Fear of a Looming Flip The Dark Knight’s Influence 10 Years Later by Caleb Sarvis

#thesideshow, August 2018, essays, nonfiction


Four years of undergrad, an MFA, and a book deal later, I find it interesting how often I turn to Heath Ledger’s Joker when thinking about my own writing, and the taste for story I’ve crafted up to this point in my life. Why am I so drawn to blurred edges? Why are the more irreverent characters the people I’m most compelled to root for? The answer is perhaps a little taboo, but it’s in response to that taboo that I often return to story.


I can’t answer it in a single essay, but when I think about what a story hopes to accomplish, I become a little less comfortable with my own work. The Dark Knight aims at something more specific, probing its own characters, and asks us, “What is a hero?” I’m not sure it answers the question or if it hoped to do so in the first place, but I’m nervous the answer is something even further estranged from my own sense of self, never mind my own writing.


The Joker is no hero. He’s a pure villain. The greatest villain.


And a large part of me feels very strongly for him. He’s the narrative track my spinning wheels are cut to ride. His dialogue, his mannerisms, the cock of his head, are all strangely endearing… and why is that?


Because he is that taboo, the blurred edges to which I find myself addicted, but without a real clarity to voice in any coherent manner. Because he’s eerily familiar.


There are aspects of The Dark Knight that feel a little on the nose and overwritten (Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin that Harvey Dent can’t stop flipping), but they work well enough that I’m drawn in philosophically. There’s no rooting for either side. Instead, we root for answers. The Joker wants to prove Batman’s code is bullshit, and his character works because we end up asking ourselves, “Well, Batman. Is it bullshit?”


No, really. Is it?


The Dark Knight lingers with me because it leans into its characters and allows the story to develop from them, and not outside them. The Joker’s nihilistic hunger for mayhem has nothing to do with the power, per se, but is an existential question someone like me grapples with more than I care to admit. He burns a pile of money because it doesn’t matter. Our rules are imaginary confines we’ve created. Grow up, the universe doesn’t give a shit what kind of person you are. Do what’s best for you. Indulge. This is America, baby.


Is morality innate? Is it a human construct? Is it even necessary? What does it mean to be when life is but a stage? If we’re all players, eventually forgotten… Seriously, someone stop me before I talk myself off a cliff.


When I reflect on The Dark Knight, I’m struck most by the Shakespearian qualities of its exploration into “story.” The conversing dichotomies of Batman vs. Joker, Bruce Wayne vs. Harvey Dent, and even Bruce Wayne vs. Batman are all pretty Macbethian. There’s no “good vs. evil,” there’s just “everyone’s crazy, but no one wants to admit it,” and “your mask and my face paint are the same fucking thing, buster.”


Sometimes you look into a monster’s eyes and see something you know too well.


A few months into my freshman year at Florida State, my apartment building caught on fire. My roommate and I’d just gone to Target, where we bought The Dark Knight, newly released on DVD. I was supposed to be working on my first story for an introductory creative writing workshop. I was probably supposed to be doing a lot.


During that opening bank-robbery scene, as the booming notes of Hanz Zimmer flooded our living room, something exploded a floor beneath us. Through our sliding glass door, I saw fire shoot out from another apartment. It turned out to be the baby of a propane grill and a mini-fridge.


Fortunately, firefighters were able to limit the fires from spreading to other units. Our building reeked of over-cooked meat for months and for a couple weeks it was hard to sleep. There were nights I waited for flames to reemerge, crawl through the crack of my window, if only because I was a little disappointed the fire hadn’t been worse. I was eighteen years old. I wanted the drama, I guess.


During that time, a plumber broke a pipe in the ruined unit as I was walking down the stairs. He didn’t see me, but I heard his yells for help. I poked my head in, saw the growing flood, and he pleaded with me to get help from maintenance.


I didn’t know exactly what he meant, and I was already late for class, so when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I hopped in my car and drove to campus without a word to anyone.


Why didn’t I help him?


I don’t have an answer. At least, not a good one.


I’ve been rewatching Mad Men, and even if you ignore the handsome jaw, the dark, slickly combed hair, Don Draper and Bruce Wayne still closely resemble one another. Orphans haunted by fears they suppress, suffering a crisis of identity, leading multiple lives. Seemingly grown men who play “hero” though they have little to offer outside of status and power.


When Don Draper leans into self-destruction, there’s an ease at which I follow his decision making. Perhaps I should be more alarmed.


Batman isn’t quite a hero, either. He’s something closer to the Draper-esque anti-hero, and it’s all because he’s human. His flaws are his weaknesses are his greatest character traits. His reluctance to give up life as a vigilante is a matter of addiction and a fleeting sense of purpose. His inability to push aside the jealousy he has for Harvey Dent, not as a leader, but as romantic partner to Rachel, makes him even less heroic.


And why is that?


The easy answer is shame. When we recognize the darkness of ourselves in other people, when they are “brought down to earth” and we view them as equals, they can’t possibly exist as heroes to us. This sometimes happens with our own reflections.


Which is a humbling reminder that I am not a hero, not even close.


The Dark Knight sits with me because I sometimes worry I’m something closer to the Joker. The allure of chaos is pure seduction, a matter of psychological freedom, and I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way. The Joker’s chaos is Don Draper’s California is my own pedaling desire to completely checkout. To log out of the simulation. I’m scared that my own kinship with villainy is stronger than it should be, if only because of a nagging passivity I can never quite shake. I’m scared there may be nothing I can do about it.


But I’m trying, I think… and maybe that’s the difference. Maybe the fear means something.


Malcolm Gladwell believes that the spread of mass shootings is something akin to a slow-moving riot.1 That we all have a different threshold that needs to be met before we inevitably give in and participate in the chaos.

Consider the Joker, whose threshold is low enough that he was too far gone before we could witness his transformation. Then Harvey Dent, who went from White Knight to Two-Face after Batman failed to save Rachel. How close must Bruce Wayne already be to crossing his own threshold, to slipping into real darkness? What’s holding him back other than this idea of a “code”?


What’s holding any of us back?


“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” Harvey Dent says. Another wink to the audience, but what if there’s truth to that? How much longer do any of us have until we flip?


My biggest weakness is a nagging habit to disconnect from the now. When people speak to me, I stop listening, sometimes within seconds, and turn full autopilot. When things become too much to bear, I disengage with everyone around me. I think I drink as much as I do because it’s a physical indulgence, something that reminds me I’m a tangible thing in an existing world.


When I think about our thresholds of violence, I’m afraid of how quickly I empathize with a monster’s desire to do something drastic, because it engages them with the present, because it’s real. I wanted that apartment fire to be worse because it would have given me reason to feel my life in the now.


I’m sure this is the wrong way to think about it, but I feel the dark stuff more, and because of that, it anchors me in a way that appeases a pulsing need to be reminded that I exist.


The Dark Knight continues to resonate ten years later because it does what good stories should: it challenges our own sense of self juxtaposed to the rest of the world. It tricks us into thinking there are sides to choose (and perhaps there still are), only to prove that morality, like most things in life, exists on a spectrum.


But this doesn’t negate choice, and I think we’d all do better to remember that. Batman chooses not to kill the Joker. The people on opposing boats choose not to blow each other up.


I’m writing this essay, because while my passivity with the plumber didn’t carry much consequence, my passivity elsewhere could prove disastrous, and while I’m giving voice to this absurdity, I’m still choosing to be better, which I can’t say I’ve always done. Nihilism as an excuse is an easy card to play.


It’s okay to have that little bit of darkness in you, and even better to acknowledge it. It curbs the hubris that seems to plague much of the modern world and reminds us we can’t all be heroes, much less die as one. We’re here and then we’re not and then we’re forgotten. Very few of us will elevate ourselves any more than that.


And perhaps that’s better. The smallest steps forward are still steps forward, and for a lot of us, that should be enough. Forgive yourself. The closer we are to the ground, the less likely we are to fall. The less likely we are to be crushed by an ever-expanding uncertainty.

  1. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence

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