At the conclusion to Grant Morrison’s Batman RIP (2008), Joker faces off against the Dark Knight, taunting him with his failure. Batman, the great detective, has struggled to rationalise his adversary’s plans and predict his next move; Joker claims he cannot be solved, resolved, captured or contained within traditional logic.
“you think it all breaks down into symbolism and structures and hints and clues”
“no, batman, that’s just wikipedia“
This exchange seems to sum up the long-running dynamic between Joker and Batman: between queer comedian and straight man, between raw energy and controlling logic, between chaos and reason. ‘Every single time I try to think outside his toybox,’ Joker complains, ‘he builds a new box around me.’
Control, reason, rationality and logic: these are Batman’s strengths, but also his weaknesses. He tries to make sense of the world, to analyse his adversaries, but as Alfred says of Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, ‘some men just want to watch the world burn’; and Joker’s punning, playful mind, skipping down unpredictable tracks and short circuits, sends a flaming fire truck into Batman’s path – literally, a truck on fire. It’s the kind of twist Batman, constrained by his personal rules, could never have seen coming.
Joker is carnival, anarchy, everywhere and nowhere. When we first see him in The Dark Knight he’s one of a gang of clowns, indistinguishable beneath their masks; but when we, and Batman, search for him later, he’s stripped off his mask and make-up and slipped inconspicuously into a parade of policemen. If Batman represents Wikipedia – the drive for continuity, canon and control – Joker is the internet army of Anonymous. When the cops catch him, they find ‘nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. Clothing is custom, no labels. No name, no other alias.’
Joker, from his first appearance in 1940, through Frank Miller’s Year One and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, has always been associated with poison. The Dark Knight’s promotional campaign picked up on that toxic theme through viral marketing, spreading Joker’s aesthetic through scribbled graffiti over the official posters, sabotaging, subverting and queering the original images. It was a powerful enough viral to cross from fictional politics – the campaign for DA Harvey Dent – into the real world – the Jokerised pictures of Barack Obama. The approach implied a grassroots, amateur army of vandals, a concept amplified and emphasised through the next phase of the ARG, which sent groups of fans on treasure hunts around real-world locations. Crucially, these fans weren’t being recruited into Batman’s personal army, but enlisted as Joker’s accomplices. The hivemind, the collective intelligence of the internet – the medium that should, in theory, have been ideally suited to the Dark Knight’s detection and logical speculation – was being harnessed in the name of carnival, clowning, anarchy and play.
In May 2011, a similar campaign kicked in for Nolan’s concluding film, The Dark Knight Rises. Fan voices were compiled into a mob chant, which later became the soundtrack to Batman’s newest antagonist, Bane. The chant, run through an audio analyser – again, a typically Batman device, subverted for different ends – revealed a hashtag which, when tweeted, in turn revealed a piece of a mosaic picture. Collectively, they added up into the first image of Bane.
If Batman is Wikipedia and Joker is Anonymous, Bane is Twitter: the voice of the crowd, the voice of the megaphone and mic check, the voice of the people. Unlike Joker, his voice threatens a new form of organisation rather than destructive anarchy. His is the spirit of the Arab Spring and Occupy; not just disorder and disruption, but the drive for a new system. Bane is, like Joker, not so much a person as a movement. His many-voiced chant is the sound of Batman losing Gotham.
One man cannot fight a crowd, any more than traditional encyclopedia pages can definitively contain internet anarchy and collective digital intelligence.
But Batman is not just a man, and Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia.
Wikipedia seeks to contain, but its definitions are elastic, its edits almost-invisible, its authors collective. Like comic book continuity and canon, it claims to offer authoritative information, but it shifts constantly, always rewriting and hiding the traces of its earlier versions. Batman may present himself as uptight, rule-bound and static, but he is himself dynamic; to keep up with Joker, to keep that anarchic energy controlled, he has to dance, dodge and detour, drawing new boxes around an ever-moving enemy.
And Batman may present himself as the ‘cure’ for crime’s poison, but he’s also a poison. He brought the costumed clowns and grotesque villains to Gotham; in a sense, he created them. He’s an urban legend, a bogeyman, a virus. As Bruce Wayne is constructed through society gossip, Batman is created via street rumour. Batman is discourse. Batman is myth.
That’s what he has to realise, accept and embrace. He defeats Joker only by becoming a form of poison, by fighting fire with fire – by infringing civil liberties, inflicting his own terror on Gotham, and exiling himself as an outcast. In early May 2012, the next stage of the Dark Knight Rises campaign sent fans on another treasure hunt. This time, they weren’t looking for Joker clues, but Bat-symbols: not corporate marques or brand icons, but the kind of quick, roughly-chalked sign a rebel or subversive might scratch up in passing, on the run. This is Batman as graffiti, Batman as people’s champion; Batman as the exile called back to his city by an army of followers.
The Bat-symbols, scattered all over the world, were quickly found and tweeted, and in turn revealed the newest trailer, frame by frame. The collective aesthetic, where thousands of people contribute a single piece that adds up to a complete picture, had finally – after its appropriation by Joker and Bane – been harnessed in Batman’s name.
No movie is ‘about’ one thing, and Nolan’s are no exception. But a clear message, at this stage, rises from the Dark Knight paratexts. Batman cannot survive as a single, fixed figure. Batman is a virus, a folk hero, an icon, an infection. He belongs to the people. He belongs to us. He survives, persists and rises only by remaining flexible and fluid, by embracing his own mosaic complexity, by accepting the fragmentation of his own identity, and allowing himself to split into a multitude of symbols that add up into a complete picture: a man of many parts, a symbol sketched by many hands.
For more on The Dark Knight Rises and ‘Occupy Gotham,’ see my piece on Huffington Post UK here.