, through the guise of a conversation with Roderigo, that whatever chaos his actions may bring upon Othello, Desdemona and their fellow Venetians, he plans to enjoy it as “sport” (Act 1 Scene 3 Line 370, hereafter 1.3.370 et cetera). Given such a context and particularly during the postmodern era, Alfred’s use of “good sport” in The Dark Knight becomes something beyond coincidence. At the same time, however, there is more at work in The Dark Knight than the drawing of a singularly artistic parallel between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Shakespeare’s Iago. Throughout Nolan’s film, Iago’s hovering as a backdrop to The Joker’s creation of ongoing chaos leads not only to an ever-escalating round of barbarism, but the stark reflection that evil, logically viewed as a temporal construct within postmodernism, actually stands beyond human particularity as somehow an Absolute unto itself (Hodgson 1994: 54; Colvert 1995: 5).

Beyond marketable parallels between Iago and The Joker, Christopher Nolan links Othello and The Dark Knight through an effort to raise questions about postmodernism’s intellectual foundations. As defined by literary, cultural and theological critics over the last forty years, postmodernism has asserted that “the Enlightenment […] has run its course” and created the possibility of a form of cultural “resistance” (Hodgson 1989: 29; see also Colvert 1995: 4-22; Sim 2005: vii; and Spencer 2005: 143-145). By lacking, even according to its adherents, an operating definition, however, postmodernism opens itself not only to forms of “resistance,” but also the renewed possibility of oppression (Hodgson 1989: 29 and 1994: 54). Stipulating a universe in which nothing is, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between a “resistance” that leads to a liberation or a parallel “resistance” which opens upon new forms of barbarism where anything goes (Hodgson 1989: 29). Such destruction and death, rather than the structures of liberation that theologian Peter Hodgson and other interdisciplinary critics envision, calls into question the premises of postmodernism as an “emancipatory” framework (Hodgson 1989: 29, see also 1994: 54). It is those premises that I propose to investigate.

Following a brief review of The Dark Knight’s present criticism and an exploration of postmodernism as discussed by Hodgson, James Colvert and Stuart Sim, I will reference three sequences in Nolan’s film that present The Joker as an unknowable force of destruction who simply wants to laugh while the world burns around him. That presentation will lead to a second parallel within Nolan’s film, this time to Orson Welles’ 1952 cinematic adaptation of Othello and its still relevant implications some sixty years later. Finally, the present effort will offer a link between the play, Welles’ as well as Nolan’s respective films and finally historian Ron Rosenbaum’s grappling with “evil for the sake of evil,” all in an effort to provide a working perspective about the cultural standing of both Iago and Heath Ledger’s The Joker in the Twenty-First Century (Rosenbaum 2006: 283).

THE-DARK-KNIGHTThe Dark Knight has generated several turns of criticism since its release in 2008. Charles Bellinger, in the Journal of Religion and Film (2009), experiences Nolan’s film as a “powerful expression of theological ideas” that can be “elucidated very effectively with reference to the writings of Rene Girard.” In her 2010 article, Jessica Kowalik examines Frank Miller’s graphic novels during the immediate period of 9-11 and concludes that Batman’s most prominent artist uses the Caped Crusader, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers, to criticize American “denial about” the extent to which “the War on Terror,” was necessary (389). John Ip, in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law (2011), argues that The Dark Knight serves as an “allegorical story about post 9/11 counterterrorism” (209). Stipulating how Nolan has not created a “paean to the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration,” Ip nonetheless argues that the film portrays “the need for public resoluteness in the face of terrorism and about the inherent limitations of relying on vigilantism” (211). Michael Nichols, also writing in 2011, argues for a more directly psychological evaluation of the film (236). He expounds by seeing how “certain prominent tropes, symbols, and narrative structures in the long Batman/Joker comic and film tradition resonate with the ancient mythic paradigm known as the ‘combat myth’” (236). Adam Porter, in a 2013 edition of the Journal of Religion and Film, argues that The Joker “exhibit[s] traits associated with Satan in traditional mythology” in much the same manner as do other films from the last two decades (2-3). Some four years after the film’s release, Will Brooker’s Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012) argues that the character’s many expressions over “a 70-year career” provided “a case study [by which] to explore broader issues of cultural meaning and cultural power” through forms of poststructuralism and deconstructionism (xii, 4-9, 182-190).

Among these varied and multiple reactions to The Dark Knight, however, there still exists almost no development of a connection between Iago and The Joker as portrayed by Heath Ledger. In the May 2009 posting of the blog Greetings from Flatland, however, Josh Coad posted his “pretty lengthy research paper from [his] Shakespeare class” that “compar[es] Iago to Ledger’s version of The Joker. Starting with W. H. Auden’s thought that Iago “‘is a portrait of a practical joker of a peculiarly appalling kind […] who likes to play God behind the scenes,’” Coad links the deceptive means that Iago and The Joker use to ostensibly ground their motives (1-2). Insightfully extending his connection to the mutual need of Iago and The Joker not simply to “break any rules,” but to “twist the specific rules and principles that a specific victim lives by,” Coad sees how each villain exploits the desire for “reputation” rooted in some form of “justice” on the parts of Michael Cassio and Harvey Dent (3). At the same time, Coad’s argument does not logically extend as it might. Given how he notices the ongoing question of a “motiveless malignity,” Coad’s incompleteness, particularly in light of both how Iago grounds himself in biblical statements of non-Being, and alongside The Joker’s lack of a traceable background, suggests the need for ongoing discussion (Coleridge qtd. in Rosenbaum 2006: 283, Othello 1.1.64, 3.3.119). As such, it becomes appropriate to pursue those connections within working definitions of what historian Jeffrey Burton Russell labels as “moral evil” and, through multiple means, link any conclusions with an assessment of postmodernism to its ongoing cultural implications (1986: 1.18).

Through a four-volume exploration, Russell separates evil into “passive” and “active” categories (1.17-18). The former he understands as “the suffering that a sentient being feels” in terms of “what may accompany pain or the threat or memory of pain” (1.17-18). Specifying his intent, Russell asserts his purpose as “primarily concerned with moral evil” and “the deliberate willingness to inflict suffering “upon one or many person[s] by another” (1.18). Subsequent interdisciplinary critics have continued along such a path of exploration.

the-dark-knight-batmanIn the early 1990s, Edwin T. Arnold posed a framework by which to examine the fictional corpus of Cormac McCarthy.[2] While doing so, Arnold also raises concerns about postmodernism that bears relevance to The Dark Knight. Writing that even as he appreciates the “postmodern celebration of McCarthy’s violence [and] his astonishing approximation of chaos,” Arnold stipulates that “there is also evident in his work a profound belief in the need for a moral order, a conviction that is essentially religious” (1993: 44). Despite their divergent methods, McCarthy and Nolan appear to agree that the social fragmentation throughout the post 9/11 world has something to do with the primacy of postmodernism as an intellectual movement. Even as it came to frame much of the present cultural discussion, postmodernism, as an idea, still lacks a coherent definition. Peter Hodgson writes that “since we do not yet have a name for our emerging new paradigm and do not know how to characterize it fully, we simply call it ‘post-’” (1994: 54). Nathan A. Scott, in his speculative article concerning the possible reactions of Paul Tillich, the late, but still highly influential, theologian, to postmodernism, parallels Hodgson’s statement in noting how it lacks “the sort of coherence that lends itself to swift and easy description” (1985: 146). Such incoherence, however, assumes in itself a discernible shape and, by doing so, turns postmodernism against itself. Even while, in Stuart Sim’s assessment, “postmodernism does still mean something,” such circularity all too easily devolves toward the brink of meaninglessness (2005: xii). Questions of how to comprehend that “something” and, by doing so, approach any subsequent form of critical examination assumes a heightened importance, particularly as it opens onto the specter of logical outcomes (Ibid.).

At the same time, and despite arguing that postmodernism’s “lack of objective certainty […] must not of itself be allowed to have an immobilizing effect,” Hodgson and other advocates of its potential for “emancipatory praxis” remain bound to their own reasoning (Hodgson 1989: 29). Such vague claims inexorably create the realization that what might emancipate also can oppress. Without some operative definition that leads to the creation of a stable moral center from which cultural boundaries can be ascertained, Hodgson’s “proximate goal,” of a “‘world order’” defined by “a peaceful community of all subject to transmutation in perennial democratic unrest and self-rectification” ceases to appear in any recognizable form (Jaspers qtd. in Hodgson 1989: 247; Arnold 1993: 44). If the last century’s “deep experience of evil” serves as any guide, such uncertainty will remain “peaceful,” and “perennial[ly] democratic” only among those with the power to define it (Hodgson 1989: 30). The manner by which The Dark Knight expresses such moral nihilism embodied by The Joker leads, almost without question, back to Shakespeare. Waiting there, as it were, is the picture of both Iago and his intellectual descendant laughing at the top of their lungs (Ibid.).

ea81871e00e6b940ce5826fcc02d568c07bcbbe0ad243f9256b10fa194b821f1At an undetermined point following The Joker’s move to seize power from Gotham City’s local mob, its principal players gather in an underground large-scale industrial kitchen. Their ostensible purpose is to decide, as Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) expresses it, what to do about “our money being tracked by the cops.” As they arrived, however, Nolan focuses his camera on various mobsters as they enter the kitchen through metal detectors while simultaneously giving their firearms to other of their associates who will stand guard just beyond the swinging set of outside doors. No one, Nolan establishes, can physically enter the kitchen without being confronted by multiple armed guards who, at the least, would make plenty of noise in attempting to stop such an intrusion.

After a short period of time and with no sound coming from either the guards or the metal detectors, Nolan presents The Joker as cackling his way among this armed fortress. Once confronting the mob’s major players, The Joker demonstrates an unexpected and breathtaking form of power by threatening to kill everyone in attendance, including himself, by detonating the bombs wired (presumably by himself) to the inside of his suit jacket. In a room guarded by armed men and, even more so, shielded with metal detectors, it becomes necessary to ask how The Joker managed to infiltrate such a lair minus either being seen or setting off the alarms. The scene clearly portrays him, however, as simply sauntering into the kitchen and chortling at the mob’s ineffectual understanding of their own dilemma. At the same time, he does so without causing a sound from either the metal detectors or the guards outside the room. By making him somehow immune from either plain sight or sound, Nolan alludes to The Joker as something beyond the rules of basic physical laws. Emphasizing these circumstances further, none of the mob leaders express awareness that their security apparatus has been breached in a manner that is simply not possible for anyone else. By stark terms, and with ever increasing tension throughout the film, Nolan suggests how Batman’s ultimate adversary somehow moves apart from the norms of human interaction. By doing so, The Dark Knight, subtly but apparently, draws its parallels to the one who, 400 years earlier, had labeled himself as the Destroyer of all that is.

In Othello’s opening scene, Iago appears to counsel Roderigo, who is despairing over Desdemona’s recent marriage to the Moorish hero of Venice. “O sir, content you,” Iago responds to Roderigo’s failure in love (1.1.40). Continuing with his expected round of advice, Iago eventually comes to the end of his thoughts, but all the while shifting the focus away from their immediate circumstances toward a statement concerning himself. Bromides accomplished, Iago concludes with a phrase that almost certainly shook his Elizabethan audiences to their core: “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to pack at: I am not what I am” (1.1.64).

Rather than offering comfort to an obviously distraught, if self-pitying, friend, Iago only gives the pretext of counsel as a means toward revealing his larger goal to an audience that alone is privy to the nihilism of his inner self. While Roderigo either does not or cannot hear the kerygma at the heart of Iago’s speech, a given set of theatre goers can unambiguously discern what is taking place. As any biblically-aware member in attendance would recognize, “I am not what I am” inverts the conversation held between God and Moses in Exodus, Chapter three. Grounded in the coming liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery, God appears to Moses and promises to free his people (The Geneva Bible Ex. 3:2, 10). As the story develops, Moses asks the Divine Being for his name and, accordingly, God’s inner self (Zimmerli 1978: 18). Hebrew Bible scholar Walther Zimmerli translates God’s answer as “I AM THAT I AM” (Ex. 3:14). In hearing Iago proclaim himself as “I am not what I am,” however, those either reading Othello or attending one of its performances are invited to recognize that same invocation and its inversion of the Holy. Such an inversion, as Iago situates himself, goes well beyond, even while appearing otherwise, the norms of human relationship.

While The Joker does not use such overtly theological language to describe himself in The Dark Knight, his ability to enter and exit a room insulated by metal detectors and defended by armed human guards while having bombs wired to his chest raises the possibility of some connection to Iago’s self-proclaimed transcendent status. As the Nicene Creed, recited every Sunday in Shakespeare’s Church of England, states, God is the “Maker of heaven and earth,” and Creator of all that is (The Book of Common Prayer: 250). Despite critical efforts over the centuries to downplay how Iago explicitly proclaims himself, his biblical and creedal inversion remains apparent (Craig 1931: 716-717; Greenblatt 2005: 236-238). Separated by 400 hundred years, but centering upon similar intellectual dilemmas, both The Joker and Iago are connected through their mutual transcendence of normal human boundaries and subsequently beyond the contextual situation in which they find themselves. Somehow, it seems that Iago and The Joker simply are. Such a parallel sense of self-contained negativity that destroys for “sport” has been periodically recognized in Othello criticism, but not as completely explored by earlier commentators on The Dark Knight (1.3.370; Coleridge qtd. in Rosenbaum 2006: 283; Craig 1931: 716-717; Greenblatt 2005: 236-238; Ip 2011: 209-229; Bellinger 2009; Porter 2013). These tantalizing connections, however, did not end with The Joker’s departure from the kitchen.

batman-vs-joker-ondervragingsscene-5-740x1110Somewhat later during the film, an encounter takes place in the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) of Gotham City’s police department after The Joker has been apprehended by soon-to-be Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Once fully underway, the scene becomes a confrontation between Batman and The Joker. Introducing himself from earlier hiding in the dark by slamming The Joker’s head onto the interrogation table, Batman confronts his adversary by stating, “You wanted me. Here I am.” The Joker’s response of “I wanted to see what you’d do. And you didn’t disappoint,” however, moves the conversation’s power from Batman onto himself. So moved, The Joker confronts Gotham’s superhero with the choice of rescuing either Gotham’s “White Knight,” District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt), or his fiancé Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall), who happens also to be Batman’s closest childhood friend. The mocking, yet relentlessly logical, manner in which The Joker guides the encounter, and his apparent invulnerability to Batman’s verbal as well as physical rage, eerily provides more than a central portion of Nolan’s ever-more complex film. The confrontation between Batman and The Joker all too noticeably suggests an Iago-like echo through what the Arden Edition labels as Othello’s “temptation” sequence in Act 3, Scene 3 (3.3.93-476; Honigmann 1996: 37).

620LHaving waited to exploit what he knows are Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s love for him, both as a military superhero, but even more, as a black man, Iago seizes a time when his adversary has expressed a particularly loving set of words for his wife. Seeing her depart from the stage, Othello remarks: “Excellent wretch. Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee. And when I love thee not,/Chaos is come again” (3.3.90-92). As Desdemona leaves her husband, Iago senses that Othello’s words, with their undercurrent of absolutism and the hovering “[c]haos” of non-being, move him beyond the recognition of virtually any sort of threat (3.3.92). Iago’s opening gambit of “My noble Lord” does factually acknowledge Othello’s sense of privilege as a military leader, but by means that touch his anxieties among both Venetian society and, most importantly, Desdemona’s heart (3.3.93). In short, Iago knows that Othello carries the rank of nobility, but that its grasp remains tenuous within himself. Through his contextual use of a phrase that recognizes a military and social better, Iago portrays his keen anticipation of what he wagers will be Othello’s programmatic response. Given Othello’s behavior throughout the rest of the play that culminates with his murder of Desdemona followed by an act of self-annihilation, The Joker’s words to Batman seem rather apropo: “And you didn’t disappoint” (Othello 5.2.83, 354-357).

tdkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk-6-the-joker-the-dark-knight-villain-s-secret-fight-club-origins-jpeg-142538Once more, the issues explored within the interrogation scenes of Nolan’s film and Shakespeare’s play exhibit striking similarities. Most prominent among them are the ways in which Iago and The Joker call into question the operating assumptions of their respective eras. By doing so, and given the cultural reaction to The Joker as an undetermined, yet all too present, incarnation of violence much along the lines of Iago as a “’motiveless malignancy,’” it becomes appropriate to ponder the relationship of such an untraceable “agent of chaos” to a worldview that proclaims the incoherence of even the most basic manifestations of a civilized society (qtd. in Rosenbaum 2006: 283; Ip 2011: 209-299; Muller 2011: 46-60; Schlegel and Haberman 2011: 29-45).

joker-batman-behind-scenes-the-dark-knight-10341805-1024-683-e1339674803620At the same time, the efficacy of postmodernism’s impact is not under examination during the interrogation scene from The Dark Knight. Neither does it constitute the immediate issue at hand in a post 9/11 reading of Othello’s “temptation” scene (3.3. 93-476; Honigmann 1996: 37). Rather, these sequences each raise the question of what follows from a “fatal undermining” of their respective “culturally generated ideologies” (Colvert 1995: 5). Given the reasoning of even its proponents, does postmodernism’s lack of a definition not logically suggest a definition (Hodgson 1994: 54; Sim 2005: xii)? Do not, simultaneously, such non- specified parameters create the possibility, as Colvert interprets Paul de Man, of those same assumptions simply being molded by a given critic or cultural institution with the power to do so (1995: 5)? Other than the said institution’s or critic’s worldview, how is it possible to examine any actual consequences that might occur in the name of “emancipatory praxis” other than by the means of those with the power to establish the means by which to do so (Hodgson 1994: 41; Colvert 1995: 5)? How can a self-understood “civilized people” express outrage, or conceivably affirmation, without an operative and agreed upon definition that allows such expressions? If a given cultural discourse, for instance, believes that the discarding of babies into open pits of flame or that the state-instigated starvation of millions is necessary to promote or validate an ideology, how is it possible to resist if there are no operating means available (Wiesel 1985: 32; Conquest 1986: 303-306)? As Nolan’s interrogation scene takes place in a post-World War II bastion of American culture that once exemplified the stability of “law and order,” it raises these questions through the same process of cultural adaptation that Shakespeare employed within his own some four centuries earlier (Perlstein 2008: 202-203).

During their exchange in the MCU’s interrogation room, The Joker all but openly “tempts” Batman toward what can be considered as a secularized adaptation of Iago’s statement to Othello: “Lord, you know that I love you” (Honigmann 1996: 37; Othello 3.3.117). Using literal biblical language from the Resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel when the Risen Christ is speaking to Peter, whose disloyalty three days earlier made him complicit with Judas Iscariot the betrayer, Iago employs a bond that Othello would have understood. Manipulating his pupil in much the same way, The Joker takes the relationship between Batman and himself past the basic “binary” of caped crusader and master criminal (Brooker 2012: 181). Until this point, and despite Alfred’s earlier tale of caution, Batman has continued to assume that The Joker is a law breaker virtually akin to those in the Falconi mob. As Batman expresses his cultural assumptions to The Joker, “why do you want to kill me?”. Once Batman poses that question, however, The Joker redirects it by cackling with a laughter that mixes glee and contempt: “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? […] No, no. You complete me.” Through such an inversion of expected verbal, intellectual and cultural discourse, The Joker subverts the traditional notion of binary opposites while moving toward an alternate reality that he intends to define. Rather than the Caped Crusader on a mission to save his city, the Joker labels Batman as “a freak, like me” who will be discarded “like a leper” when the “civilized people” of Gotham wish to do so.

The Joker’s proclamations, however, do more than cause conundrums for Batman. By stipulating how “the moral code” of Gotham’s people are “a bad joke [and] dropped at the first sign of trouble,” The Joker questions Batman’s assumptions about those he is attempting to save. In doing so and with Batman intently listening, The Joker moves beyond Gotham’s moral emptiness by undermining even the most basic assumptions about any type of civil society. Through stating that “[w]hen the chips are down, these , uh, ‘civilized’ people , they’ll eat each other” and by even figuratively raising the issue of cannibalism, The Joker poses the most elemental questions about what it means to be “civilized’ and to what extent will the established “rules” shape human actions during times of “chaos.” Given that Iago’s “temptation” sequence also begins immediately upon Othello’s claim that “Chaos is come again” if his love for Desdemona becomes untrue, something seems more apparent than a series of coincidences between Shakespeare’s play and Nolan’s film (3.3.92).

At their core, both Othello and The Dark Knight fundamentally seek to explore what Ron Rosenbaum calls, in a pun on Shakespeare’s comic character, “the bottomlessness” of human limits (Rosenbaum 2006: 12-16, 22-23). In their respective ways, both posit that the potential for human depravity, and, perhaps more horrifyingly, the ease by which it can be orchestrated, is both without bounds and often done simply for “sport” (Othello 1.3.370). From Iago’s manipulations across Venetian society to The Joker’s belief, expressed over citywide television, that Gotham’s presumably “civilized people” will murder Bruce Wayne’s already morally bankrupt accountant in broad daylight, these incidents portray something afoot more than either military jealousy or institutional corruption (Othello 1.1.40, 2.3.65-161, 3.3.93-476, 5.2.296-299). Due to its undefined external locus in an effort to avoid even the appearance of a “grand narrative,” postmodernism as an interpretive construct not only fails to grasp, but actually increases, the propensity for the sort of destructive jealousy, systemic violence and ontological “chaos” personified by The Joker and his dramatic predecessor (Sim 2005: 7).

batman-dark-knight-spy-roomIn the midst of The Joker’s “chaos,” as he threatens to destroy two ferry boats filled with those underneath his social microscope, Batman manages to locate his adversary, but only by creating a sonar-like device that allows him to “spy” on Gotham’s “thirty million” citizens by accessing and linking their cell phones. During their ensuing fight within the downtown Prewitt Building, Batman struggles, but at last gains enough of an advantage to throw The Joker through an opening of unfinished construction, apparently toward his death. A similar confrontation occurs during the climactic sequence of Tim Burton’s film Batman (1989), where The Joker (Jack Nicholson) fell to his end from atop the church belfry of Gotham’s long-empty cathedral. With Gotham’s scourge dead, and with a quite healthy Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) reading a letter from Batman (Michael Keaton) promising to respond “if evil shall rise again” (my emphasis), its citizens, along with Americans at the end of the Cold War, can anticipate a healed and prosperous time to come.

the_dark_knight_79887Nolan’s film, however, by having Batman rescue The Joker, presents a much darker future. The Joker of 2008, unlike in Burton’s earlier portrayal, does not die and continues to hang from the wire by which Batman had saved him. Once again under police custody (itself a dubious proposition at best), The Joker will undoubtedly initiate further chaos from his “padded cell” at Arkham Asylum. Beyond Arkham, it is also clear that The Joker will continue to push the conundrum of what it means to be “civilized” and to what extent its “rules” will properly function “when the chips are down.” By Batman not violating his “one rule,” even as he knows that it will result in the continuing struggle of “chaos” against what passes for civilization, he again expresses an act of faith that Gotham’s people will not, at the last, finally choose to destroy one another (Othello 3.3.92). Given that Batman thereupon chose to assume blame for the death of Dent and four others to preserve even the faintest sliver of civic hope, Nolan’s qualifying gesture seems all too easily consumed by The Joker’s final cackle as he hangs from the Prewitt Building. Such an image, not coincidentally, also suggests an earlier cinematic image and by doing so, provides an exceptionally strong connection between the great villains of Shakespeare and Batman.

In his 1952 film version of Othello, Orson Welles uses the play’s internal logic to explore post war concerns with far-reaching cultural and theological implications. Using the near-singularity within Shakespeare’s corpus of Iago’s never announced death, Welles’ opening sequence has the Destroyer in a cage being literally (and, given the play’s theological underpinnings, theologically) raised above the streets of Cyprus, presumably as the opening gambit of his torture. Within the same shot, not coincidentally, is the funeral cortege for Othello and Desdemona. By starting the film with what would have been a logical extension to the play’s action, Welles creates a flashback, quite clearly, not in Shakespeare’s text. Through such a visual statement, Welles brilliantly suggests that Iago, still not dead, will get to watch his actions repeat themselves since they will never actually come to an end. In effect, Welles creates an Iago who will over and over watch himself act as the Destroyer of all that is.

Welles’ adaptation, even more than sixty years subsequent, continues to issue a warning. Coming only seven years after World War II and during the rise of McCarthyism, Welles presents unmotivated destructive “chaos” or, more bluntly, evil, as something which cannot be reduced to the externalities of time, place or material circumstance (Othello 3.3.92). Human and moral evil, in Rosenbaum’s words, is “bottomless” and all too real (2006: 18-23; Russell 1986: 1.18). In Iago’s words, it is not what it is: it simply is (1.1.64). Christopher Nolan, through his quintessential portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight, with his ever-present cackling laughter, presents postmodern and post 9/11 viewers with the same conclusion.

In the late 1990s and during the ascendance of postmodernism, Ron Rosenbaum concluded his Explaining Hitler: A Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998) with a renewed expression of similar warning. By referencing a “remarkab[ly] latent image” mentioned by historian Lucy Dawidowicz, Rosenbaum writes of a “unique” and “surprising specter I’d never seen adumbrated before, but one that’s haunted me ever since: the figure of a laughing Hitler” (379). While the details concerning previous searches for an explanation of Hitler do not directly concern this narrative, Dawidowicz’s argument provides a means by which to appreciate the “bottomlessness” of what Shakespeare, Welles and Nolan each understood (Rosenbaum 2006: 18-23). Rosenbaum continues that “[o]ne senses that in this focus on laughter something very close to Hitler, something at the heart of the way he personalized his war against the Jews. It’s there in the savage satisfaction he feels in imagining, quite graphically, the resounding laughter of Jewry […] now choking in their throats” (385, emphasis in the original).

Referring to a January, 1939 speech from the Reichstag, Rosenbaum argues that Hitler gave a “code[d]” message concerning his plan for the coming “war against the Jews” (1998: 384-385). As German Chancellor, Rosenbaum argues, Hitler could even prior to the war begin to hear the Jewish people choking to death inside the crematoria then being built across Europe. As these millions screamed within the sound of his ears, Hitler filled his own lungs, Rosenbaum envisions, with uproarious laughter (379). A laugh, it seems, all too easily shared by Iago and The Joker.

No matter their immediate context or any future adaptations, drawing conclusions about Iago, The Joker and the nature of evil present a myriad of difficulties. Perhaps utilizing Rosenbaum’s exploration of Hitler, however, can nevertheless provide a guardedly useful analogy from which to reach a working summation. In struggling with the incompleteness of his own search to grasp the enormity of Hitler’s evil, Rosenbaum writes, “I might argue that if I’m an exceptionalist, it’s more by default than a metaphysical conviction that [he] could never be explained by rational means” (393). Explanation, Rosenbaum continues, that becomes almost a means through which to make Hitler, the Second World War and the Holocaust somehow more bearable (393).

Other than the works themselves, no fully ascertainable record exists that gives insight to the vision of either Shakespeare or Nolan about their seemingly transcendent villains. Given that neither Iago nor The Joker express a clear or consistent motive for his actions, Nolan extends the dilemma by presenting his villain as lacking any standard form of identification that might provide a means by which to explain his self-proclamation as “an agent of chaos” (Othello 1.1.19-29, 3.386-389). By lacking proportionate motive while also proclaiming their own non-being, both Iago and The Joker finally beg the question, not so much about either Shakespeare’s intent or how Nolan’s film drew upon Othello, but more of their mutual worldview. As audiences continue to see both Shakespeare’s play and The Dark Knight, it seems that we can never get enough of either Iago or The Joker. There indeed appears to be something unique that still invites, lures and frightens viewers to witness their instigation of destructive “chaos” (Othello 3.3.92). As audiences continue to engage them, we also know that Iago and The Joker will once more destroy for the sake of “sport” and dare us to break our own “civilized” rules to stop them (Othello 1.3.370).

The notion of being dared into stopping evil by violating our “civilized rules” provides an assessment of what Shakespeare’s play and Nolan’s film present to postmodern audiences. Whether understood from Welles’ cage or while hanging from a wire overlooking Gotham City, it becomes all too easy to hear the laughter of Iago and The Joker as they cackle at our expense. Each of them expresses a contemptuous indifference toward anyone who attempts to define or use postmodern discourse to reinterpret their “chao[tic]” life force of moral and destructive evil (Othello 3.3.92). The more, so it appears, that postmodernity attempts to deconstruct and contextualize a set of reasons behind the actions of Iago and The Joker, the louder their cackles will become, and ultimately, leave their audiences to confront a nihilism that only they have the tools to navigate (Brooker 2012: 182-183).

the-real-reason-the-joker-wasn-t-in-the-dark-knight-rises-482728Such nihilism portrays that as their adversaries try to explain while primarily retreating, Iago and The Joker seem certain to win. Commissioner Gordon indicates that despair in equating The Joker’s apparent victory, after Dent’s death, to the loss of hope among Gotham’s citizens. By assuming the role of Gotham’s “Dark Knight,” however, Batman manages to provide an apparent cultural medication that maintains the possibility, however slight, of faith in the future. To express the truth of Dent’s murdering rampage, Batman and Gordon realize, would cause Gotham to descend into an indifference that would, even for a city already assuming the worst, become unbearable. At the same time, Batman understands that his attempt to let people “have their faith rewarded” in the hope of an eventual social reformation, also gives The Joker an opening to perpetuate his “message” of unmotivated and destructive “chaos.” Given the immediate choices, however, it is a risk that both Batman and Gordon appear willing to take.

It is such moral complexity in questioning the premises of preeminent cultural discourses, beyond its specific link with Othello, that gives The Dark Knight its power. Postmodernism, in claiming that nothing is, has created a vacuum within which anything goes. By refusing to accept that “some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money,” power or any other discernible motive, and by lacking an acknowledgment that some things just are, postmodern fragmentation prevents a “civilized” opposition to those who laugh while the world burns around them. Shakespeare and Nolan, with help from Orson Welles, take such logic and express the same lasting image that Rosenbaum envisions about Hitler almost seventy years after his death; as the world burns, Iago and Hitler may well be, while The Joker actually is, enjoying the last laugh (1998: 395).

Richmond B. Adams is Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

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[1] Much of the Shakespeare portion of the present argument comes from my earlier article “Thus I am Not: Iago’s Curse-d Essentialism” published by the Journal of Drama Studies, 3-4, July 2009-January 2010, pp. 23-38. I want to thank the journal’s editors, Professors Bhim Dahiya and Anand Prakash, for their generosity in allowing me to republish some of my previous arguments for the purposes of this essay.

[2] As with the Shakespeare references, my views on postmodernism have been expressed elsewhere. They are most easily found in my article “Cormac McCarthy’s Second Literary Trilogy: Dreams of the Fire and our Fathers,” published in a 2013 collection of essays under the title American Road Literature edited by Ron Primeau and published through Salem-Ebsco Press.

2 Comments for “Cannibalized Chaos: Iago, The Joker and the “Good Sport” of Postmodernism”

  1. Congratulations, Richmond. This is a very stimulating article full of in depth scholarship. We need more work of this nature, especially on FI, and I look forward to seeing further contributions.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Williams, as always.

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