Saturday, July 21, 2018

How Pottersville Became Gotham City, Part 2

     "Do I look like a man with a plan?" - The Joker to Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight, 2008
     In last night's piece, I went into how Welcome Back to Pottersville became Welcome Back to Gotham City early last year. I'd used by way of comparison Tim Burton's Batman Returns and contrasted it with the Trump administration that's remaking America. Today, I'm going to use an even more recent and fun example: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
     I'd said after seeing that movie, "Tim Burton's Batman movies were for the kids. Christopher Nolan's are for the grown ups." And my reasoning at the time was that Christopher Nolan's entries into the Batman saga were sophisticated crime and high tech thrillers. We saw the run of the mill criminals as well as the bizarre bad guy (in this case, Heath Ledger's Joker). In other words, they would've succeeded as straight up caper movies even without the costumes and Batman's high tech weapons and vehicles.
     In this movie, it can be said the Joker, unlike Batman, is an agent of change. Yet while Batman is putting on his armored shoulders the fate of a vast city he's trying to single-handedly hold together, the Joker's vision of change is a chaotic one in which everyone has unchecked free will. The Joker is the ultimate anarchist whose sole plan, if it can be called one, is to show up Batman and the people of Gotham City to be as anarchic as he is, that we do not deserve to be on the pedestals on which we've placed ourselves.
     Neither man offers the city any real hope, especially the Joker. That must come in the form of Harvey Dent, the idealistic but surprisingly successful District Attorney of Gotham City. As Bruce Wayne, Batman supports Dent's political career even though he's not up for reelection ("One night with my friends, you won't need another fund raiser," Wayne assures him.). Bruce Wayne and Batman see in Dent a man who can give the city real, working hope that the Batman can't possibly give it.
     The Joker can't have that. After robbing a mob bank and killing all his accomplices, the Joker then takes over the entire criminal underworld of Gotham, extorting them for a massive amount of money. Then, in a memorable scene, the Joker stands before two mountainous piles of money and sets fire to one of them, showing that money is not his sole motivation.
     Because, as stated, the Joker is the ultimate anarchist, one that had absolutely zero interest in replacing the void he creates with anything. In a way, Batman is just as clueless. Like a modern-day Hadrian, Batman is doing all he can just to maintain the status quo. He's not exactly a nation builder.
     As Bilge Ebiri said in his article, what motivates The Dark Knight is guilt, both individual and collective. Just as a doctor measures pain by mobility, Christopher Nolan sought to define the human condition by measuring it against the characters' actions and their degree of grace under fire. This is no better delineated than in the tense final scene when the Joker rigs two ferries with explosives. One is filled with civilians, the other with inmates betting transferred. Each boat is equipped with a remote control device with instructions that unless one boat blows up the other, both will be destroyed by a certain time.
     The Joker's intent was to bring us down to his level by demonstrating that if the survival of one is threatened, the other will respond with extreme prejudice. It is, in essence, a large-scale, real life version of the Milgram Experiment.
     Now, imagine if that scenario were to play out in the real world. You have one boat filled with Trump supporters and another with liberals who voted for Bernie or Hillary. Trump's holding the master switch and tells both they have only a certain amount of time to push the button and kill everyone on the other boat to save themselves.
     In the movie, civilian and criminal alike decide to reject the Joker's terms and throw away the remotes and let the chips fall where they may. They will live together or die together. The Joker, seeing the deadline has passed, pushed his own switch as promised then is enraged when neither boat explodes (the bombs are neutralized). The Joker is enraged because his plan for complete chaos through a massive, senseless loss of human life has been thwarted. They took matters into their own hands, without Batman's help, and exercised the self-determination they had all along. On a deeper level, the Joker is outraged because the citizens of Gotham showed they were better than he'd judged them, that they weren't mere "wretched pinhead puppets", to quote the Penguin in Batman Returns.
     Trump would get his answer in a pretty damned big hurry as to which we are and I wouldn't lay bets on which faction would push their button first. In the movie, the Joker had failed. In real life, he'd win every time.
     Trump, by some accounts, loves chaos just as much as the Joker.  In the White House, he, too, sets people against each other by teasing firings and who'd make a suitable replacement for whom. He relishes seeing people fight each other tooth and nail for his favor, as if he thinks he's still on the set of The Apprentice. And his own actions and public statements seem as unpredictable as the Joker's. The only way in which Trump is understandable is that he, unlike the Joker, is solely motivated by money. The chaos is for pure entertainment value. The Joker is deadly serious about chaos. Trump doesn't need broken pool cues to achieve a dog-eat-dog mentality. He uses peoples' ambitions against each other.
     While he will fail with the ferries, he ultimately wins in killing off Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne's old girlfriend and who was dating Dent, when the Joker gives Batman the impossible task of saving both simultaneously when they're at opposite ends of the city. Batman's guilt assumes a new weight when he cannot because he is a man who constantly sets himself impossible tasks (Alfred reminds him in the first movie that. as a man, he has limits and Wayne answers he cannot afford himself the luxury of recognizing them).
     But, whether the Joker intended to or not, Dent lived but at the expense of half his face, hence his humanity. And with the loss of that humanity goes Gotham's final hope at hope when Dent becomes the criminal he is sworn to put behind bars. And again, that is the Joker's overarching rationale: To bring us down to his level. It worked with Dent but not with the people of Gotham City, represented by the ferry-goers, who had the power of hope and self determination all along.
     With the real United States, we don't see so much of that in evidence, save for a still largely disorganized movement generically called the Resistance. And Trump had succeeded far better than the Joker ever had in bringing 63,000,000 people down to his own level, into his personal Hell his supporters are glad to imagine they share with him.
     And, just as the Joker had succeeded in depriving Gotham of its best and brightest hope for order, Trump is trying to undermine the long and hard efforts of the real world Harvey Dent- Robert Mueller.
     The people of Gotham City, despite losing their sole hope at establishment law and order and handed chaos, instead, rediscovered their innate humanity and power to determine their own fates. We, too, have that power, and should stand together to reject Donald Trump's own noxious brand of hatred and chaos.

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