There is no pretending necessary to fear the Joker (Heath Ledger, in a role that is already a screen landmark). It is said of the Joker that “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.”
How to deal with such a figure? There is no easy answer, and here is where The Dark Knight strikes me as a conservative movie.
Liberals live in a world of “and.” Full security and full civil liberties. Universal health care and the best quality with no waiting. A dynamic economy and full welfare and unemployment benefits. Liberals, in other words, live in that scene in Spider-Man in which Spidey, forced to choose between saving a tram car full of innocent civilians and saving his girlfriend, chooses both. Liberals live in a fantasy.
Conservatives, though, live in a world of tradeoffs, of either/or. For having this relationship with reality, conservatives are caricatured as grumpy, stingy and negative. Surely all it takes is a bump in taxes on the wealthy and everything will be affordable? Where’s the Hope? Where’s the Dream? Yes, we can!
The Dark Knight lives on a razor edge of tradeoffs. In the coin flips of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent there is a message that not only can’t you choose both heads and tails, but sometimes you’re up against a trick coin that ensures you lose either way.
Innocents get killed, civil liberties are infringed, and Batman ardently defends lies over truth in the pursuit of propaganda. Extremism in the defense of liberty is Batman’s virtue, and he ventures much farther into the wilds of lawlessness than any politician would dare. Moreover, his Gotham is a place where some believe that chaos can be managed, that giving into a simple demand from the Joker that Batman turn himself in might be a workable alternative in the long run.
Despite his name, the Joker doesn’t really seem crazy. Perhaps listening to him is a better option than a war that will have untold costs for everyone. “I like this job,” the Joker says on one of his many missions of conflagration, reminding us why his type will always be around. The future looks like it may bring a lot more Jokers than Batmen. “I’m not a monster,” the Joker tells Batman. “I’m just ahead of the curve.”